The Right to Bear Arms, For Whom

The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” (Strasser). The second amendment, created in 1791, was originally created to give citizens the opportunity to fight back against a tyrannical federal government. However, there were laws and practices put in place to define who was considered a citizen. The nation’s founding document, the Constitution, intended citizenship only for white Americans and this ideology was reinforced through the Supreme Court in 1857 during the Dred Scott v.

Sandford case, that black people were not citizens of the United States, and therefore could not own property, vote, nor be protected through the court system.

From 1865 to 1873, the reconstruction era brought the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which should have ended slavery, made Africans born or naturalized in the United States citizens, and give African Americans the right to vote.

Unfortunately, those rights were short-lived when the votes shifted in the South in 1874, allowing for more local control, ending reconstruction. After reconstruction ended, black codes and gun control laws were used as a technique for keeping people of color “in their place” and to quiet the racial fears of whites. Implications of these codes and laws are felt and seen today through the disproportionate conviction rates between White and African Americans. Even though the Second Amendment should guarantee the right to bear arms for all citizens of the United States, it does not apply to African Americans due to centuries of discriminatory laws, the over-criminalization of people of African descent, and federal and state institutions designed to oppress them.

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White colonizers created laws, out of fear, designed to prevent African Americans from retaliating from centuries of discrimination and abuse; specifically, denying them the right given to them by the 2nd Amendment. Prior to the Civil War and extending as far back as the 1600s, many states in the South enacted slave codes which prohibited African Americans from owning guns in fear they would retaliate and fight back. White colonists feared if African Americans were able to obtain and carry weapons, they would not be able to generate the amount the fear needed to control them. Nat Turner, a slave who led the only effective, sustained slave rebellion in U.S history, managed to secure arms and horses and enlist about 75 other slaves in a disorganized rebellion that resulted in the murder of 51 white people. Gun restrictions on free African Americans increased dramatically after Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, leading to the Virginia Legislature to make it illegal for African Americans to own any weapons, powders, or leads, thus making weapon possession completely illegal for free Africans.

The Tennessee Constitution of 1834 wrote, “That the free white men of this state have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defense.” Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia all passed similar legislation as Tennessee, specifically defining African Americans as “non-citizens,” therefore are not entitled to bear arms, vote for members of the legislature, or to hold any civil office. By the late 1800s, state legislatures throughout the South enacted laws that legalized racial segregation in all public places, from schools to hospitals, to restaurants, to transportation services. The Supreme Court upheld the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation promoting separate but equal, which stated that segregation in itself did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Legalized segregation also reinforced the ideology of white racial superiority and African American inferiority, creating an atmosphere that encouraged violence, and in result, the lynching of African Americans rose significantly. The concept of separate but equal was not overturned by the Supreme Court until 1954. A year later, on December 1, 1955, the civil rights movement began when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time, people fought, died, protested, and demanded social, legal, political, and cultural changes to end discriminations and segregation. Originally called the Black Panthers for Self-Defense, the radical African-American group was formed in 1966 in Oakland, California, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. They felt the peaceful philosophy preached by Martin Luther King Jr. was not enough and they now believed stronger actions were necessary.

Bobby Seale read a written statement during a protest at the California State Capitol, and declared “The Black Panther Party for self-defense calls upon the American people in general and the black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California Legislature which is considering legislation aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder, and repression of black people” (The Sacramento Bee). The Mulford Act, named after Republican Assemblyman Don Mulford, was created in direct response to the Black Panther Party’s protest on the State capital and their watchful eye on police officers in Oakland.

This Act, signed by Governor Ronald Reagan on July 28, banned the carrying of loaded weapons in public. Mulford had effectively manipulated white America’s fear of African-Americans during the 1960s, taking away the Black Panther’s power in displaying their guns. The Crime Bill of 1994 passed, 30 years later, which was a reflection of the widespread fear of armed inner-city African Americans and argued the dangers of assault weapons in the hands of “gang members,” ultimately, meaning poor, African Americans living in the projects. Even though assault rifles have been utilized in some of the biggest mass shooting in American history, handguns are used more frequently in criminal acts due to the ability to conceal them. The assault weapon ban was not created to reduce crime but was racially motivated to target African Americans. These gun control laws have historically been used as a tool of racism and racist attitudes directed towards African Americans, creating a system to oppress them that has lasted for hundreds of years.

