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A Brief History of Gun Control in America

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Gun control is not new in the United States, it has been tried often to little effect at quelling murder. What has followed gun control in the United States is active government-enforced attempts at controlling certain segments of the population, restraining the freedom of movement and limiting acts of self-government.

Barely had the English set foot on the shores of Virginia at Jamestown before the first acts of gun control were passed by the House of Burgesses. In 1640 as the black population of the British colony neared 300, the burgeoning Virginia legislature had already banned black people from possessing firearms (3). This is a notable date for another reason, prior to 1640, these African immigrants were indentures bound to their owners for a period of 7 years, the same as their Irish, English, and Scottish counterparts. Before the law that changed that indenture, from a limited-term to “indentured for life,” could be passed and enforced, a law was passed making it a crime for these African indentures to possess firearms. The legal transition took another forty years before it was solidly law throughout the colonies, but the 1640 declaration banning blacks from owning firearms was the moment that began the saddest chapter in the history of the United States, the world’s bastion of freedom (3).

John Brown’s Raid is often recognized as the first shots fired in the people’s attempt to overturn the legally enshrined institution of slavery. When Brown’s raiders approached Harper’s Ferry in 1859, it was done with careful planning from multiple points of entry. He came with 21 men, 15 whites and 6 blacks (8). One of the men, Heyward Shepard, was sent ahead as a scout to reconnoiter the town. He was 17 years old and carrying a rifle. As he walked down Shenandoah street toward Whitehead’s tavern, he heard a shout from behind him, “Hey negro, freeze.” Shepard took another step. Then he took another. A shot rang out. Heyward, an escapade slave in his first attempt to strike a blow against slavery was shot down in the street. He was killed not because there was a raid on, no one knew that yet. He was killed because he was a black man carrying a gun, which was a crime in Virginia. There is no record of who fired the shot that felled Shephard, it may have been a police officer or not. The facts of his death are these, he was in a town, Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, which was made up of a 25% black population, most of them free men who worked at the local weapons factories. His fugitive status unknown to these people, nothing made him different from the several hundred other blacks in Harper’s Ferry. Despite the second amendment, in 1859, what Heyward Shepard was doing, possessing a gun was illegal in every state and territory in the union.

It is easy to say that it’s 160 years later, and police have changed, government has changed, laws have changed, but in 2015, police shot and killed 984 people, 962 in 2016, 986 in 2017, 992 in 2018, 896 in 2019. These are not all black men, but at a disproportionate rate, they are (9). The modes of dependency have changed, but the results are still the same. The spirit of Nat Turner is still something that is feared by those who espouse gun control.

Only a few years after Shepard became the wars first victim, and slavery it’s final victim, the Union Army was to be made up of roughly 10% black men (180,000) (5). In 1870, nearly all of these men were deployed to the south in an effort to help the southern population adjust to the new societal structure. By 1877, it was again illegal for any black man or woman to possess a firearm. Despite the 1870 ratification of the 15th amendment, the Democrat-dominated legislatures of the south passed extensive controls meant to keep land-owning black males from gaining the right to vote. Their discorporation was accompanied by further restrictions on blacks owning firearms, in spite of their veteran status, and regardless of the army for which they fought. In 1877, Virginia passed new “Black Codes”, which prevented blacks from possessing firearms. (2) In fact, by 1877, gun control for blacks was in place in every state in the union, North and South.

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It would be a mistake to think that the disarming followed by the victimization of people in the United States stopped in the 19th century. In fact, as late as 1990, Richmond, VA passed, and the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia upheld, a ban on the possession of weapons in public housing (10). The tenor of the conversation has changed over the years from one of race to one of economics, but the message is the same: the defense of oneself with a firearm is not a right to be given to the poor, the black, or those society means to subjugate.

It would be another mistake to think that victimization preceded nearly immediately by gun control was limited to the descendants of Africans in the United States. As part of the Indian Removal Act of 1730, which led to the “Trail of Tears”, Native American Tribes were legally and systematically deprived of weapons before the US Government with rifles leveled, drove them to new reservations further west with less vital resources (11).

