But We Need to Protect Ourselves | Opinion
by Jason Nichols , senior lecturer in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland College Park
Gun ownership by African Americans has been steadily rising in recent years. Black gun ownership rose by 58 percent in 2020 alone. The trend has been fueled by a mistrust in law enforcement’s ability or desire to protect us and a spike in hate crimes. Since the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, white nationalist groups have been emboldened, holding public displays of their numbers and even their willingness to engage in violent acts.
And it’s these Americans who the Left, eager to enact stricter gun control laws, must not forget. After all, gun control has historically been used as a tool to disarm Black people, leaving them more vulnerable to acts of terror. And in our search for better gun laws, we must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
The truth is, despite what many want you to believe, being pro-gun ownership and pro-gun regulation are not mutually exclusive. Most reasonable Americans, including many gun owners, believe in firearm regulations like expanded background checks, red flag laws, and limitations on the capacity of a magazine. But all too many are seeking extreme measures outside of this mainstream—even total disarmament.
One of the most understated facts about African American freedom and safety is that some of it was won by Black men and women being willing to take up arms. An estimated 190,000-200,000 Black men volunteered to fight in the Civil War for the cause of freedom and self-determination. Black people have had to protect their communities from terrorism with guns many times; think of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, an organized Black militia that had several violent run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan.
Even some of those who believed non-violent resistance was the best way to address discrimination and deal with abusive law enforcement still armed themselves to protect against racist vigilantes.
Fanny Lou Hamer claimed to have several loaded guns in her home for protection. Dr. King applied for a conceal carry license after his home was bombed. Armed supporters stood guard around his house in Alabama due to the threats he received; the King’s home was described as “an arsenal.”
The earliest gun regulations on what would become U.S. soil were enacted in Virginia in 1640 to prohibit Blacks, “mulattoes,” and indigenous people from owning guns—whether they were free or in some form of bondage. Meanwhile, in 1792 white men were actually required to own guns for service in the militia. As historian Carol Anderson has pointed out, the Second Amendment was actually crafted so that slaveholders could swiftly put down rebellions by the enslaved.
Most Americans are familiar with the infamous Black Codes, which were largely used to limit Black civic participation and voting rights. What is often left out of the discussion is that several of those provisions banned Black gun possession. A major mission of the early Ku Klux Klan was to take guns out of Black communities.
At a time when anti-Black hate crimes are on the rise, progressive minded people should avoid calling for the total disarmament of our communities. Hate crimes against African Americans rose from 1,972 in 2019 to 2,755 in 2020, representing the largest increase of any demographic. 2020 saw the most hate crimes perpetrated against Black people since 2008.
These attacks do not seem to be disappearing; attempts at countering internet radicalization from disinformation have been met with strong resistance from the Right. Not only have we witnessed the mass murder of Black Americans in Buffalo, but we’ve seen the group Patriot Front arrested for conspiring to start a riot. Though they were headed to an LGBTQ pride event, one of Patriot Front’s stated objectives is the creation of a white ethnostate.
After events like the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in Charlottesville and the callous murder of George Floyd by law enforcement, many African Americans have come to the conclusion that they must be prepared to protect themselves and their loved ones from threats and cannot leave their wellbeing fully in the hands of police.
Historically, we have disarmed the communities who needed protection and allowed terrorists to have weapons. It is imperative that we take away guns from the right people this time. Law abiding Black Americans have always had the moral right to protect their homes, families, and communities. Let’s not take away their legal right to do so.
Dr. Jason Nichols is a senior lecturer in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland College Park and was the longtime editor-in-chief of Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture. He is the cohost of the “Vince and Jason Save the Nation” podcast.