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Racial equality and the Second Amendment

Michael Schaus
Michael Schaus

Just a day after President Joe Biden announced he would take executive action on gun control, the Assembly Judiciary Committee moved forward firearm reforms of its own in the Legislature. 

Assembly Bill 286—which passed out of committee on a party line vote—would ban homemade firearms that lack serial numbers and expand the locations where concealed carry permit holders are legally prohibited from carrying guns. 

Debate over these measures—as well as those yet to come—will undoubtedly be an amalgamation of tried-and-tired soundbites from both sides. Conservatives will declare, with righteous indignation, that the only thing capable of “stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Meanwhile, gun control advocates will promote statistics about “gun violence” as irrefutable evidence that something must be done to start taking dangerous firearms “off the streets.”

And yet, there’s a crucial aspect of the gun control debate that remains conspicuously and tragically under-discussed by both sides: The racial, historical and civic relevance of Second Amendment rights. 

The last several years of racial and cultural tension have had a predictable effect on firearm ownership that is certain to complicate progressives’ political calculus regarding gun control: More Americans are buying more firearms than ever, and minorities are increasingly joining the ranks of first-time gun buyers

The explosion of firearm ownership among Black Americans, especially, is something that would make some of the civil rights activists of decades-past beam with pride—and, with good reason: Historically, gun control has negatively affected disadvantaged communities to a greater extent than white middle-America, and gun rights were once integral to the expansion of civil rights. 

In fact, at one point, racial inequities were actually the purpose of gun control laws

The Black Codes in the post-Civil War South were, in part, aimed at disarming freed Black slaves. Gun licensing laws, registration schemes and even prohibitions on certain models of weapons were used as legal tools to strip African Americans in the deep south of the ability to defend themselves against the terrorist tactics of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. In the early 20th Century, northern states began adopting similar regulatory frameworks as a means of disenfranchising marginalized Italian and German communities

Obviously, gun control activists today aren’t advocating for a return to the racist and prejudiced policies of the Jim Crow South or the anti-Italian sentiments of New York’s Sullivan Act. However, better intentions don’t magically erase the disparate impact such laws generate. Like any number of bureaucratic burdens on individual rights, it’s not unreasonable to think firearm regulations would disproportionately affect communities that suffer from institutional or social prejudice. 

However, the inequitable impact of gun control among racial and socioeconomic demographics aren’t blind spots only for progressives. After all, the most powerful gun-rights organization in the nation, the National Rifle Association, often appears less interested in defending the principles of firearm ownership among certain social groups than it is in pandering to political factions within the conservative movement. 

Sure, the NRA likes to boast about the massive numbers of female and minority gun owners from time to time, but it has proven radically unwilling to stand up for those same demographics when doing so might upset its predominantly Republican, blue-lives-matter, conservative base. 

The organization, for example, was deafeningly quiet when Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend followed the advice of virtually every NRA instructor teaching home defense, by confronting unknown intruders in the middle of the night with his firearm. Regrettably, the intruders weren’t home invaders, they were plain-clothes police officers—and Breonna lost her life as a consequence

In another high-profile example of police misconduct, Philando Castile—a Black man pulled over for a broken taillight—was fatally shot in 2016 by a police officer in Minnesota after he calmly informed officers he was a concealed carry permit holder with a firearm on his person. (Warning: This video of the incident is distressing.) Just as in Breonna’s case, and many others, the NRA was conspicuously “MIA'' during the national conversation that followed. 

And that’s what many conservative gun groups—such as the NRA—get so very wrong about the debate over gun rights: Defending the Second Amendment is about more than constitutional concerns regarding proposed gun laws. Morally and ethically, there are significantly more important reasons for defending Second Amendment rights than a run-on sentence authored by admittedly flawed men in the late 1700s. 

Firearm rights have historically been minority rights. They’re civil rights. Throughout our nation’s history, gun rights have been directly and indirectly married to the progress of racial and social justice. For communities and individuals treated as second-class citizens, these rights have literally been a lifeline during times of unrest, social change and racial tension. 

As Malcom X rightfully pointed out at the height of the civil rights movement, the Second Amendment isn’t just about weaponry… It’s about equality. 

Michael Schaus began his professional career in the financial sector, where he became deeply interested in economic theory and the concept of free markets. Over a decade ago, that interest led him to a career in policy and public commentary—working as a columnist, a political humorist and a radio talk show host. Today, Michael is director of communications for the Nevada Policy Research Institute and lives with his wife and daughter in Las Vegas.


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