What would Reagan and the Black Panther Party think of gun control?

Gun ownership for the Black Panthers meant protecting their families, but would they still support gun control today? Photo: AP

NEW YORK, July 23, 2013 — In the wake of shootings at Newtown and Aurora, Vice President Biden was appointed to lead a special gun-violence task force to address rising gun-related deaths. Subsequently, the National Rifle Association immediately acknowledged its strong opposition against the President’s war against guns in America, recognizing its impact on the Second Amendment and public safety concerns.

Today the NRA is known for taking strong political stances against even the most modest gun control legislation, but this was not always the case. The NRA at one time supported a ban on assault weapons, gun ownership, until the organizations re-positioning efforts in the late 1960’s following the demands of the Black Panther Party advocating for the right to bear arms, with respect to protecting themselves. What’s interesting is that Black Panther leader Huey Newton was the founding father of the gun rights movement in the U.S., which later became a dominated by Southern rural conservatives.

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After 1868, former slaves in America were barred from owning guns for fear that they would retaliate and fight back against their oppressors. In contrast, the founding fathers allowed non-union loyalists who refused to support the revolution to own firearms. Post-Civil War gun laws were created to disenfranchise blacks in America and assure that only their oppressors owned guns and remained in full control. The ban on black ownership of firearms was a direct means to keep minorities from protecting themselves.

Leaders in the Civil Rights movement, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, viewed gun ownership as a means to uphold their constitutional rights as Americans, especially those in the Southern states. King, who received death threats every day, applied for a concealed carry permit and was denied because local Alabama police had complete discretion to decide who would get permits. Despite his status as a man of the cloth, the countless threats agasint him, and the bombing of his home, King was refused a concealed carry permit.

In the 1960s, the NRA supported gun control. This was partly in response to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and the violent riots that soon followed in the nation’s urban centers. At this time, the NRA and conservative elected officials directly supported a ban on assault weapons in order to maintain order and keep firearms out of the hands of activist groups, such as communist organizations and the Black Panther Party.

The Black Panthers adopted a militant and legal approach to resolving discrimination against blacks, under the leadership of Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Fred Hampton. Gun ownership for the Black Panthers was just another way to protect their families from local and police brutality, no different in their eyes from social programs, pro bono legal consultation and midnight patrols.

In May, 1967, 29 members of the Black Panthers marched on the California Capitol in Sacramento, armed with rifles and assault weapons, to protest against the Mulford Act, a law that prohibited carrying loaded firearms in public. It was signed by then California Governor and future President Ronald Reagan. It’s ironic that Reagan, a supporter of gun rights as president, signed legislation that directly disarmed the Panthers during a time of racial tension in the State of California.

The NRA soon shifted its focus to fighting for gun rights, putting it on the same side of the issue as black civil rights organizations, even if their motivations were different. Once the FBI’s “Cointelpro” operation destroyed the Black Panther Party’s operation nationally, the NRA realized that the federal government might soon wage war against firearm and assault weapon ownership entirely. They strategically allied themselves with Southern voters, encouraging them to advocate on behalf of the Second Amendment and inflaming their distrust of the federal government.

Ronald Reagan changed his political stance on guns when he ran for president in 1979. At this point, no Republican would win the presidency without the South, and no one would win the South who favored gun control.

A black Conservative who values the Second Amendment can understand why Reagan did what he did to calm the violence in California, but nonetheless, we the people need to unite against tyranny, no matter what color its face is. Preventing people from exercising their right to protect themselves against harm or the government is tyrannical and should be stopped, no matter who does it.

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