ESSAY- Arms bared: Racist origins of the 2nd Amendment

Racial politics dominated the talk in Washington after Barack Obama called on Americans to stop ignoring the country's racist past and move forward. The message apparently didn't reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices were busy ignoring race during a hearing on the biggest case of the year.

On the same day Obama gave his big speech, the court heard oral arguments in D.C. v. Heller, a case challenging the District of Columbia's 30-year-old law banning handgun ownership. The case marks the first time the Supreme Court has reviewed the Second Amendment in 70 years, and its interpretation could have far-reaching implications for state gun laws. Heller is mostly about gun ownership, but it's also about race— not that you would know that from the oral arguments.

First, by way of background: The key issue in Heller is whether the Constitution guarantees an individual, as opposed to a collective, right to bear arms within the context of a well-organized militia. The plaintiff, Dick Anthony Heller, is an armed security guard who, with the help of some rich libertarians, brought the lawsuit against the District, arguing that the city's handgun ban illegally prevented him from keeping his work weapon at home.

Last year, in a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed and ruled that the city's gun-control law was an unconstitutional infringement on an individual's right to bear arms. Fearing a flood of new firearms into the city as a result, the District appealed to the Supreme Court.

Dozens of interest groups, from the Pink Pistols to Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, have filed amicus briefs, offering their take on the Second Amendment. But during oral arguments, Justice Anthony Kennedy and his conservative brethren seemed to fully embrace the gun lobby's favorite romantic myth that the founders– inspired by the image of a musket in the hands of a minuteman– wrote the Second Amendment to give Americans the right to take up arms to fight government tyranny.

But what the founders really had in mind, according to some constitutional law scholars, was a musket in the hands of a slave owner: these scholars believe the founders enshrined the right to bear arms in the Constitution in part to enforce tyranny, not fight it.

At an American Constitution Society briefing on the Heller case, NAACP Legal Defense Fund president John Payton explained the ugly history behind the gun lobby's favorite amendment.

"That the Second Amendment was the last bulwark against the tyranny of the federal government is false," he said. Instead, the "well-regulated militias" cited in the Constitution almost certainly referred to state militias that were used to suppress slave insurrections. Payton explained that the Founders added the Second Amendment in part to reassure southern states, such as Virginia, that the federal government wouldn't use its new power to disarm state militias as a backdoor way of abolishing slavery.

This is pretty well-documented history, thanks to the work of Roger Williams School of Law professor Carl T. Bogus. In a 1998 law-review article based on a close analysis of James Madison's original writings, Bogus explained the South's obsession with militias during the ratification fights over the Constitution. 

"The militia remained the principal means of protecting the social order and preserving white control over an enormous black population," Bogus writes. "Anything that might weaken this system presented the gravest of threats." He goes on to document how anti-Federalists Patrick Henry and George Mason used the fear of slave rebellions as a way of drumming up opposition to the Constitution and how Madison eventually deployed the promise of the Second Amendment to placate Virginians and win their support for ratification.

None of this figured into the arguments at the Supreme Court. Instead, a majority of the justices, especially Kennedy, seemed to buy the story that the Founders were inordinately concerned with the ability of early settlers to use guns to fend off wild animals and Indians, not rebellious slaves. (Slate's Dahlia Lithwick counts pivotal swing-voter Kennedy making no fewer than four mentions of a mythical "remote settler," who Kennedy suggested would have needed a gun to "defend himself and his family against hostile Indian tribes and outlaws, wolves and bears, and grizzlies.")

Just as the Court largely ignored the racist past of the Second Amendment, its focus on self-defense also glossed over the more obvious racial implications of the decision it was reviewing. The plaintiff, Heller, is a white man who lives in a 60 percent black city whose democratically elected leaders long ago decided that handguns were doing more harm than good to its citizenry. Indeed, while two of the original five plaintiffs in the Heller case are black women, not a whole lot of African Americans in the District appear to be out there clamoring to own more handguns for self-defense.

In an interview, Bogus says that polls consistently show that African Americans support gun control in much higher numbers than white people do, and probably for good reason: They're usually the ones looking at the wrong end of the barrel.

