Remembering Dr. King's Struggle Against Gun Control

By | January 16, 2012

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Like every year, there will be discussion of his life and achievements. I wish to tell a different story: the story of his struggle against racist gun control laws.

Dr. King, who was a registered Republican, kept guns at home for self-defense. He applied for a permit to carry a handgun, but was denied by authorities in Alabama. Like most states at the time, Alabama had a “may-issue” carry permit system, which allowed authorities to deny a permit for any articulable reason. These gun control laws, in the South, constituted the first Jim Crow laws. As Justice Clarence Thomas noted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Heller decision, the original intent of the 14th Amendment, passed during Reconstruction, was to guarantee First and Second Amendment rights- and the natural right of self-defense- to newly-freed black people. I noted the irony of Herman Cain, a black man who lived during Segregation, making a “states’ rights” argument about gun control antithetical to this cause.

There is another gun control issue which must be raised, in relation to Dr. King. In order to understand it, one must understand the extraordinary lengths black people had to go to in order to acquire firearms in that time period. Few dealers were willing to sell firearms to blacks; among those few were pawnbrokers, who also commonly sold firearms in that time period. Since much of their clientele was black (pawning was generally the only source of credit for blacks back then), pawnbrokers were more amenable to selling guns to them.

For black families who didn’t have access to an agreeable pawn shop dealer, the options for buying guns were very limited: Finding a sympathetic white person to act as a strawman to buy guns for them; pooling money with other families to travel to a gun store in a Northern state; or by mail order.

All of these activities were prohibited by the Gun Control Act of 1968. This act instituted an exceptionally restrictive licensing scheme for gun dealers- a scheme which required a special license to act both as a gun dealer and pawnbroker; it banned the interstate transfer of firearms except between licensed dealers; and it banned mail-order, out-of-state, and straw man purchases.

An historical point must be noted here: The assassination of Dr. King fueled the passage of the ’68 GCA. Let me state that again: Dr. King’s assassination was used as political ammunition to pass a gun control law intended to frustrate black people from buying guns for self-defense.

The history of gun control laws is a history of racism and bigotry. I note that in my home state of New York, the Sullivan Law- named for the megalomaniac mob-boss Timothy “Big Tim” Sullivan, the most corrupt of Tammany Hall Democrats- crafted a law in 1911 to prevent Italians, Jews, and Eastern European immigrants from getting a handgun license. The two years following the passage of the Sullivan Act were as bizarre as the law he crafted: He suffered from tertiary syphilis, was committed to an insane asylum, escaped, and died from being severed in half by a train.

Gun control advocates- mainly Democrats- generally ignore both the bigoted origins of gun control laws, and the bizarre personalities of politicians who endorse them. Let’s remember this today, when we celebrate Dr. King: A registered Republican, a gun owner, a champion of human rights, and a good and decent man who was denied the right to defend himself from a murderer.

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