These laws and policies contributed to the overcriminalization African Americans, stereotyping all Africans as criminals, negating their constitutional right to bear arms. Immediately after the end of slavery, Black codes were passed by most Southern states with the goal of keeping African Americans as slaves. These Black codes included high taxes, vagrancy laws, and apprenticeship laws, which sent children of ‘ineffective’; parents to be sent to work for a plantation, directly affecting the African Americans. As a way to replenish the labor void and rebuild the devastated economy after the Civil War, Southern States created the convict leasing system. Black codes and pig laws were utilized to criminalize black life, making it easier to fill the prison system.

Pig laws were created to enhance the current penalties of misdemeanors and make them a major crime, with a longer prison sentence. The criminal system was partnered with private plantation and business owners to arrest, convict in a “fixed” trial, and then sold or leased African Americans as prison laborers or in debt slavery. Racist ideologies led to discriminatory policies and court rulings that fueled racial violence and has contributed to the exponential increase of Black male incarceration today. In 1994, in Chicago, President Clinton advocated for warrantless searches of private residences for guns in the housing projects. A judge blocked these warrantless searches because of the violations of the Fourth Amendment, protections against unreasonable searches.

President Clinton then recommended the search of suspicious people; however, the “frisks of suspicious persons” is a form racial profiling, directed at African Americans based on the engrained ideology of African Americans are violent, aggressive, and criminals. The NAACP website published the criminal justice fact sheet stating several statistics on the disparities between African American and White incarceration, in which, as of 2014, 2.3 million out of 6.8 million, or 38% of the correctional population, is African American. Even though African American and LatinX Americans make up approximately 32% of the US population, they comprise 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015. The negative impact of a criminal record is twice as impactful for African American applicants.

In the modern-day convict leasing system, convicts are fighting fires along with trained firefighters, putting their life on the line; however, not only do they only make $1 an hour, but because of their criminal record, they cannot be firefighters when released from prison, even with the amount of experience they have accumulated. Misconceptions and prejudices created and distributed through media channels have included referring to African American males as thugs. On April 28, 2015, President Barack Obama referred to a group of people from Baltimore, Maryland as “criminals and thugs” when they protested following the death of Freddie Gray, Jr., a 25-year-old African American man that was arrested for allegedly possessing a knife. However, while in transport, Freddie Gray was not belted into his seat, but his hands and ankles were shackled.

He was thrown against the side of the van during an abrupt change in direction and suffered a severe spinal injury, similar to those seen in shallow water diving incidents. Gray died one week later. All six Baltimore Officers will face no federal charges in the death of Freddie Gray, as the evidence is insufficient in proving the officers willfully violated Gray’s Civil rights. In July of 2017, President Trump, after calling for more immigration officers to help arrest the gang members, told officers, “Please don’t be too nice” (Rosenthal). Even though law enforcement authorities criticized the president’s remarks, some individuals may use his words as encouragement to the inappropriate use of force. A president’s use of the term “thug” or suggesting police use more force, has far-reaching influence, reinforcing the same ideology from post-Reconstruction, that African Americans are criminals; therefore, can be treated as such.

The laws, implemented by the Police Department, covertly discriminates against African Americans, specifically, in our criminal justice system, resulting in the loss of their constitutional right. During the rise of the Jim Crow era, media outlets portrayed African Americans as more naturally prone to violence and aggressive behaviors. The image of African Americans as aggressive and violent continued moving into the 20th century. The film Birth of a Nation, made in 1915, depicts Black men as savages, attacking white women, as the Ku Klux Klan came to the rescue. In the latter half of the 20th century, this ongoing stereotype was the motivation to create stricter sentencing guidelines in prison and the war on drugs. African Americans are held back by a presumption of guilt and the stereotype of being a “thug” that increases their risk of being injured or killed in an encounter with police. This stereotype is what ultimately protects the police by placing blame on the victim.

