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Gun Rights: From the Black Panthers to the NRA


Just as misplaced debates about civilian gun control were emerging in the wake of the massacre in Aurora, a billboard was raised in Idaho by a libertarian organization placing the face of the Aurora shooting suspect beside that of President Obama. The text surrounding James Holmes’s reads: “KILLS 12 IN A MOVIE THEATER WITH AN ASSAULT RIFLE. EVERYONE FREAKS OUT.” The text surrounding Obama’s reads: “KILLS THOUSANDS WITH HIS FOREIGN POLICY. WINS NOBEL PEACE PRIZE.”

The reaction of the Village Voice—“extremely offensive,” one headline states—to the billboard is exemplary of the chronic softness of liberalism on issues of war. In the media overall, this softness has led to the current emphasis on civilian gun control, which is an emphasis that is now actively removing the spotlight from the violence of the state while increasing fear of the general public. Surely the Village Voice that hosted the late, great Alexander Cockburn would never have so unforgivably favored etiquette over truth.

Roger Ebert’s New York Times op-ed piece promoting civilian gun control pulls the same trick, expressing nothing short of absolute horror at the idea of firearms “in public hands.” A few lines down from there, Ebert strikes an especially gross note by telling a gun owner it would be better for him to move than to own a gun—as if the transition to safer neighborhoods were an option to which everybody has easy access.

The comparison to Obama is important to make. If Americans want to ask about violence in their society every time a shooting like the one in Aurora occurs, they must be prepared to take a principled stand regarding violence. And that means actual violence, not violence as it is staged in films. It is useful to consider individual violence in relation to state violence (whether perpetrated by drones in Pakistan or police officers in Anaheim). That is, if one overlooks, or is indifferent towards, or drafts apologia for the latter—the worse offender by leagues and leaps—one might not be in the best position to lament or even meaningfully analyze the latter.

It is clear that Americans are anti-war. It is not at this stage clear that that stance has anything to do with the violence war wreaks upon foreign civilian populations. Nor is it clear that Americans are at this stage prepared to form a mass movement against war. Billboards such as the one in Idaho certainly make for a start in the kind of awareness-spreading necessary for a mass movement.

Admittedly, the discussion of civilian gun control is difficult to have, because prominent articles like Ebert’s don’t mention specifics. All we get are loose clichés about how our gun laws are insane. But it’s still safe to say that focusing on this issue misses the point. Mother Jones magazine is now predictably obsessing over civilian gun laws, but it did publish a good article in the aftermath of the weak sentencing of Oscar Grant’s policeman killer, titled “Mehserle’s Sentence in Perspective.” The article specifically posited the harshness of civilian gun control laws as absurd in contrast to the sentence that was handed to Johannes Mehserle, the man in blue who put a bullet in a handcuffed man’s back.

It is true that the argument made by the NRA about guns being a safeguard against tyranny is mostly rhetorical—but that’s only because that U.S. government has so many weapons, and has expressed such a profound willingness to employ them, that the general public would never fare anything close to favorably in a showdown. Somehow, this reality fails to make me feel more comfortable about the idea of civilian gun control.

I’ve met many liberals who like to parade their virtue by spending countless minutes condemning (in the same fashion that Hillary Clinton, professional condemner of Syria and Iran, condemns), say, the Ron Paul Newsletters from the 1990’s. Then they will, at a later date, advocate something like gun control, never worrying that the entity to be tasked with the controlling–with kicking off a “War on Guns,” so to speak–is essentially the very entity tasked with the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

Of course, these kinds of wars tend to go over better for some groups than others. The gun control movement in North America preceded the founding of the United States; its express purpose was to keep guns out of the hands of blacks potentially interested in using firearms to defend themselves. When the movement did develop in the U.S., it followed in exactly that tradition, especially when slaves like Nat Turner decided that slavery just wasn’t going to do anymore and proceeded to lay bloody waste to slave masters. [I]

The modern day gun rights movement was not pioneered by the NRA—although I admit it wouldn’t matter to me if it had been—but by the Black Panthers, whose co-founder, Huey Newton, found genuine protective value in the Second Amendment at a street-level moment when some cops would likely not have otherwise hesitated to beat him to death. [II]

The formula for gun control seems pretty obvious to me. Less guns for the people who are most likely to need them, more guns for cops and soldiers and those sympathetic to them. This doesn’t help.


[I] Clayton E. Cramer. “The Racist Roots of Gun Control.” (1995)

[II] Adam Winkler. “The Secret History of Guns.”  (2011)

Patrick Higgins is a writer and activist. His e-mail is

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