Under the auspices of an executive order (no. 9066), it’s widely known that during World War II, President Roosevelt with an executive order forcibly relocated Japanese-American Citizens to internment camps for the duration of the war. What is not widely taught is that the first wave of visits to the homes of these 110,000 citizens, none of whom was ever charged, tried, or convicted of treason or spying, was simply to enforce a race-based ban on the ownership of firearms. (7)

In more recent years, Citizens bearing firearms have been attacked with the might of the US military at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, resulting in the deaths of Randy Weavers’ wife and son, as well as, a US Marshall, W.F. Degan. At Waco, Texas, Texas law enforcement invaded the compound of the Branch Davidians for suspected weapons violations. The siege lasted 51 days and left 76 people dead. Since the terrorist act on 9/11/2001, the federal government has actively pursued the armament of local and state police forces with military equipment and weapons. This change in the posture of police, under the guise of fighting terrorism, has failed to decrease the mortality of the job of a police officer, but it has led to a nearly doubling of the number of civilian fatalities of police interactions. (6)

Those who oppose guns, oppose self-defense. After all, they must. It is already illegal for a convicted felon to possess a gun. It is more illegal to commit a crime with a gun than if done without. It is so illegal to kill someone with a gun that the government will kill you for doing it. If it is illegal to commit a crime, more illegal to commit a crime with a gun, for what reason would any person own a gun? There are the sportsmen and hunters to be certain and those who are armed for self-defense purposes. The proponents of gun control, however, say there is no reason for a citizen to have or bear arms. Defending yourself be damned if it means you need a gun.

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Every school shooting to occur in the past ten years has happened in a “Gun Free Zone.” In the cities of Chicago and New York where gun control is extreme and possession or purchase near impossible more people are killed by guns every year than anywhere else in the world.

The call for “common sense” restrictions of magazine capacity as local police and state guard units arm themselves with more and more advanced military-grade weaponry (6). The active control of offensive action by limiting the capacity of magazines could be effective if the person were not already actively breaking several laws by shooting at someone. For a person defending themselves, however, the number of bullets required for an effective defense is without fail, always, “one more than I have.”

Virginia just concluded a specially called General Assembly session to consider several bills with a focused Gun Control agenda. The election leading up to it was won largely by the Democrat party, the party responsible for every act of human rights abuse described in this article save the earliest slavery legislation, which predates the existence of the United States as a legal entity. All of the Bills which were brought up in the Special Session which was immediately dismissed by the outgoing Republican majority have been refiled to be considered in the standard session. With no opposition to prevent the passage of the Democratic agenda, substantive Gun control is a near certainty in Virginia. It leads one to wonder, which group of the poor or the non-whites is in for a rough time in the near future.

Close examination of the history of weapons policy in the United States with a particular focus on Virginia shows that public disarmament campaigns are often founded in racism or race-based policy with a series of human rights abuses that follow closely behind. This pattern has changed over time with less focus on race and more focus on economics, however, because of the economic state of racial groups in the United States, minority groups are still targeted at a much higher ratio. Racism is and has been the driving force behind gun control in the United States, and minority communities would do well to be cautious anytime government steps in to restrain their right to bear arms.

Dr. Charles Cooper, PhD

[email protected]

Works Cited

  1. Cherokee Museum, “Trail of Tears”, The Story of the Cherokee People. https://www.cherokeemuseum.org/archives/era/trail-of-tears?gclid=Cj0KCQiAuefvBRDXARIsAFEOQ9FzHKmkBhdzuVW4uE8mHUuZ3bQecFOY4JLJdEXdqXTCWzHS3xmalJEaAjAsEALw_wcB
  2. Clark, Bruce A. (1995), Sample Slave Codes, Black Codes, Economic-Based Gun Bans Used To Prevent The Arming Of African Americans, 1640-1995, http://www.old-yankee.com/rkba/racial_laws.html,
  3. Colonial Williamsburg (2019), Slavery and the Law in Virginia, https://www.history.org/history/teaching/slavelaw.cfm,
  4. Cramer, Clayton E. (1993), The Racist Roots of Gun Control, (https://www.firearmsandliberty.com/cramer.racism.html)
  5. History.com Editors (Apr 14, 2010). Black Civil War Soldiers. https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/black-civil-war-soldiers
  6. Mummolo, Jonathan (11 Sep, 2018), Militarization fails to enhance police safety or reduce crime but may harm police reputation, National Academy of Sciences, https://www.pnas.org/content/115/37/9181
  7. National Archives (2017), “Japanese Relocation During World War II,” National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/japanese-relocation
  8. National Park Service (2017). John Brown’s Raiders at Harpers Ferry. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/john-browns-raiders.htm
  9. Police Shootings Database (2019) . Washington Post . https://www.washingtonpost.com/
  10. (E. D. Va. Dec. 3, 1990) Richmond Tenants Org. v. Richmond Dev. & House. Auth., No. C. A. 3:90CV00576
  11. Riley, Angela R. (2012), Indians and Guns, The Georgetown Law Review, Vol 100, pg. 1675, Indians and Guns – Angela R. Riley

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