Down Range: May 2014


I just finished reading a ground-breaking book on African-American men and women who have used firearms, when necessary, to defend their families and communities.

In Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms, Fordham Law School Professor Nicholas Johnson chronicles the underappreciated black tradition of bearing arms for self-defense. From Frederick Douglasss advice to keep a good revolver handy as defense against slave catchers, to the armed black men who protected Thurgood Marshall, it is clear that owning firearms has been commonplace, if underreported, in the black community.

The first seven chapters of this 379-page book chronicle the rise, evolution and decline of the black tradition of arms. In the last two chapters, Johnson addresses the unavoidable issue of young black men with guns in the inner city. He shows how complicated this issue is by highlighting the diversity of views on gun ownership in the black community.

Nicholas Johnson is professor of law at Fordham Law School, where he has taught since 1993. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is the lead author of Firearms Law and the Second Amendment: Regulation, Rights, and Policy (Aspen 2012).

Johnson wrote of the book, On one side is the tragic plague of violent young black men with guns and the toll that this violence takes on many black communities. On the other is the fact that recent momentous affirmations of the constitutional right to keep and bear arms were led by black plaintiffs, Shelly Parker and Otis McDonald, who complained that stringent gun laws in Washington D.C. and Chicago left them disarmed against the criminals who plagued their neighborhoods. The modern orthodoxy would cast Parker and McDonald as dupes or fools. But the black tradition of arms places them in a more complex and publisher graciously allowed me to pull an excerpt from the book to show its frank and honest approach to the topic of the black community and firearms. The particular section of the book below deals with the period after the Civil War, when Southern states, using official decree, intimidation, and violence, sought to strip blacks of the right to own firearms for self defense. Today, some states are using official decree and intimidation to strip everyones right to own firearms for self defense, so it seems the authoritarian impulse never really goes away.

The material below is drawn from Promise and Breach, Chapter 3 of Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. Copyright Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. Reprinted with permission. ISBN: 978-1-61614-839-3.

Many black veterans left military service with their issue weapons or war prizes and probably were better armed than the general black population. But the public conversation shows that arms for self-defense were a particular concern of the broad swath of black civilians.


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