As the NAACP points out in its brief on Heller, there were 137 gun-homicide victims in D.C. in 2004, all but two of them black. If the Supreme Court invalidates the city's handgun ban, any ensuing uptick in gun violence is likely to have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, particularly young men.

Of course, it won't be only young black men who suffer if the court decides that D.C. residents need more handguns. In fact, someone ought to remind Justice Kennedy about what happens when the wrong people get guns– namely the average, law-abiding D.C. residents who would supposedly benefit from the new gun ownership rights. With all his worry about grizzly bears, Kennedy has clearly forgotten about Carl Rowan Sr.

Back in 1988, the African American syndicated columnist shot an unarmed, 18-year-old white kid from Chevy Chase who'd gone for an unauthorized dip in Rowan's swimming pool. Rowan, who shot the kid in the wrist as he tried to flee, claimed he'd feared for his life and was only defending himself. Nonetheless, the columnist was prosecuted for illegally possessing a handgun. The trial ended with a hung jury, and Rowan escaped punishment (though the teenagers were sentenced to community service), but the incident fueled a tremendous amount of racial tension in the city that might have been avoided if Rowan had just, say, called the cops.

Gun-wielding journalists who can't shoot straight may not be the bulwark against tyranny libertarians had in mind. Yet they're just one of the many scary scenarios the District faces should the court rely on language inspired by slavery and the libertarians' whitewashed version of American history to restrict the ability of a majority black city to protect its citizens from gun violence.

This essay originally appeared in Mother Jones, for whose D.C. bureau Stephanie Mencimer reports. She's also the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue (Free Press, 2006).



Interesting how everything has a 'race' slanting to some people. It's amazing how the same folks who seem to desire 'color blindness' officially, can't seem to do so personally.

Now, I'm not going to take up the question as to whether some of the southern states may not have taken the Second Amendment as a way of controlling the slaves of the time. Maybe they did, maybe they did not. Or maybe just some number of folks did. That's history; not today; and *none* of us were alive then, anyway. There is little point in praising or condemning at this time. If we are supposed to 'move on'; then let's by all means do so; and address the present.

However, it's also pretty clear that the NORTHERN states, and probably most of the folks who wrote or agreed with the 'Federalist Papers'; saw it more in the light that the Supreme Court seems to have seen it. All one has to do is read the texts; understand English, and have a reasonable knowledge of the events of the times (we used to teach American History in the schools, even the southern ones :) ). There may be some 'revisionist' history still taught in southern schools in certain areas, but I don't think it goes back to the Revolutionary War and beyond.

As for the 'black people not clamoring for guns'; is that more because they don't want them; or because they're afraid to ask? DC doesn't have the reputation of having the most 'toleration' of folks who don't toe the 'party line'; unless, of course, they have diplomatic plates on their cars, or a diplomatic passport on their person. I suspect those folks are split, just like the rest of the country. Some probably would get a gun if it were legal to do so, some probably already have, legal or not; and some probably want nothing to do with guns. And, IMHO, that's perfectly fine. The Second Amendment doesn't FORCE anyone to own a firearm. All it does is GIVE THEM THE 'UNINFRINGEABLE' RIGHT to do so if they WANT TO. No matter what race or color they are.

"As the NAACP points out in its brief on Heller, there were 137 gun-homicide victims in D.C. in 2004, all but two of them black. If the Supreme Court invalidates the city's handgun ban, any ensuing uptick in gun violence is likely to have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, particularly young men."

And of those 137 gun-homicides, how many of them were committed with legally obtained and registered handguns? Zero. The gun ban only prevents law abiding citizens from owning a handgun for self defense. It does nothing to stop criminals from owning and using handguns.

When Washington, D.C., assigns 24X7X365 body guards for each citizen then they should consider banning self defense weaponry.

