Whitewashing the Second Amendment

As the Supreme Court reviews a historic gun-rights case, lost is the Second Amendment's controversial history—when it wasn't a bulwark against tyranny but a way of enforcing it.

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

Racial politics dominated the talk in Washington this week as Barack Obama called on Americans to stop ignoring the country's racist past and move forward. The message, apparently, didn't reach the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices were busy ignoring race during a hearing on the biggest case of the year. On Tuesday, at the same time Obama gave his big speech, the court heard oral arguments in D.C. v. Heller, a case challenging the District of Columbia's 30-year-old law banning handgun ownership. The case marks the first time the Supreme Court has reviewed the Second Amendment in 70 years, and its interpretation could have far-reaching implications for state gun laws. Heller is mostly about gun ownership, but it is also about race—not that you would know that based on the oral arguments.

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First, by way of background: The key issue in Heller is whether the Constitution guarantees an individual, as opposed to a collective, right to bear arms within the context of a well-organized militia. The plaintiff, Dick Anthony Heller, is an armed security guard who, with the help of some rich libertarians, brought the lawsuit against the District, arguing that the city's handgun ban illegally prevented him from keeping his work weapon at home. Last year, in a 2-to-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit agreed and ruled that the city's gun-control law was an unconstitutional infringement on an individual's right to bear arms. Fearing a flood of new firearms into the city as a result, the District appealed to the Supreme Court.

Dozens of interest groups, from the Pink Pistols to Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, have filed amicus briefs, offering their take on the Second Amendment. But during oral arguments, Justice Anthony Kennedy and his conservative brethren seemed to fully embrace the gun lobby's favorite romantic myth that the founders, inspired by the image of the musket in the hands of a minuteman, wrote the Second Amendment to give Americans the right to take up arms to fight government tyranny. But what the founders really had in mind, according to some constitutional-law scholars, was the musket in the hands of a slave owner. That is, these scholars believe the founders enshrined the right to bear arms in the Constitution in part to enforce tyranny, not fight it.

Last week at an American Constitution Society briefing on the Heller case, NAACP Legal Defense Fund president John Payton explained the ugly history behind the gun lobby's favorite amendment. "That the Second Amendment was the last bulwark against the tyranny of the federal government is false," he said. Instead, the "well-regulated militias" cited in the Constitution almost certainly referred to state militias that were used to suppress slave insurrections. Payton explained that the founders added the Second Amendment in part to reassure southern states, such as Virginia, that the federal government wouldn’t use its new power to disarm state militias as a backdoor way of abolishing slavery.

This is pretty well-documented history, thanks to the work of Roger Williams School of Law professor Carl T. Bogus. In a 1998 law-review article based on a close analysis of James Madison’s original writings, Bogus explained the South’s obsession with militias during the ratification fights over the Constitution. “The militia remained the principal means of protecting the social order and preserving white control over an enormous black population,” Bogus writes. “Anything that might weaken this system presented the gravest of threats.” He goes on to document how anti-Federalists Patrick Henry and George Mason used the fear of slave rebellions as a way of drumming up opposition to the Constitution and how Madison eventually deployed the promise of the Second Amendment to placate Virginians and win their support for ratification.

None of this figured into Tuesday's arguments at the Supreme Court. Instead, a majority of the justices, especially Kennedy, seemed to buy the story that the founders were inordinately concerned with the ability of early settlers to use guns to fend off wild animals and Indians, not rebellious slaves. (Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick counts pivotal swing-voter Kennedy making no fewer than four mentions of a mythical "remote settler," who Kennedy suggested would have needed a gun to "defend himself and his family against hostile Indian tribes and outlaws, wolves and bears, and grizzlies.")

Just as the court largely ignored the racist past of the Second Amendment, its focus on self-defense also glossed over the more obvious racial implications of the decision it was reviewing. The plaintiff, Heller, is a white man who lives in a 60 percent black city whose democratically elected leaders long ago decided that handguns were doing more harm than good to its citizenry. Indeed, while two of the original five plaintiffs in the Heller case are black women, not a whole lot of African Americans in the District appear to be out there clamoring to own more handguns for self-defense.

In an interview, Bogus says that polls consistently show that African Americans support gun control in much higher numbers than white people do, and probably for good reason: They're usually the ones looking at the wrong end of the barrel. As the NAACP points out in its brief on Heller, in D.C. in 2004, there were 137 gun-homicide victims. All but two of them were black. If the Supreme Court invalidates the city’s handgun ban, any ensuing uptick in gun violence is likely to have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, particularly young men.

Of course, it won’t only be young black men who suffer should the court decide that D.C. residents need more handguns. In fact, someone ought to remind Justice Kennedy about what happens when the wrong people get guns—namely the average, law-abiding D.C. residents who would supposedly benefit from the new gun ownership rights. With all his concern with grizzly bears, Kennedy has clearly forgotten about Carl Rowan Sr.

Back in 1988, the African American syndicated columnist shot an unarmed, 18-year-old white kid from Chevy Chase who'd gone for an unauthorized dip in Rowan's swimming pool. Rowan, who shot the kid in the wrist as he tried to flee, claimed he'd feared for his life and was only defending himself. Nonetheless, the columnist was prosecuted for illegally possessing a handgun. The trial ended with a hung jury and Rowan escaped punishment (though the teenagers were sentenced to community service), but the incident fueled a tremendous amount of racial tension in the city that might have been avoided if Rowan had just, say, called the cops.

Gun-wielding journalists who can’t shoot straight may not be the bulwark against tyranny libertarians had in mind. Yet they’re just one of the many scary scenarios the District faces should the court rely on language inspired by slavery and the libertarians’ whitewashed version of American history to restrict the ability of a majority black city to protect its citizens from gun violence.