When we talk about gun violence and the African-American community, we invariably think of Blacks as victims of gun homicides and assaults, categories in which Blacks are both perpetrators and victims to a degree far beyond their presence in the American population as a whole. And a week doesn’t go by without a meeting or demonstration in one inner-city neighborhood or the other calling for an end to this tragic state of affairs.
Now for the first time we have a statement about gun violence in which the author, a law professor at Fordham University in New York, rejects the notion that there are too many guns in the hands of Blacks, but rather that the guns are in the wrong hands. Not only does Nicholas Johnson issue a call for Blacks to protect themselves against criminal attacks by acquiring and carrying guns, but he writes a long and detailed narrative about how Blacks used guns to defend themselves even while they were denied gun ownership because they were still slaves.
Johnson begins this interesting and largely-unappreciated history with examples of defensive use of guns by Blacks even prior to the Civil War, including a mass resistance in Vicksburg in 1835, as well as multiple instances of Blacks protecting themselves with arms when they attempted to flee from the South. The use of arms for self-protection by Blacks became even more pronounced in the decades following the end of Reconstruction, when Blacks were faced with continuous racial violence committed by the Ku Klux Klan and others intent on rolling back the gains made by African-Americans after the Civil War. The chapters that follow on Blacks and armed protection during the 1950’s and 60’s provide a needed balance to the non-violent approach of Dr. King and others, the prism through which the civil rights movement Is usually viewed.
The intent of the author, however, is not just to widen our understanding of Blacks and guns historically. It is to use this history to mount an argument against what he calls the “modern orthodoxy” to eliminate gun violence by eliminating guns. And since the preponderance of criminal gun violence involves the African-American community, Johnson is convinced that more gun control would leave the Black community even more defenseless and less able to protect its members against crime. Of late the author has received strong support for this argument from the pro-gun lobby and in particular, the NRA. Even though the NRA’s membership is overwhelmingly White (and Southern White to be sure,) the message about guns being “hip” and “cool” is delivered by an African-American, Colion Noir, who jumbles video-game slang together with homilies about the ”right” to self-defense. It’s a blatant and so far unsuccessful attempt to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of non-gun demographics like millennials and Blacks, and Johnson’s argument about the futility of gun control is yet another attempt to justify more gun ownership, albeit from an academic point of view.
Johnson argues that since the only way to end gun violence is to get rid of guns, any plan to eliminate guns from private hands would just drive more guns into the hands of criminals for whom it would now be easier to prey on unarmed, law-abiding folks. Better to give citizens the right and the opportunity to defend themselves, just as Blacks used guns to defend themselves since before they were even able to legally own guns. Except it’s Johnson’s own research, admirably written, which shows that Blacks didn’t use arms to defend themselves from criminals, they used guns principally to assert or protect their political rights. Klansmen who burned crosses on Black properties or burned down Black churches weren’t stealing property; they were trying to keep Blacks in a subservient or unequal political class. That’s hardly the same thing as shooting the robber or rapist who comes through the back door and Johnson should be willing to let the admirable history of the armed struggle for Black rights to stand on its own terms.