If the author had read the brief of they would have noticed that slaves and free blacks were allowed to possess guns on the frontier but they had to have the government's permission. That was more freedom than the District of Columbia Offers its black citizens today where there is a total ban. The author would also have learned that Catholics were disarmed in 1756. It's only a race issue if you want it to be. The real issue was that people who were not considered full members of society were disarmed or heavily restricted. When the government disarms the full members of society it's only goal is to make those not in power slaves to the government whether they be white, black, or orange.

Rudolph DiGiacinto
Founder &c.

That "Essay" was about the stupidest thing I've ever read. I feel dumber for having read it.

If more black people than white get shot because the unconstitutional and criminally stupid DC gun ban is thrown out it will be because they were committing crimes.
The author of this essay is a liar and a fool, as is anyone who believes her.

To suppose that disarming the Black population will make D.C. safer is one of the most racist propositions I have ever heard. I am appalled. A black citizen of this country has the right to poses a firearm if he or she so choses. It is a repulsive thing to treat the black population as infantile by insinuating that it is safer to remove a right because of bent crime statistics. Statistics can show anything. For God's sake; what's next? Shall we remove the black right to vote???

It is time to drop the race card and move on.

Of course no one wants to have violence on our streets and in our homes. Of course there are social problems that contribute to that violence. But after reading this incredibly racist and inflammatory essay I have only one question for people who believe disarming DC is the best choice; when it does come down to violence, who would you rather survives the encounter, the law-biding citizen or the socially defective criminal? Well, of course we'd rather both, but keeping the law-abiding citizens disarmed does nothing but make them a statistic.

Only 5% of the population even owned slaves. If the founding fathers were appeasing the south so they could protect themselves from violent blacks then it seems like the same reason exists today in DC. She admiited herself that the blacks don't want guns the whites do. Is it so they can protect themselves from the black criminals? After all blacks do commit over 95% of the homicides in DC. Does citing these ststisics make me racist?

I'm black and from DC, most of the BLACK law abiding citizens I know DO have guns. I don't know about the writer but I have heard fully automatic weapons fire in the city. You can't just go to a gun store and get a full auto Mac 10 or an AK-47. I have seen the violence in that city and I've known victims of that violence. Not giving the citizens the right to protect themselves is a crime. Saying " won't be only young black men who suffer if the court decides that D.C. residents need more handguns", WTF? Do you realize that those "young black men" who commit most of the murders would not think twice about killing you. Those men are criminals, they are not your everyday African-American male going about their business, don't mistake the two. The criminals will invade your home if they see you have something they don't and will kill you to take it, even when they get it they will STILL kill you. Saying that DC shouldn't have guns is saying black people can't take care of themselves so the Government will do it for us and if you know DC you know they can't take care of you.
And About the Carl Rowan incident, the white kid was shot after he went inside Mr Rowan's home.

That firearms were used to enforce slavery is a known fact. That is why the 14th amendment was adopted. It was all about firearms ownership and ensured the emancipated slaves would be assured full and equal rights under the law.

One irrefutable lesson from history is that the badge of a slave has always been to be unarmed. Only freemen may be armed.

"No free man shall be debarred the use of arms."
- Thomas Jefferson

Disarming black people ("for their own good"?) is arrogant and racist. Black Americans have as much a right to defend themselves from violent criminals as anyone else. There is nothing racist in facilitating effective armed defense of self and community for people of all colors; it is just the opposite.

I find such liberal elitism, under the false pretense of fighting racism, to further a clearly anti-freedom agenda - a racist effort itself - to be nothing short of a slap in the face to ALL Americans.

You should be ashamed of yourself for insulting the intelligence of everyone, Black Americans especially. We are not children to be babysat by people like yourself who feel they know what's best for us.

And kool aid was invented to keep the black man from drinking all of the coffee.

The naacp has done a good job of rewriting history to show that every law, bill, stop sign and utterance was about keeping blacks down.

If tj wrote about "free" men in order to stop blacks from owning guns did that also apply to the million "free" men that lived in the north? (and black south slave OWNERS too?)

"Back in 1988, the African American syndicated columnist shot an unarmed, 18-year-old white kid from Chevy Chase who'd gone for an unauthorized dip in Rowan's swimming pool."

