Even with that caveat, it is a rare thing for me to say. But I agree with the thrust of Ann Coulter’s latest column, and the main argument she has been making in her media appearances about it: Those who fear anti-black racism should favor that blacks arm themselves. Even more important, we should recognize that gun control in this country (as in others) has historically been used to oppress minorities, particularly racial minorities. Laws disarming blacks during slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow marked the first major instances of gun control in this country. And assuming the most racially charged narrative concerning the Trayvon Martin case were true, the answer would indeed not be more gun control, as every liberal has seemed to suggest, but, as Coulter proposes, the opposite: If blacks fear violent attacks from whites, they should protect themselves by their unqualified right to bear arms.
Here is where I think Coulter goes astray. First, her partisanship almost ruins her point. On O’ Reilly she speaks in partisan absolutes:
The history books will often try and twist the history by referring to the KKK and the racists as southerners. Oh no, no the Republicans in the south weren’t discriminatory and by the way some of the Democrats up north were. . . .
Absurd is this idea that there were no Republican racists in the age of Jim Crow, that the problem was only bigoted Democrats in the South and North. It’s true that the South did not monopolize racism in the era, but neither did the Democratic Party. One counterexample is so stark that it should overturn Coulter’s whole argument: The Indiana KKK, under the leadership of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, effectively ran the state Republican Party in the mid-1920s, passing a law in the General Assembly to commemorate a “Klan Day” at the State Fair, ousting Republican Governor Warren T. McCray, who opposed the bill, even having him jailed, and replacing him with Klan member Republican Edward Jackson, who remained governor of Indiana for the rest of the decade.
More specifically, the racial angle in American gun control has not been the exclusive domain of the Democrats, either. In California, now known as one of the most anti-gun states in the union, it was Republicans who first enacted major gun control. Assemblyman Don Mulford’s legislation was signed in 1967 by Governor Ronald Reagan, effectively preventing Californians from freely carrying firearms, and was protested by Black Panthers carrying firearms to the State Capitol in defense of the right to bear arms.
This touches on the other weakness is Coulter’s position. She urges blacks to join the NRA, which I would certainly prefer to them (or anyone else) actively trying to pass more gun control. But the conservative NRA’s approach to firearms regulation does not go far enough, to put it charitably. There is an argument many Republicans make (although Coulter might not be among them) that the government should not enact new laws, but rather enforce the gun laws on the books now.
It is this dynamic that leads to such horrible gun rights records for Republican administrations. Bush’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, along with his active disarming of New Orleans residents in the aftermath of Katrina, rank among the most horrible anti-gun measures of recent memory, whereas Obama, who has been pro-government and anti-liberty on almost every issue, has been anomalously more pro-freedom, arguably, on the Second Amendment, loosening regulations on carrying guns in parks and on Amtrak.
The conservative attempt to enforce the laws on the books is a big part of the problem, as those laws themselves are oppressive. Indeed, the greatest threat to the liberties and safety of private individuals and communities comes from government itself, including its gun laws. In many poor black communities, victims of crime cannot even report their use of firearms to defend themselves, because they fear being locked up by police for having a gun without a license, or triggering a parole violation (often in connection to a victimless crime like a drug conviction) by exercising the right to bear arms. If a gun law is unconstitutional, unjust, and an encroachment on human rights, that it is invalid and does not morally bind anyone—it is indeed an act of tyranny for it to be enforced, which I would say is the case about all gun laws. The very real assault on the right of blacks to keep and bear arms is an ongoing despotic reality, and it is being waged in many cases under the guise of the very law-and-order mentality that all too many conservatives embrace.
Coulter, on the other hand, while not directly attacking this mentality, does not appear to embrace it, and her call for blacks to arm themselves is something we should welcome. It is being taken as somewhat ironic by many conservatives, an attempt to be provocative for its own sake, and it is taken as offensive by liberals, but in her comments, despite their problems, we see the truth: The right to bear arms is primarily about defending the weak against the strong, the minority against the majority, the disenfranchised against the advantaged criminal class, and, ultimately, the people against the state. Empowering the people through gun rights, to protect themselves and their communities, and removing power from the police state are inextricably linked. It is something both left and right should come to learn, and Coulter deserves credit for at least making points outside the normal and highly flawed spectrum.
For more on the racism of gun control, see the Independent Institute’s important book Securing Civil Rights: Freedmen, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Right to Bear Arms by Stephen Halbrook.
Thanks to Lindsay Boyd for alerting me to Coulter’s TV comments.