In the last 100 years, the National Rifle Association and other lobbying groups have mythologized the history of the Second Amendment as a celebration of the rights of the people against the government, but that obscures the complicated context of the time.
In her new book, “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America,” Dr. Carol Anderson notes that the earliest gun laws in America actually regulated who could not own guns. In 1639, Virginia banned Africans from owning guns because they feared an armed insurrection of the enslaved population. In 1680, Virginia said that Black people, enslaved or free, did not have the right to self defense if attacked by a white person.
But, from the very beginning, enslaved Africans and their descendants did fight back against their bondage. By 1723, Virginia had update their statute to say “no negro, mulatto, or indian whatsoever” could possess a gun. Around the same time, the colony passed laws to strengthen the local militia in order to squash any slave rebellions.
South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1740 said that all Negroes were “absolute slaves” prohibited from gun ownership, self defense, literacy and free movement. Their statute became the model for other colonies. By the mid-18th century all 13 U.S. colonies had some form of laws prohibiting Black people from owning guns.
That made things difficult for the colonists during the Revolution. The British troops promised freedom to any enslaved person willing to fight against the colonists. And militias in Southern colonies like South Carolina were more concerned with suppressing potential slave rebellions than in fighting the British — to the point where Carolinians were willing to lose the war rather than give up slavery.
However, some recognized that the colonies could only hope to win the war if they had Black soldiers. And so thousands of Black people, free and enslaved, took up arms against the British. It’s a part of American history that’s mostly been whitewashed out.
After the war, new Black Codes prohibited free Black people and enslaved from owning guns. During debates over the new Constitution, Southern states demanded provisions that would include standing militias to suppress slave uprisings. Anderson argues that few at the time seriously believed that militias could fight back against a tyrannical government because they had been so unreliable during the war.
And Southern states also were against the creation of a standing Federal army, despite the fact that the Colonial Army had been much more reliable during the war. America wouldn’t have a standing army until after World War II.
During the time of the debate, Anderson writes that the public knew what was at stake: the ability to keep Black people enslaved and unarmed. And even after the Civil War and emancipation, gun laws have always been written with a presumption of Black guilt and white innocence.
Read more about the history of guns in America in Carol Anderson’s book: “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America.”