The Secret History of Guns

The Ku Klux Klan, Ronald Reagan, and, for most of its history, the NRA all worked to control guns. The Founding Fathers? They required gun ownership—and regulated it. And no group has more fiercely advocated the right to bear loaded weapons in public than the Black Panthers—the true pioneers of the modern pro-gun movement. In the battle over gun rights in America, both sides have distorted history and the law, and there’s no resolution in sight.
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Joseph Durning/Durning 3D

The eighth-grade students gathering on the west lawn of the state capitol in Sacramento were planning to lunch on fried chicken with California’s new governor, Ronald Reagan, and then tour the granite building constructed a century earlier to resemble the nation’s Capitol. But the festivities were interrupted by the arrival of 30 young black men and women carrying .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols.

The 24 men and six women climbed the capitol steps, and one man, Bobby Seale, began to read from a prepared statement. “The American people in general and the black people in particular,” he announced, must

take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.

Seale then turned to the others. “All right, brothers, come on. We’re going inside.” He opened the door, and the radicals walked straight into the state’s most important government building, loaded guns in hand. No metal detectors stood in their way.

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Debating the Second Amendment

From satires to investigative reports, four decades of Atlantic authors weigh in on gun control

It was May 2, 1967, and the Black Panthers’ invasion of the California statehouse launched the modern gun-rights movement.

The text of the Second Amendment is maddeningly ambiguous. It merely says, “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.” Yet to each side in the gun debate, those words are absolutely clear.

Gun-rights supporters believe the amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms and outlaws most gun control. Hard-line gun-rights advocates portray even modest gun laws as infringements on that right and oppose widely popular proposals—such as background checks for all gun purchasers—on the ground that any gun-control measure, no matter how seemingly reasonable, puts us on the slippery slope toward total civilian disarmament.

This attitude was displayed on the side of the National Rifle Association’s former headquarters: THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED. The first clause of the Second Amendment, the part about “a well regulated Militia,” was conveniently omitted. To the gun lobby, the Second Amendment is all rights and no regulation.

Although decades of electoral defeats have moderated the gun-control movement’s stated goals, advocates still deny that individual Americans have any constitutional right to own guns. The Second Amendment, in their view, protects only state militias. Too politically weak to force disarmament on the nation, gun-control hard-liners support any new law that has a chance to be enacted, however unlikely that law is to reduce gun violence. For them, the Second Amendment is all regulation and no rights.

While the two sides disagree on the meaning of the Second Amendment, they share a similar view of the right to bear arms: both see such a right as fundamentally inconsistent with gun control, and believe we must choose one or the other. Gun rights and gun control, however, have lived together since the birth of the country. Americans have always had the right to keep and bear arms as a matter of state constitutional law. Today, 43 of the 50 state constitutions clearly protect an individual’s right to own guns, apart from militia service.

Yet we’ve also always had gun control. The Founding Fathers instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them. While they did not care to completely disarm the citizenry, the founding generation denied gun ownership to many people: not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution.

For those men who were allowed to own guns, the Founders had their own version of the “individual mandate” that has proved so controversial in President Obama’s health-care-reform law: they required the purchase of guns. A 1792 federal law mandated every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters—where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls.

Opposition to gun control was what drove the black militants to visit the California capitol with loaded weapons in hand. The Black Panther Party had been formed six months earlier, in Oakland, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Like many young African Americans, Newton and Seale were frustrated with the failed promise of the civil-rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were legal landmarks, but they had yet to deliver equal opportunity. In Newton and Seale’s view, the only tangible outcome of the civil-rights movement had been more violence and oppression, much of it committed by the very entity meant to protect and serve the public: the police.

Inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X, Newton and Seale decided to fight back. Before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X had preached against Martin Luther King Jr.’s brand of nonviolent resistance. Because the government was “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property” of blacks, he said, they had to defend themselves “by whatever means necessary.” Malcolm X illustrated the idea for Ebony magazine by posing for photographs in suit and tie, peering out a window with an M-1 carbine semiautomatic in hand. Malcolm X and the Panthers described their right to use guns in self-defense in constitutional terms. “Article number two of the constitutional amendments,” Malcolm X argued, “provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.”