You forgot to mention the Ultimate Irony:
ROWAN WAS AGAINST GUN OWNERSHIP. His articles were constant breast beating over guns. Yet he owned one...I wonder if that made him a 'racist'.

Trying to boil down the Second Amendment to racism "according to some constitutional law scholars" is the most backhanded lie I have read in some time. You really should learn to do some research on your own...or is that not allowed in current "journalism"?

How about doing some research on the orgins of this case. Heller was the only individual deemed to have standing, however Parker, a black woman, was the original name associated with the case and still has an appeal before the Supreme Court. How about writing about Condi Rice's thoughts on firearms? The right to defend oneself is a God given right, not a black right, not a white right, a human right. Welcome to America.

How about doing some research on the orgins of this case. Heller was the only individual deemed to have standing, however Parker, a black woman, was the original name associated with the case and still has an appeal before the Supreme Court. How about writing about Condi Rice's thoughts on firearms? The right to defend oneself is a God given right, not a black right, not a white right, a human right. Welcome to America.

Most intelligent people know that "gun control" was and is intended to keep people of color "In their place".
Just in case you happen to be one of those who doesn't, here is the proof:

Talk about re-writing history....In all the writings by the founding fathers (federalist papers letters to friends etc.., there is no mention that the 2nd Amendment was created just to keep the slaves in line...As a matter of fact, gun control laws were created to keep blacks from getting guns, rightly fearing an uprising...

The position that the 2nd Amendment was intended to protect white slave owners is a false and not based on any historical fact.

Prior to the Civil War, blacks were not considered citizens and thus the Bill of Rights did not apply to them. Reconstruction and passage of the 14th Amendment changed that. Once blacks were citizens, the white elite had to develop ways to deny blacks their 2nd Amendment rights while appearing racial neutral. They did so with gun control laws. These laws are still being defended today by Democrats and RINO's.

If you have an interest in the racist history of gun control, check out these documents:

GeorgiaCarry.Org's Amicus Brief:

GeorgiaCarry.Org's report on the racist history of gun control in Georgia. Its title comes from the editorial page of the Atlanta Journal.

The gun control laws objectives are to prevent accidents from negligent and irresponsible owners and secondly to reduce the number in criminal hands via leagal "straw man" purchases.

The few who want to "ban" all guns are indeed a small minority who are actually stupid enough to think it could be accomplished.

If you think the laws are there to keep out of the hands of blacks then you must believe that blacks are all criminals.

The fact is they are not ALL criminals. Just enough of them to make people afraid of walking down ridge street after dark

The author is a white, guilt-ridden, anti-gun liberal who thinks she knows what is best for the blacks in DC. Talk about racism! Ms. Mencimer, I'll join with Reg who is black and from DC. I would much rather have him armed and by my side than to have you near me - and I am white.

"Racist origins of the 2nd Amendment." ?????
Give me a break!

Actually, the horrible irony here is that it is actually GUN CONTROL that has its origins in racism. After the Civil War, freed blacks were often prohibited guns because retaliation against white landowners was a big fear, plus it "kept them in their place," in a time when there was no place for them as slaves.
One locality prohibited blacks from owning any handguns except for Colt's Revolvers. Sounds OK. But Colt's guns were very expensive and even the Union Government had ceased purchasing Colts in 1863 after finding a less expensive (and some said better quality) alternative. Do you think freed blacks had money for the most expensive revolver on the market????
Ms. Mencimer, get your histor right.

Among the very first Jim Crow laws passed were ones barring freed black men from possessing arms.

The Klan can't have their victims shooting back at them now can they?

Go read the book 'Negroes With Guns' written about the life of Robert Williams. A black WW2 veteran, Mr Williams formed a NRA chapter in his town to purchase arms for his community to defend against KKK attacks.

So Robert Williams and other blacks exercising THEIR 2nd Amendment rights to obtain firearms to repel KKK attacks is racist?? This essay is revisionist history garbage.

Leave it to a brainwashed, uneducated moron to try and twist history to suit her communist agenda. As the others posters had stated, gun control laws were put in place to keep the black people down. Black people have every right to own guns as everybody else and claiming otherwise is racist. This writer couldn't have written a stupider article. What a idiot!

quote: "... brainwashed, uneducated moron ..."

