Can Examining the Racist Roots of Gun Control Save Lives?

Artist: Patrick Bruce

Can Examining the Racist Roots of Gun Control Save Lives?


GUN CONTROL IS RACIST! This simple fact affects all of us, including medical professionals.

There, I said it. It’s also elitist, xenophobic, and more. Can addressing this issue help our emergency medical professionals? The history of gun control in the United States is a history of racism. This isn’t limited to just the past, though. Right now, minorities, those who are not politically connected and or wealthy, young adults under 21, and immigrants, are subject to these discriminatory and unconstitutional laws and policies. Even though the phrase “except whites’’ has been removed, the effects remain to a large degree.

To be clear, I am also biased. Biased against gun control. Though I wasn’t always so. I believe after a full review of the facts, the conclusions I’ve drawn will be clearer as well as my reasoning. The Merriam – Webster Dictionary defines racism as; “a belief that RACE is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race AND racial prejudice or discrimination” (Dictionary, n.d.). While quoting statistics is often misused by both sides of the gun control issue, history cannot be misquoted so easily, so let’s look at some examples.

This first one is from before we were even a country. Virginia, in 1640, “Prohibiting negroes, slave and free, from carrying weapons including clubs.” (The Los Angeles Times, “To Fight Crime, Some Blacks Attack Gun Control,” January 19, 1992). 

Not long after the emancipation proclamation, the Mississippi Statute of 1865 prohibited black individuals not in the military, “and not licensed so to do by the board of police of his or her county” from keeping or carrying “fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie knife.” [reprinted in 1 Documentary History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious, Educational and Industrial, 1865 to the Present Time, p. 291, (Walter L. Fleming, ed., 1960.)] (GLJ, p. 344). Notice how this law incorporates the police as arbitrators as well as licensure. This will become more important with this next example as context.

In debating what would become 42 USC Sec. 1983, today’s federal civil rights statute, Representative Butler explained “This provision seemed to your committee to be necessary, because they had observed that, before these midnight marauders [the KKK] made attacks upon peaceful citizens, there were very many instances in the South where the sheriff of the county had preceded them and taken away the arms of their victims. This was especially noticeable in Union County, where all the negro population were disarmed by the sheriff only a few months ago under the order of the judge...; and then, the sheriff having disarmed the citizens, the five hundred masked men rode at nights and murdered and otherwise maltreated the ten persons who were in jail in that county.” [1464 H.R. REP. No. 37, 41st Cong., 3rd Sess. p. 7-8 (20 Feb. 1871)].

Now we can introduce another couple phrases of control into the discussion, namely “Saturday Night Special.” This phrase came from “Suicide Special” which was the initial derogatory term used to describe handguns. In more modern times it is used to describe “cheap,” meaning inexpensive handguns. The supposed goal of laws was that such inexpensive handguns and imports were poorly constructed, and therefore dangerous. The purpose, though, was merely to keep arms from the poor. These poor are statistically minorities in the areas these laws are or were, though not exclusively so.

In 1870 Tennessee, the first “Saturday Night Special” economic handgun ban passed. In the first legislative session in which they gained control, white supremacists passed “An Act to Preserve the Peace and Prevent Homicide,” which banned the sale of all handguns except the expensive “Army and Navy model handgun” which whites already owned or could afford to buy, and black individuals could not. (“Gun Control: White Man’s Law,” William R. Tonso, Reason, December 1985) Upheld in Andrews v. State, 50 Tenn. (3 Heisk.) 165, 172 (1871) (GMU CR LJ, p. 74) “The cheap revolvers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were referred to as ‘Suicide Specials,’ the ‘Saturday Night Special’ label not becoming widespread until reformers and politicians took up the gun control cause during the 1960s.

The source of this recent concern about cheap revolvers, as their new label suggests, has much in common with the concerns of the gun-law initiators of the post-Civil War South. As B. Bruce-Briggs has written in the Public Interest, “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the ‘Saturday Night Special’ is emphasized, because it is cheap and being sold to a particular class of people.”

The name is sufficient evidence. The reference is to “****** Town Saturday Night.” (“Gun Control: White Man’s Law,” William R. Tonso, Reason, December 1985. The Racist Origins of US Gun Control Laws Designed To Disarm Slaves, Freedmen, And African-Americans by Steve Ekwall, pg.7).  The 1911 Sullivan Act of New York City was crafted to go after immigrants and political opponents. The proposed gun control measure would prove to be corrective and salutary in a city filled with immigrants and evil communications, floating from the shores of Italy and Austria-Hungary.

New York police reports frequently testify to the fact that the Italian and other south Continental gentry here are acquainted with the pocket pistol, and while drunk or merrymaking will use it quite as handily as the stiletto, and with more deadly effect. It is hoped that this treacherous and distinctly outlandish mode of settling disputes may not spread to corrupt the native good manners of the community.” (January 27, 1905, New York Times Editorial). Unless you are politically connected, and/or mega-rich, there are no rights for you in NYC.

Now moving forward on the racism timeline, we get to 1968. With the passage of the 1968 Gun Control Act (1968 GCA) our country firmly planted itself among other countries that passed weapon laws based on race. While many purely racist gun control measures existed in the United States prior to the 1968 act, this marked the first time the Federal government passed gun control which it said was for purely public safety reasons; not associated with race. However, the evidence and history say otherwise.

During the years preceding the 1968 act, there was great unrest in the country as black people fought for racial equality. This, coupled with the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy, gave the extra push needed to pass gun control. Prior to the act being passed it was possible to order firearms through the mail and import inexpensive military surplus firearms from overseas. The real motivations for the 1968 act are much more insidious than one would like to imagine.

Robert Sherrill, the strongly anti-gun author of “The Saturday Night Special” (1973), declared after investigating the background of the 1968 GCA, “The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns but to control blacks …”. The 1968 GCA restricted mail-order sales of firearms and cheap import firearms. These arms were typically what was within economic reach of black individuals who tended to be of poorer economic power. In this instance, the how is the same as the why. The reason for this is as simple as to where the inspiration for the 1968 Gun Control Act came from. The framework for it was obtained from the 1928 and 1938 Law on Weapons from Nazi Germany. Evidence of this exists in the form of a letter from the Library of Congress to Senator Thomas J. Dodd who had provided a personally owned copy of the Nazi law to be translated. It should be noted for context that the late Senator Dodd served as part of the prosecution in the Nazi War Crimes Trials and therefore would have had access to Nazi laws and documents. It is worthwhile to note that during the period of 1933 - 1945, Nazi Germany had some of the most severe gun control measures in effect. (Law on Firearms & Ammun., 1928 Weapon Law, March 18, 1938, Regulations against Jews, 1938) These were used to systematically target the Jews and others deemed “undesirable.”

In seeking truth, we must be open to any conclusion that is based on fact. Like many myths and lies, gun control is based on fear and a desire to control. My belief is that to understand gun control is step one. Next, is to dispel the idea that solving misuse of guns in crimes, suicides, and accidents is not a simple two-step solution such as passing a law, and the desired result happens. Fear of minorities, immigrants, and other groups have been the basis for our gun control laws and its history. Now fear of the firearm itself is pushed forward politically as the basis for proposed regulation, yet history proves otherwise. Empirically this should be the opposite. Training in what firearms are and what our rights are, regardless of what color or group you belong, should be the foundation of solutions to these issues. These ideas compliment the idea that there would be less stress placed on emergency medical professionals and society at large if we used knowledge and facts vs. fear and mistrust, as a foundation for solutions to these issues. We have tried it one way and it has not worked. Let’s try knowledge, training, and rights instead.

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