In an article written for the SPLC, Southern Poverty Law Center, suggests that racial profiling, or the unconstitutional practice of law enforcement that targets people because of their skin color, is widespread in Louisiana. According to the SPLC, “There are two common types of racial profiling: unreasonable suspicion, in which a law enforcement officer assumes that a person is committing a crime based solely on that person’s race or ethnicity; and unequal enforcement, in which an officer stops a person for a minor infraction, even though he or she should not have stopped a person of another race or ethnicity for the same violation” (SPLC). Even though this report is solely based in Louisiana, the practice of racial profiling, both unreasonable suspicion, and unequal enforcement, is seen all across the nation, in varying degrees.

This is evident with the murder of innocent African Americans, assumed to be criminals or breaking the law. Stephon Clark, 22-year-old African American, was shot eight times in the back in his Grandparents backyard when police mistook his cellphone for a gun. The family’s independent autopsy directly contradicts the police narrative indicating that Clark was not a threat to the police officers. Also, in Louisiana, no charges will result from the police killing of Alton Sterling, who was fatally shot while selling CDs outside a store in 2016. In Tulsa, Officer Betty Shelby was acquitted for the first-degree manslaughter in 2017 when she shot Terence Crutcher while his hands were raised after she called him a “bad dude.” Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light in 2016 and while pulled over, the officer apparently thought Castile resembled a robbery suspect. Castile informed the officer he had a gun and a permit, but Officer Yanez shot Castile twice in the heart. His girlfriend, sitting in the passenger seat, live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook.

Officer Yanez was found not guilty of manslaughter in 2017. Unfortunately, those are just the tip of the iceberg. However, there have been some small positive steps in trying to rebuild relations between African Americans and the police department by certain departments taking, not only the initiative to take responsibility but to educate others in the history of the horrible abuse and treatment towards African Americans by some police officers. On the website, Clarence Edwards, an independent law enforcement and security consultant issued a statement regarding race and the police, “In the not too distant past, some American police forces were tasked with enforcing both de jure and de facto racial apartheid laws and customs when they were directed to by elected officials, which has not been forgotten by African Americans and other racial minorities.

This past history contributes to the current distrust of police by members of these groups.” (Edwards). Certain behavior of Police Officers towards African Americans is a result of centuries of engrained ideology, that has been repeated and reinforced through media, spreading past stereotypes of African Americans and keeping them current. However, that ideology is changing, and the police department seems to be making efforts to educate and train officers. In Washington D.C, an effort to decrease tension between the police and the black community, all sworn police department officers are required to participate in a training program focused on race that included a visit to the National Museum of American History. During the 10-hour training day, the police officers learned the impacts of bondage, racism, Jim Crow laws and the role policing has played, covering slavery, segregation, and civil rights. Most importantly, the officers learned the positive contributions African Americans had made to music, sports, entertainment, and culture.

Centuries of laws and acts, in addition to institutions and the overcriminalization of African Americans, has taken away their fundamental right to bear arms. During the Daily Show’s “Unplugged” segment, Trevor Noah used that time to expand on the story he reported earlier that week about the Alabama shooting, where an innocent black man was shot and killed because the police assumed, he was the original shooter. Noah said, “At this point, you start to realize that really the Second Amendment is not intended for black people. It’s an uncomfortable thing to say, but it’s the truth. Like people will be like ‘the right to bear arms.’ Yes, the right to bear arms if you’re not a black man. If you’re a black man, you have no business bearing arms at all.” The Obama administration pursued a plan to reform our criminal justice system and organizations such as Black Lives Matter and The Sentencing Project are dedicated to change a system that unjustly targets African Americans.

However, any and all changes are dependent on the current administration, and currently, President Trump endorses the National Rifle Association, believes we should give teachers guns in response to school shootings, and is determined to make America White Again. Currently, he promises to shut down the government unless he gets $5 Billion dollars to build a wall and close borders. Unfortunately, President Trump’s ideology is shared by the same white, rural Americans that the NRA was supporting back in the 1960s, and the racial tension, violence, and hostility is again rising. The people of the United States of American that believe in equality, that believe in the equity of rights, not just racially, but in gender and class, need to stand together, raise their voices, and VOTE for a better future, not just for our children, but for our children’s children.

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The Right to Bear Arms, For Whom. (2022, Apr 14). Retrieved from

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