Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

A (Brief) People’s History of Gun Control


From its very beginning, gun control — the attempt to regulate the possession of means of self-defense by the ordinary populace — has been closely associated with class rule and the class state.

In early modern England, regulation of firearm ownership was closely intertwined with the struggle by the landed classes and capitalist agriculture to restrict the laboring classes’ access to independent subsistence from the land. This included enclosure of common woodland, fen and waste — in which landless and land-poor peasants had previously hunted small game — for sheep pasturage or arable land. It also included exclusion of the common people from forests via the Game Laws and restriction of hunting to the gentry.

Under the slaveocracy of the American south, firearm ownership was prohibited by Black Codes that regulated free blacks. And after Emancipation, whenever the old landed gentry managed to successfully assert its power against the Reconstruction regime, former slaves were disarmed by house-to-house patrols, either under the Black Codes or by such irregular bodies as the Klan.

The same was true of the Civil Rights struggle a century later, after World War II. In areas where armed self-defense efforts by civil rights activists were widespread, they significantly improved the balance of power against the Klan and other racist vigilante movements. Numerous armed self-defense groups — e.g. the Deacons for Defense and Justice, whose members used rifles and shotguns to repel attacks by white vigilantes in Louisiana in the 1960s — helped equalize the correlation of forces between civil rights activists and racists in many small towns throughout the south.

Especially notable was Robert Williams, who in 1957 organized an armed defense of the Monroe, NC NAACP chapter president’s home against a Klan raid and sent the vigilantes fleeing for their lives. Williams’s book Negroes With Guns later inspired Huey Newton, a founder of the Black Panthers Party.

Speaking of the Black Panthers, no discussion of the origins of modern American gun control would be complete without recognizing their role in inspiring the modern right-wing gun control agenda.

Foreshadowing current groups like Copwatch and Cop Block, the Panthers in 1966 organized armed patrols of Oakland streets with rifles and shotguns, stopping to witness police interactions with local residents and provide information and offers of legal assistance when necessary.

In 1967 Republican state assemblyman Don Mulford of Oakland, a vocal enemy of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the Black Panthers, responded with a bill to prohibit publicly carrying firearms in California. The BPP’s Bobby Seale protested the bill by leading a Panther detachment, armed with .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns and .45-caliber pistols, up the steps of the statehouse (“All right, brothers, we’re going inside”), through its doors, and into the public viewing area. There Seale read a statement denouncing Mulford’s bill as an attempt “at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror and repression of black people,” and warning that “the time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.”

Mulford’s gun control bill was signed into law three months later by Governor Ronald Reagan.

Irregular workers’ militias and armed defense formations played a significant role in labor history, both in the US and abroad. During the Copper Wars at the turn of the 20th century, the governors of several Rocky Mountain states instituted martial law — including door-to-door confiscation of firearms from workers’ homes and striker encampments. In some cases, as with the West Virginia Coal Wars and the Homestead strike, workers fought pitched battles against Pinkertons, state militia and sheriffs’ deputies.

In Spain it was largely owing to workers’ militias, organized under the auspices of the CNT trade union federation and the parties of the Left, that Franco’s July 1936 coup attempt failed. In the areas of southern and eastern Spain where Franco’s forces failed to carry the day, workers’ militias often played a decisive role. In some areas armed workers drove Franco’s troops back into their barracks after pitched battles and burned them alive inside.

From its beginnings the state has been an executive committee of the economic ruling class and an instrument of armed force by the owners of the means of production, enabling them to extract surplus labor from the rest of us. I can’t imagine why anyone would expect the state’s gun control policies to display any less of a class character than other areas of policy.

Regardless of the “liberal” or “progressive” rhetoric used to defend gun control, you can safely bet it will come down harder on the cottagers than on the gentry, harder on the workers than on the Pinkertons, and harder on the Black Panthers than on murdering cops.



Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society ( and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017
Ron Jacobs
A Theory of Despair?