Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. 2020 saw record high gun sales in the United States, firearm purchases peak after the start of state lockdowns in March, and then again, during the summer's racial justice uprisings. The pace appears to be continuing this year with January 2021 gun sales, reaching the third-highest recorded one month total. While the face of the gun rights movement tends to be white conservatives, Black Americans are also contributing to the recent gun industry boom.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, gun sales by Black men and women rose 58% in the first half of 2020, compared to the first half of 2019. The choice that some Black Americans are making to arm themselves is part of a long, complicated history that our next guest has studied closely. Gerald Horne is a Professor of History and African-American Studies at the University of Houston. Gerald, thanks for joining us.
Gerald Horne: Thank you for inviting me.
Tanzina: Let's take it way back to the 1700s when white colonists created the Second Amendment. How did their views on Black and Indigenous people factor into that?
Gerald: There was a real fear that the major challenge to security would be a slave insurrection coupled with a foreign invasion and/or an Indian uprising. You saw a glimpse of that during the war of 1812. Recall that the last time the capital was invaded a la January 6th 2021 was in August 1814 when British Redcoats invaded the Capitol sending James Madison and his spouse Dolley fleeing into the streets. They were joined, that is to say, the red coats were joined by enslaved Africans who then fled on British boats to Trinidad and Tobago at British possessions, where their descendants continued to reside.
This was not necessarily unique nor unusual during the early history of the United States of America, nor the colonial period for that matter.
Tanzina: Gerald, it's often noted that Harriet Tubman carried a gun for self-defense. What role did firearms play in slave rebellions and the abolitionist movement?
Gerald: It played a role during the Nat Turner revolt of 1831 in Virginia, but keep in mind that the Second Amendment to the US Constitution now considered to be hallowed language did not apply to the enslaved population, nor did it apply to the Indigenous population.
In fact, a strategic objective of the settlers was to keep arms out of the hands of the Black population and the Indian population. However, after slavery was abolished, post-1865, a strategic objective of the Ku Klux Klan and those who backed them was likewise to keep arms out of the hands of Black people, who then had the right to vote, at least for a limited period of time.
Tanzina: Let's fast forward a little bit to the gun ownership issue and how it played out in post-slavery era, particularly when we're talking about the lead-up to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Gerald: Keep in mind that the anti-lynch crusader, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a famed journalist in the post-Civil War era, counseled the Black people to protect themselves from lynching should have rifles. W. E. B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, in 1909, counseled likewise. A rather important event took place in Houston, Texas, August 1917, when Black soldiers, who were about to be dispatched south of the border into rebellious and revolutionary Mexico, objected to Jim Crow here in Houston and shot up the town. That led to even more searching critiques of why Black men, in particular, should be allowed to be armed, even if they were operating within the confines of the US military.
Tanzina: Gerald, up until this point, a lot of what you're describing is a history of, and I've reported on this myself, a history of Black gun ownership that goes underreported, particularly in our schools. Why is that?
Gerald: I think it's a very sensitive issue. As you know, more than most, since you've reported on it, that even the National Rifle Association, which considers the Second Amendment to be [unintelligible 00:04:33], oftentimes wilts when it comes to protecting the Second Amendment rights of Black Americans.
I'm sure you recall the case a few years ago, Philando Castile in Minnesota, when he was shot, on Facebook Live, as he was telling an officer, "Officer, I have a weapon in my glove compartment," and that tended to freak out the officer who proceeded to kill him on the spot as his partner and her daughter were watching. I think that that particular episode illustrates the nervousness that comes into play when the idea of Black Americans with arms comes into play.
Tanzina: One of the visuals that I think many Americans are more familiar with are the Black Panthers and their relationship with firearms. We see a lot of folks. We've been talking about how the insurrection has really shown how white Americans are treated, who are protesting and do and really just insurrecting the Capitol. If that had been Black or brown people, the reaction would have been much different. We also see many images of white Americans militia members walking around openly with firearms, large firearm strapped to themselves.
Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people, is one of the people I think about who also had a firearm. We don't see Black and brown people afforded that same type of luxury, and the Black Panthers were no different. Is that right?
Gerald: That is correct. Recall that it was the 1960s and the California State Capitol Sacramento consonant with the law, the Black Panthers that entered the legislative chambers are. This outraged and infuriated the then Governor Reagan. It also did not necessarily cause, once again, the National Rifle Association to rally to their support and defend their Second Amendment rights.
Once again, I think that it was appropriate for us to begin with slavery, because we need to realize that there has been enslavement of Africans on North American soil much longer than non-enslavement. When you talk about enslavement of Africans, you talk about fear that this bonded population would rise up and that leads to a certain kind of nervousness and insecurity about this population across the board, not least when they have weapons in their hands.
Tanzina: What do we think is leading to the spike in gun sales that we've seen among Black men and women in particular, this past year?
Gerald: I think people are reading the newspapers and listening to programs like yours. What I mean is, you see all these headlines about white supremacists infiltrating police departments, infiltrating the US military. In fact, the US military is about to already has undergone a pause led by the newly appointed Chief of the Pentagon, General Lloyd Austin to deal with white extremists within their ranks.
If you feel that the police department will not necessarily protect you, then you feel that you must protect yourself. Certainly, that's the lesson I would imagine that the family of Philando Castile is seeking to digest, not to mention the lesson that the family of the late Botham Jean has digested. Recall that a few years ago, in Dallas, a police department officer mistakenly entered his apartment and shot him because she thought that he had invaded her apartment. She was a nearby neighbor. All of these stories and headlines enthuses a certain kind of insecurity that leads to buying of weapons.
Tanzina: Gerald Horne is a Professor of History and African-American Studies at the University of Houston. Thanks so much, Gerald.
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