I do not understand why people have to resort to namecalling simply because some of you disagree on statements made in this thread.

Proper Internet etiquette dictates you have lost the debate once you resort to namecalling.

Gun Control = Racism and then Genocide.
The proof is that EVERY NATION that has instituted gun control has done it to disarm people OTHER THAN those who were in charge. They 'just happened to be' members of one tribe or another that did not like the tribe that they disarmed.
The proof is Germany in 1938, Cambodia in the 70's, the Soviet Union, Communist China.
Anyone who does not understand that is blinded by their own ideology.
Just think about this, the Government that can take our guns can take a lot more than that when they decide they need to 'for our own good'.

I can't understand why some people just don't get it? It's not a Black or White issue,it's not even
a gun issue. Its a GOD GIVEN RIGHT ISSUE!
People who choose to harm someone will find the means to do so, Even if you could ban all guns, there will still be violent crimes,the law
breakers,or assulters will simply find other means
to harm someone. STOP BLAMING GUNS, they are objects that a PERSON controls not the other way around.

Just one more thing.
The United States is supposed to be a FREE Country. Freedom means that you can own what ever inanimate objects that are available for purchase, as long as no one else gets hurt by that ownership. That means GUNS as well as fast cars, alcohol and other objects, as long as they are not misused.
Anyone who wants to restrict what objects you can own is anti-freedom.

Richard: The US... a free country? Where have you been? That's just propaganda.

ATTN: The future is pointing towards gun prohibition. While people are worried about stricked, new gun control laws, the point is that owning guns is our right. We need to focus on preserving the second amendment entirely not help the politicians bend it. The more we let them bend it, the weaker it becomes. When the U.S. starts the National I.D. cards and solves the immigration problem with an open border policy (North-american Union), gun control restrictions are going to seem like the solution. Stop worrying about what the media is showing you. Worry about what they are not showing you.

The future is pointing towards gun prohibition?

I beg to differ, you'll never see it in the USA, IMHO.

Only the gaurds have guns and that doesn't stop murder in prisons. All of the people in there ban together by color and all of those color groups can kill. I recall that prisoners have even killed armed gaurds. This means that guns are not the only option for criminals nor the best protection to gaurds. If they take away our 2nd amen. right, we will not be rid of crime nor defenseless. We should prohibit banks and start bartering again. Atleast until the bankers and worthless politicians die of starvation.

The author of the essay should be embarassed with herself. Shameful.

You didn't throw the race card sweetie - you threw the whole deck! The reason the Carl Rowan incident was so publicized was the utter hypocrisy of a strident gun banner who just happened to have a gun. It was a case of “you can’t do it but I can.” That's up there with Diane Feinstein - a gun hater with a concealed carry permit

If you're going to bring race into this issue, you have to ask all the questions.

Of the 137 African Americans murdered by handguns in DC, how many were a result of black on black crimes?

If this is a racial issue, that is something I would like to know.

My favorite Archie Bunker quote:

-"Did you know that 65% of the people murdered in the last 10 years were killed by handguns?"
--"Would it make you feel any better little girl, if they was pushed out windows?"

This has got to be the most ignorant article I've ever seen from the anti-2A side. Not meaning stupid, just ignorant. Uninformed. I would've thought this was something from IMAO . . . news so nutty you'd think it's real. A parody. A joke. Anything but real journalism.
Logic is totally absent. Which is SOP for the liberal, anti-2A moonbat.
Think, Ms Mencimer. DC is the most gun-restrictive area of the U.S. Yet it is the murder capital of the nation. Every one of those 136 murders were committed by people who broke gun laws already in place. Many were crimes committed against innocent, law-abiding citizens who had their God-given rights taken from them by the state and left defenseless. Another illegal act. Arming those law-abiding citizens who wish to be armed (not everyone) is not going to cause "wild west style shoot-outs" in the streets of DC. It hasn't anywhere else it's been tried and it won't there.
All those gun control laws do is make some lazy politician look busy. Nothing else. Look it up!

