The Corner

Gun Owners, Segregationists, and Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper, a “lecturer in political science” at Yale, wrote the following in today’s Huffington Post:

The astonishing “new normal” of heavy gunfire that took hold in Newtown long before last week’s massacre only reinforces the parallel I drew here last week between today’s gun enthusiasts and yesterday’s racial segregationists.

To understand what we’re up against here, understand that many other gun enthusiasts think of themselves this way, too — and that they see their critics as moralists addled by silly delusions about human nature. They alone uphold honor against depravity: Southern segregationists thought their way of life necessary to channel the violence at the bottom of all society toward a safer, more stable order, refined by codes of honor and masterful stewardship of Negroes wise enough to accept their place in it.

Many white Americans outside the South accepted this reasoning’s death-grip on the Congress, where long-serving Southern senators chaired many committees. They dismissed as regrettable but necessary, and, someday perhaps surmountable, the ranters and ravers at the fringes of White Citizens Councils and among unruly poor whites at the fringes of town or in the hollows beyond, and among egregious and sometimes-embarrassing Klansmen at night and sheriffs at noon.

The apologists considered themselves as innocent of all this hatred as today’s gun enthusiasts think themselves innocent of the gun lobby’s death-grip on the Congress and innocent of the depredations and confusions of Jared Loughner, George Zimmerman, Adam Lanza and the rest, not to mention of militias camping out in the hills.

This is what passes for thought among Yale lecturers today, is it? At least Sleeper’s disregard for constitutional originalism is comprehensive:

As we try to free the Second Amendment of interpretations and statutory encrustations as destructive as the Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson decisions, we’ll also have to free First Amendment of jurisprudence that equates the speech of citizens with disembodied corporate marketing’s algorithmically driven desperation to glue our kids’ eyeballs and rewire their guts as it inundates them not with artists’ art, political actors’ appeals, or real reporters’ findings but with endless, empty titillation and intimidation for profit.

It’s something of a tactical mistake for Sleeper to include these Supreme Court cases in his article, because anybody who bothers to look up 1857′s Dred Scott v. Sandford decision will notice right away the court’s awful observation that if slaves were permitted to enjoy full citizenship rights, then they would — shock horror! — enjoy the right “to keep and carry arms wherever they went.” This, the court thought, would be disastrous.

The fear of blacks with guns is not, of course, new. The very first gun-control measures in American history were designed to keep arms out of the hands of blacks and Indians: The Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies both prohibited the sale of guns to Indians in the early seventeenth century, and the “Black Codes” of the mid-eighteenth century required French colonists in Louisiana to disarm and beat “any black carrying any potential weapon.” Many pre-Civil War state constitutions went further, reserving the right to bear arms — which was not, as Sleeper claims, understood as anything other than an individual right — to “freemen,” which, naturally, meant whites. After their damnable cause was lost, the KKK picked up and ran with disarmament as a way of keeping blacks down. As Adam Winkler has observed, “gun control” was “at the very top of its agenda.” The Democratic party’s “Black Codes,” which barred former slaves from owning guns in the (segregated) post-bellum South, were passed for the same purpose.

It is no accident that the first draft of the 1871 Anti-Klan Act contained a provision that made it a federal crime to “deprive any citizen of the United States of any arms or weapons he may have in his house or possession for the defense of his person, family, or property,” for that was exactly what segregationists set out to do. Robert Franklin Williams’s classic work, Negroes with Guns, tells a tale of the KKK’s systematic attempt to disarm black Americans — and of the National Rifle Association’s work in forming a counter-group called the “Black Armed Guard” — as late as the as the 1950s. As Williams points out, it was guns in the hands of his family that saved their lives and allowed them — literally — to fight the KKK and their allies.

Sleeper’s thinking is arse over elbow. It is gun controllers who have historically been analogous to segregationists, and gun owners and defenders of the Second Amendment that have been the enemy of institutionalized racism and segregation — not the other way about. The very purpose of slaveowners and segregationists was to deprive a whole class of people of their unalienable liberties; the very purpose of the NRA is to ensure that all maintain their access to them. Even as recently as 1968, as the anti-gun Robert Sherrill admitted in his book, The Saturday Night Special, gun control measures were a thinly veiled attempt to disarm black people: “The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns to but control blacks, and inasmuch as a majority of Congress did not want to do the former but were ashamed to show that their goal was the latter, the result was that they did neither. Indeed, this law, the first gun-control law passed by Congress in thirty years, was one of the grand jokes of our time.” Jim Sleeper’s profoundly illiterate essay shares the same honor.


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