Gun control’s racist past and present | Gun control

 In U.S.
Gun control is again at the forefront of US public discourse following the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday that left 59 people dead and more than 500 wounded.

Stephen Paddock, 64, had stockpiled 23 firearms in his 32nd-floor room, many with legal “bump stocks” that served to convert the guns into fully automatic weapons.

These upgrades allowed him to wreak havoc on the 22,000 concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival for nine to 11 minutes, Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said on Tuesday.

The mass shooting was the deadliest of its kind in the last seven decades.

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The calls for increased gun control have grown louder as the victims are mourned, even from the historically pro-gun country music community.

But the country’s history reveals a dark side to gun control.

The implementation of stricter gun laws has always been marred by accusations of racism.

In many cases, regulations were specifically introduced in response to people of colour exercising their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Complex history

Gun ownership is part of the fabric that makes up US identity, with the right to bear arms found in the Constitution’s Second Amendment, adopted in 1791. But racism in gun laws predates the founding of the nation.

A century earlier, the colony of Virginia had laws prohibiting slaves from owning guns.

After being emancipated as a result of the Civil War (1861-1865), southern states passed laws known as the “Black Codes”, which disarmed and economically disabled African Americans in order to sustain enforcing white supremacy.

Saul Cornell, a professor at Fordham University and researcher who focuses on the history of gun control, said, “the story is very complex”.

“Saying gun laws are always racist is just false,” he told Al Jazeera. “Saying that gun laws have never been racist is also just wrong.”

Even in the case of laws that are “race neutral”, meaning they apply to everyone, there are examples of biased enforcement, Cornell explained.

The LA Police Department displays arms it said was confiscated in raids on the Black Panther headquarters in 1969 [File: George Brich/AP Photo]

Many point to laws passed in the turbulent 1960s, when Black nationalist groups took up arms to defend their communities, as examples of racist implementation.

The leftist Black Panther Party (BPP), whose members carried weapons to guard against police brutality, “invaded” the California capitol building in Sacramento in 1967.

California’s then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act shortly after that, prohibiting open carry of weapons in public places.

The following year would see the passing of the Gun Control Act of 1968, signed by then-President Richard Nixon. That law banned “Saturday Night Specials”, cheaply-made handguns associated with crime in minority communities, as well as barring felons, the mentally ill and others from owning firearms.

‘Great concern’

Both of these laws were passed by Republicans and supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the most powerful anti-regulation gun lobby group in the US.

Today, such groups lead the charge to abolish gun restrictions.

There is “irony” in the fact that right-wing politicians and the NRA were “definitely in favour of gun control when there was great concern among white Americans”, Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University professor and historian who has devoted his professional life to the study of civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King, Jr, told Al Jazeera.

The NRA changed policies in the 1970s, adopting its anti-gun control stance. The organisation has continued advocating for gun owners, though many have criticised the NRA for failing to speak for armed African Americans.

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