The gun control debate is a hot-button issue with the presidential debate fast approaching, as well as the regular occurrence of mass shootings in the U.S., yet few actually know the sordid history of open carry laws.
You might be surprised to know that up until about 50 years ago, open carry laws were standard in nearly every state. That is, until the Black Panthers responded to racial violence by arming themselves and patrolling the streets in order to curb police brutality and ensure the safety of their friends, family, and neighbors.
It all started in the middle of the civil rights movement in 1964 when Malcolm X said in his infamous “By Any Means Necessary” speech that, because the government was “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property” of African Americans, it was then well within their right to “protect themselves by whatever means necessary.”
Using the Second Amendment to his advantage, Malcolm X argued his point fervently.
“The Constitution of the United States of America clearly affirms the right of every American citizen to bear arms. And as Americans, we will not give up a single right guaranteed under the Constitution. The history of unpunished violence against our people clearly indicates that we must be prepared to defend ourselves or we will continue to be a defenseless people at the mercy of a ruthless and violent racist mob … We assert that in those areas where the government is either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property of our people, that our people are within our rights to protect themselves by whatever means necessary.”
To illustrate this notion, Malcolm X even went so far as to pose for Ebony magazine with an M-1 Carbine while peering out the window, neatly dressed in a suit and tie.
Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the co-founders of the Black Panther party in 1966, were greatly inspired by Malcolm X’s speech and took it upon themselves to take up arms while encouraging other party members to follow suit. They then took to the streets, patrolling the area in order to “police the police.”
The rising number of armed African American men sent white communities into a panic, causing many conservative republicans, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), to change their stance on gun control.
With help from the white-male dominated NRA, as well as pressure from white communities, the Mulford Act was passed in California in 1967, repealing the law that allowed public carrying of a loaded firearm.
Gov. Ronald Reagan, arguably a “patron saint” of modern conservatism, told Californian reporters that he saw "no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons,” adding that the Mulford Act would “work no hardship on the honest citizen.”
It’s important to reference the entire context of the Second Amendment when looking at the history of gun control. The Second Amendment states that, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
As masterfully pointed out in a clever segment by MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, “the Black Panthers may not have been exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote ‘a well-regulated Militia,’ but that’s exactly what they were.”
This group armed themselves to defend their brothers and sisters from a government which not only ignored their pleas for protection and equality, but actively worked against them in incredibly violent ways. How else could they be expected to protect themselves and other law-abiding citizens than with force, as the Second Amendment intended?
The irony of it all cannot be lost on anyone. Pro-gun activists — generally angry white guys, let’s be honest — are actually fighting against what the predominantly white-male NRA started nearly 50 years ago in order to protect citizens from these “dangerous” party members.
Now they’ve switched their stance again, making a mockery of the Second Amendment argument by completely dismissing the history of this complex debate and never once mentioning the first part of the Second Amendment: “a well-regulated Militia.”
The present-day arguments for lax gun controls never surround the powerful and critical arguments that Malcolm X and the Black Panthers brought to the forefront: where is the line between the government protecting its citizens and citizens protecting themselves from the government? How can we best translate the Second Amendment, ensuring that we are following the path the Founding Fathers intended?
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