I have to agree with so many of the previous comments; an ignorant attempt to rewrite history.

DC is NOT the murder capital of the US... it is irritating that fact gets repeated so often... according to these 2006 stats, it is actually in 6th place behind places like detroit, baltimore, and oakland...

I live in New York and as most people know you can not have a pistol without a permit. It is impossible to get a permit. So what did I do. I went and bought an semi automatic AR-15 which is ten times more dangerous than a pistol.
I am a law-abidding citizen. I keep it locked up. Criminals will get guns either way.
Ramble of statistics, but one statistic will be constant. BIG CITIES have more murders. bottom line. States with gun laws still have murders, if not worse rates.
The government wants to slowly take control and it starts with disarming us. First permits, then only certain guns, then less ammo, then no guns. Just like everything else. You can not smoke a drink a beer in your OWN BAR. maybe people need to wake up.
It has nothing to do with race. Yes, blacks commit more murders. Statistic. More blacks live in cities where more crim takes place. Fact. Wake up. Lets not make excuses. Get down to reality. You commit a crime, you pay. If your a black law abiding citizen I hope you have a gun because a Jew, an asian, anyone that follows the laws and has a job and a life should have the opportunity to own a gun. Statistics are for this
lets just get to the point and not rewrite history. The constitution works and is our right!

"DC is NOT the murder capital of the US... it is irritating that fact gets repeated so often..."

The point Mr. Factoid is that Washington DC did, for many years in the early 1990's, earn the dubious title of murder capitol. The statistics you cite, for 2006, was the most favorable year for such a statistic in quite a while.

I noticed you also failed to cite that Washington DC has the highest number of police officers per capita in the country, more gun control laws than any other place in the US and that you failed to cite the fact that WDC murder rates increased again in 2007. So what was your point?

This is a laughable, absurd, and completely irrelevent essay. It's about time we throw away the race card. The essay's stated reasons for gun ownership two hundred years ago have nothing at all to do with reasons for gun ownership today. What matters is that we are a free society TODAY. Anyone of any race or gender can purchase a firearm today without prejudice.

What an uninformed piece of elitist drivel. But thats the beauty of the United States Constitution, you can say anything you want no matter how stupid. What Stephanie Mencimer can't get though head is that the 2nd Amendment insures her right to free speech. Also what she don't or won't bring up is that fact that when people are disarmed they are subject to genocide by their government. Every state sponsored mass murder of the twentieth century began with gun prohibition.

BTW-IMO the woman who wrote this essay has a serious case of cranium-rectal inversion.

Amusing article, followed by a slew of insightful responses. The basic facts are, we live in a society that is violent. Violent parents producing violent children. One may take the position that as long as violence is enacted on other violent persons it is an acceptable action for society. I'm remined of a quote by John Dunn
"The death of any man diminishes me, for we are all part of mankind". I for one want the option to defend myself in the real time, rather than depend upon a distant police presence.

All gun control laws began as a means of keeping black people disarmed. Whites could not believe at the time, that those laws would ever apply to them.
I am a 41 yr old white, middle class male. I have never been convicted of a felony. I have a concealed carry permit. I carry a pistol, and I know how to use it. If any of you anti gun people are attacked in my presence I will protect you. So please quit raping me

Wow! Let's move on. No one I know has owned slaves. No one I know ever was a slave. My family owned slaves in Missouri in the 19th Century. I have never owned them myself. So I quess my ancestors owe some other people's ancestors an appology.

The racism will never stop if we as a county learn to move on.

You, good lady, are a total idiot.

When you quote research done by a professor named "Bogus," you should check to make sure the story you are quoting is not sarcasm.

Mr. Factoid quote from above: "DC is NOT the murder capital of the US... it is irritating that fact gets repeated so often..."

Mr. Factoid needs to check the facts.

Of 15 years that the ban has been in
place, the District has ranked #1 or #2 in murders except in four of those years it was #4.

See Amicus No. 07-290 to the Supreme Court by criminologists.