Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I Thought That Sounded Familiar

To me, the most fun thing about studying history is that far from being an esoteric study of things that happened in the past, it's usually pretty illuminating in regards to current events. Often something that doesn't make much sense on its cover becomes much more clear when looking at its historical antecedents.

Take, for example, the current debate regarding gun control. Or, more specifically, the argument from the pro-gun side regarding the second amendment and the federal government's ability (or lack thereof) to enact restrictions on the ability to own firearms.

Folks who are very pro-gun will often make some sort of argument about how the Second Amendment guarantees their right to possess more-or-less any gun they see fit. Often, gun control advocates will respond that the pro-gun folks aren't really so concerned about constitutional issues as they are afraid that scary black or brown people are going to steal all their stuff and sex up their women. More and more, in following these discussions, I've noticed the pro-gun side responding that it has nothing to do with race or irrational fears of super predators, but instead is much more about the role of the federal government vis-a-vis individual rights and the rights of states to enact their own regulations (or again, lack thereof).

As I've heard and read more and more people making this type of argument, it began to sound really familiar to me. Oh no, no. This is about race or my desire to own as many weapons as a small dictatorship, it's about an over-reaching federal government that is trying to take away my rights and the rights of local government. This argument sounds suspiciously similar to one that was used about 150 or so years ago by people of a particular region to argue in defense of a peculiar institution.

In fact, it's still used by apologists today. Oh no, no. The civil war wasn't about slavery per se, that just happened to be the issue at hand. It was really about people fed up with an over-reaching federal government that was intent on taking away their individual rights (to own people as property) and subverting the rights of states to make their own laws (regarding the owning of people as property).

Of course, the parentheticals aren't actually spoken; they're just helpful reminders I inserted to help us remember that the individual and states rights being argued over centered on whether a person was allowed to legally own another person as property. You see, for many of us, that's kind of hard issue to gloss over; as much as there may have genuinely been fears of over-reaching federal power, it was obviously much more about the fear that the federal government might take away the ability to subjugate black people and might even (gasp!) force through their legal equality.

But ok, says the skeptic, you can draw those parallels, but that doesn't make gun advocates racists. Well, no, not in and of itself it doesn't. But when you look at the history of how the Second Amendment came to be, and in particular why it took on the specific language it did, the parallel becomes much harder to ignore.

Originally, the Second Amendment spoke of a well-regulated militia being necessary for a free country. But this irked Southern law makers, who were afraid that the federal government asserting control over all forms of State armed forces (state in the larger sense of political body, not state in the sense of the 50 we have), would mean the federal government would be in charge of slave patrols, the public forces charged with enforcing the hideous slave codes (who also, fun fact, after emancipation were directly converted into police forces in many places. That's how most Southern police departments were formed. And we wonder why there continues to be racial imbalances in our criminal justice system....).

So the amendment was re-written to focus on the right of states to keep a well-regulated militia. Read the linked article for the full history, but it basically all boils down to slavery; Southerners in most places were well outnumbered by slaves, and knew full well the only thing keeping them from being slaughtered in an uprising was their superiority of arms. If the federal government limited their ability to stockpile arms, there was little to nothing to stop the slave population from, you know, taking some practical steps to no longer be human property.

And there we come full circle; the very origins of the Second Amendment were white people being afraid that black people might attack them, given how shitty white people were treating black people. And now, white people vociferously argue for their gun rights, because they're afraid the black people they still don't treat very well might take the opportunity of white people being unarmed to take some practical steps to no longer be second class citizens.

Think about it -- when white people die from gun violence, the solution from the NRA and other extremely pro-gun people is that we should arm ourselves to protect ourselves (if they'd only have had guns in Sandy Hook elementary!). But when black people die from gun violence, there's nary a peep. As a popular twitter post put it, I don't recall gun advocates saying young black men should arm themselves in response to the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Because when the NRA and its ilk speak of guns for everyone, they don't actually mean guns for everyone. They mean guns for white people, just like their forefathers did when they wrote the Second Amendment.


revdj said...

Modern day Confederate apologists like to quote Robert E. Lee. They tend not to quote the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens.

The prevailing ideas entertained by [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically ... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Andrea said...

Awesome blog. That is all.

jfwozniak said...

The fact that the constitution allowed slavery shows our founders compromised when necessary to allow the country to be formed. As you show, the second amendment was another compromise. It took the Civil War to "fix" slavery. Perhaps the increasing number of shootings will provide the motivation to "fix" the second amendment. One could only hope so.

Elizabeth Green said...
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