By John Kirksey
Issues concerning gun control and the Black community and Black people in general have commanded a lot of media attention in the last few years. I have had an interest in firearms since I was four years old. In the middle to late 1960’s there were numerous Westerns and military shows on TV, and of course they further fueled my interest. Some of my childhood favorites were Combat, The Cisco Kid, The Rifleman, and The Rat Patrol. My favorite Western of all time is “The Good the Bad and the Ugly.” While thumbing through an old family photo album I found a picture of myself sitting on my grandparent’s bed, with about 10 toy guns in front of me. I looked forward to the hunting trips with my father, grandfather, cousins and uncles. Of course until the age of about six all I could carry were “cap” pistols. By my seventh birthday I had a BB rifle. I spent many hours with this rifle. I even still have it, but of course it is well worn out. By the time I was in sixth grade my father bought me my first shotgun so we that together could hunt rabbits and squirrels.
Fast-forwarding into my college years, I still had an insatiable urge to shoot and become proficient with firearms. Because there are not many opportunities to shoot when hunting, I took up the sport of shooting clay targets. My favorite game was trapshooting. After winning several state Trapshooting championships I become interested in shooting rifle competitions. This is when I realized that there is a problem in this country related to the ownership of firearms. Most recently I tried to purchase a rifle to shoot service rifle competitions. These are military rifles used to shoot paper targets at distances from 200 to 600 yards. When I went to the gun shop to purchase my rifle of choice, I was informed that I could not purchase it in my state of Maryland. The reason is that my desired rifle is on a gun ban list. All I want to do with the rifle is to shoot at paper targets. This led me to consider, what is gun-control really all about? First, a little history.
Gun-control and gun-rights regulations share a long history in the United States. Adult White men in the American colonies had the right to own firearms for hunting and self-defense. In many instances they were required to use them in the service of local militias, often in battles with Native Americans. But the colonies also placed restrictions on gun ownership.
Colonies forbade Roman Catholics, slaves, free blacks and people of mixed race, who in some states far outnumbered whites, from owning firearms, fearing they might revolt. After the American Revolution in 1776, the Founding Fathers addressed gun rights in the Second Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights attached to the U.S. Constitution in 1791.
In 1813, Kentucky and Louisiana became the first states to ban the carrying of concealed weapons. Indiana did so in 1820, followed by Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and Alabama. Most of this legislation came about due to the “culture of honor” and dueling matches.
Federal Gun Control
The NRA was not initially a gun-rights organization. Its primary goal was to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis.” The NRA held target-shooting competitions and sponsored gun clubs and shooting ranges. The NRA also helped write model state gun-control legislation containing some provisions similar to those opposed by the association today. For example, the NRA recommended that states require individuals to apply for a license to carry a concealed gun in public and that states issue such licenses with discretion.
Congress later entered the gun control controversy. The federal government’s first major attempt occurred in the 1930s as Prohibition-era gangsters with compact machine guns out gunned city police. The National Firearms Act of 1934, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, imposed a $200 tax on the manufacture, sale or transfer of machine guns and “sawed off” shotguns and rifles with barrels less than 18 inches long. Anyone possessing such guns had to register them with the U.S. Treasury Department.
The National Firearms Act of 1938 requires gun dealers to be licensed and to record sales; prohibits gun sales to convicted felons and carrying concealed handguns is either prohibited or permitted only with a license in every state but two.
By the 1960s America witnessed a turning point in the cultural war over guns. Rising crime, racial tensions and a loss of public confidence in the police “led millions of Americans to buy weapons for personal protection.”
Congress took no action on guns after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. But opinion shifted a few years later, as race riots engulfed the nation’s cities and members of the Black Panther Party displayed their guns in public to attract media attention.
After the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 President L.B. Johnson pleaded with Congress to pass gun-control legislation. In October, LBJ signed into law the Gun Control Act of 1968.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 requires:
- All persons manufacturing, importing or selling firearms as a business to be federally licensed.
- Prohibits the interstate sale of firearms through the mail.
- Lists categories of people to whom firearms may not be sold, including convicted felons and the seriously mentally ill.
- Dealers must maintain records of gun sales.
1968 saw a dispute within the NRA leadership over the Gun Control Act of 1968. Their objections didn’t necessarily stem from opposition to any specific sections of the legislation; it was over the concept of gun control itself that younger members disliked, while older members believed the NRA should focus on teaching gun safety, organizing shooting competitions and sponsoring hunting clinics.
The National Rifle Association opposed gun laws that restricted African-American gun ownership and in some instances offered support to Black Americans seeking to defend themselves with firearms. In 1958, retired Marine Robert Williams opened a chapter of the NAACP in Monroe, North Carolina. Monroe was also Klan country, and the KKK mounted several vicious assaults against African-Americans in Monroe. In 1960, Williams applied for and was granted a charter to establish an NRA chapter in Monroe; the association also provided firearms training materials. Mr. Williams and other black NRA members in Monroe subsequently successfully defended themselves with firearms against an attack coordinated between the KKK and the local police.
At the NRA’s 1976 convention in Cincinnati, OH, the young “hard-liners” took control and changed the face of the NRA. It becomes more than a rifle club. It became the Gun Lobby.”
In 1986 the NRA scored a victory when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act which prohibits the federal government from maintaining a registry of guns and their owners; and mandates that the BATF inspect licensed gun dealers no more than once a year.
By December 1993 President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act instituting background checks for gun purchases through licensed dealers.
In 1994 Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which was a measure banning what it defined as assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines for 10 years. Magazines holding 11 rounds or more are considered “large capacity”.
In 2005 President George W. Bush signs the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act granting gun manufacturers immunity from civil lawsuits involving crimes committed with guns.
In 2008 the Supreme Court held that Americans have an individual right under the Second Amendment to possess firearms for self-defense within the home, thus, nullifying Washington, D.C.’s ban on handgun ownership.
New York was the first state to pass gun-control legislation after the 2012 Newtown, CT shooting. The legislation makes New York’s regulations some of the strictest in the nation. It essentially:
- Broadens the definition of banned assault weapons.
- Requires the owners of existing assault weapons to register them with the NY State Police.
- Reduces the limit on magazine capacity from 10 rounds to 7.
- Requires background checks of not only gun purchasers but also ammunition buyers.
- Expands background checks to private sales, and establishes tougher penalties for the use of illegal guns.
In response, 34 of 62 NY counties have passed resolutions demanding that lawmakers repeal the act. In reality many believe the chances of the Congress banning assault weapons are close to zero. The Republican-controlled House is waiting to see what the Senate does before it takes up the issue of gun violence; so the debate continues.
So, the question remains, how does the issue of gun control affect Black people? The answer is simple. Black people primarily need to arm themselves as history has shown from a tyrannical government, the Ku Klux Klan, and gang violence in certain neighborhoods. In order for citizenry to attain proficiency in firearms I believe that black people should acquire arms, take lessons and join organizations such as the NRA and their local gun clubs. Most if not all of these organizations will provide training. Some municipalities sponsor gun buyback programs. Usually they give people pennies on the dollar for what their guns are actually worth. The means chosen to purchase a firearm is up to the individual. The right to purchase is constitutional. The reason to purchase purchase a firearm is determined by the specific environmental situations of an individual. Familiarity with firearms and their use makes all of the above easier. Why bother with being armed as a regular citizen? Well, the world is a dangerous place; criminal elements in the community, political government excesses, home safety in an increasingly dangerous society. These kinds of things speak for themselves. For it is better to be prepared than victimized.