The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America

The SecondThe proliferation of racism and of guns are two of the things that I find most worrying about U.S. culture today, so when I saw that Carol Anderson, one of my favorite writers about race in America, had written a book about the Second Amendment, I pre-ordered it immediately and read it almost as soon as it arrived. (It’s short — only 168 pages of text, so it didn’t take long.)

Anderson makes the case that U.S. gun culture, including the second amendment, has largely served the purpose of oppressing Black people. And when Black Americans seek to assert their rights to bear arms under the Second Amendment, they are treated not as citizens seeking liberty but as threats. She was inspired to write the book in part by the killing of Philando Castile, who was pulled over by police and then shot after he let them know that he had a concealed carry permit and was carrying a gun. Even though he was following all legal requirements for his gun and the advice of the National Rifle Association, the cop saw him as threat and killed him in his car with his fiancee watching.

A great deal of Anderson’s book discusses how the right to bear arms supposedly guaranteed by the Second Amendment has never and still does not apply to Black Americans. They have at times been explicitly denied the right to carry guns, both before and after emancipation from slavery. She tells story of whites refusing to accept and obey Black militias, the way gun control became more popular when the Black Panthers began openly carrying, and how remaining unarmed has made Black communities vulnerable, whether by preventing the (many, many, many) slave revolts from succeeding prior to the Civil War or by allowing them to be taken from their homes and lynched for no reason at all. 

This argument, of course, isn’t particularly anti-gun or pro-gun-control. Anderson notes, however, that the pro-gun community hasn’t taken much interest in ensuring Black people are able to exercise their rights, which is telling when it comes to their motivations. As is the history of the 2A itself, which I found fascinating. In discussions of gun laws, there’s a lot of talk about the “well-regulated militia” clause of the amendment, even (perhaps especially) among gun control advocates, but what were the militias for exactly? Anderson makes the case that they weren’t at the time especially effective at large-scale efforts like resisting invaders. What they were good at was putting down slave revolts, and the Southern slave-holding founders were very worried about slave revolts. Another worry? A big federal government. So the well-regulated militia is about protection from Black people and the government. 

And that is the fatal flaw at the heart of the Second Amendment. 

I don’t know that Anderson makes a perfect case, particularly since the way the 2A is understood and applied today has evolved considerably (which she talks about). So much of the history she talks about is new to me, and I’ll need time to chew it over to decide how much of it makes sense as an argument against the Second Amendment. But I think it is important to recognize the ways the founding documents, which we treat as sacrosanct, were developed by messy people, making messy and wrong-headed choices, with a mix of lofty, ambiguous, and downright evil motives. Only then can we extract the good parts from the bad. Anderson’s book adds some important context for any discussions about these issues.

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