Guns became central to the Panthers’ identity, as they taught their early recruits that “the gun is the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation.” They bought some of their first guns with earnings from selling copies of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book to students at the University of California at Berkeley. In time, the Panther arsenal included machine guns; an assortment of rifles, handguns, explosives, and grenade launchers; and “boxes and boxes of ammunition,” recalled Elaine Brown, one of the party’s first female members, in her 1992 memoir. Some of this matériel came from the federal government: one member claimed he had connections at Camp Pendleton, in Southern California, who would sell the Panthers anything for the right price. One Panther bragged that, if they wanted, they could have bought an M48 tank and driven it right up the freeway.

Along with providing classes on black nationalism and socialism, Newton made sure recruits learned how to clean, handle, and shoot guns. Their instructors were sympathetic black veterans, recently home from Vietnam. For their “righteous revolutionary struggle,” the Panthers were trained, as well as armed, however indirectly, by the U.S. government.

Civil-rights activists, even those committed to nonviolent resistance, had long appreciated the value of guns for self-protection. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in 1956, after his house was bombed. His application was denied, but from then on, armed supporters guarded his home. One adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as “an arsenal.” William Worthy, a black reporter who covered the civil-rights movement, almost sat on a loaded gun in a living-room armchair during a visit to King’s parsonage.

The Panthers, however, took it to an extreme, carrying their guns in public, displaying them for everyone—especially the police—to see. Newton had discovered, during classes at San Francisco Law School, that California law allowed people to carry guns in public so long as they were visible, and not pointed at anyone in a threatening way.

In February of 1967, Oakland police officers stopped a car carrying Newton, Seale, and several other Panthers with rifles and handguns. When one officer asked to see one of the guns, Newton refused. “I don’t have to give you anything but my identification, name, and address,” he insisted. This, too, he had learned in law school.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?” an officer responded.

“Who in the hell do you think you are?,” Newton replied indignantly. He told the officer that he and his friends had a legal right to have their firearms.

Newton got out of the car, still holding his rifle.

“What are you going to do with that gun?” asked one of the stunned policemen.

“What are you going to do with your gun?,” Newton replied.

By this time, the scene had drawn a crowd of onlookers. An officer told the bystanders to move on, but Newton shouted at them to stay. California law, he yelled, gave civilians a right to observe a police officer making an arrest, so long as they didn’t interfere. Newton played it up for the crowd. In a loud voice, he told the police officers, “If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.” Although normally a black man with Newton’s attitude would quickly find himself handcuffed in the back of a police car, enough people had gathered on the street to discourage the officers from doing anything rash. Because they hadn’t committed any crime, the Panthers were allowed to go on their way.

The people who’d witnessed the scene were dumbstruck. Not even Bobby Seale could believe it. Right then, he said, he knew that Newton was the “baddest motherfucker in the world.” Newton’s message was clear: “The gun is where it’s at and about and in.” After the February incident, the Panthers began a regular practice of policing the police. Thanks to an army of new recruits inspired to join up when they heard about Newton’s bravado, groups of armed Panthers would drive around following police cars. When the police stopped a black person, the Panthers would stand off to the side and shout out legal advice.

Don Mulford, a conservative Republican state assemblyman from Alameda County, which includes Oakland, was determined to end the Panthers’ police patrols. To disarm the Panthers, he proposed a law that would prohibit the carrying of a loaded weapon in any California city. When Newton found out about this, he told Seale, “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to the Capitol.” Seale was incredulous. “The Capitol?” Newton explained: “Mulford’s there, and they’re trying to pass a law against our guns, and we’re going to the Capitol steps.” Newton’s plan was to take a select group of Panthers “loaded down to the gills,” to send a message to California lawmakers about the group’s opposition to any new gun control.

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