Does race shape Americans' passion for guns?

 A couple at a Michigan open-carry gun rally celebrates America and the right to bear arms.

Story highlights

  • You can't talk about guns in America without talking about race, scholars say
  • Some believe gun culture is rooted in fears that go back to slavery
  • Gun rights advocates disagree that fear is a motive
  • Each week seems to bring a new viral video that raises questions about guns and race

(CNN) Here's a thought experiment:

What if large groups of African-American men carrying shotguns and semi-automatic rifles started moseying into stores across America to tout their support of open-carry gun laws?
Would they be greeted by the same anxious looks shoppers gave groups of armed white men who did the same this summer at Target stores and chain restaurants like Chipotle? Or something more lethal?
    For Charles Gallagher, a sociologist who studies race, the answer to that "what if" is easy.
    "Whites walking down Main Street with an AK-47 are defenders of American values; a black man doing the same thing is Public Enemy No. 1," says Gallagher, a professor at La Salle University in Pennsylvania.
    The debate over guns in America traditionally has been framed as a Second Amendment issue. Gun enthusiasts evoke the right to bear arms, and the need to protect themselves against a tyrannical government.
    But does race play a role in some Americans' attachment to guns?
    It depends on who you ask.
    You can't talk about guns in America without talking about race, Gallagher and others say. The panic that would ensue at the sight of armed black men in public, they say, derives from the same racial fears that can be traced to the conquest of Native-Americans and the institution of slavery.
    The United States has the most armed civilian population on the planet, they say, because some of its white citizens have a history of confronting racial anxieties by "gunning up."
    Gun rights advocates reject that notion. They say racial paranoia doesn't explain America's gun culture, and that they actually want blacks to have more guns. They say blacks should support groups like the National Rifle Association because law enforcement officers have traditionally not protected them.
    "The NRA should stand for the Negro Rifle Association," says Robert J. Cottrol, a professor of law and history at George Washington University in Washington. "You would think the way many black politicians are supportive of gun control that African Americans were the most protected people in American history."
    These gun rights advocates acknowledge that racism shaped some American attitudes toward guns in the past. But they say it's race-baiting to insist it shapes gun culture today. Many non-whites, they point out, are supporters of gun rights but are ignored by the media.
    "There's very little about anything in America for which race is not part of the story," says David Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute in Colorado, which offers expertise on Second Amendment rights. "That doesn't mean that race is the only part of the story."
    The links between race and guns, though, may surprise you, some historians and gun scholars say.
    One of the first groups to dramatically tout its support of open-carry guns laws was not a predominantly white group like the National Rifle Association. It was the Black Panther Party.
    Southern blacks were such strong supporters of gun rights that even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once kept an "arsenal" in his home, one gun control historian says.
    And if you think gun control started with a liberal do-gooder group, you're wrong.
    America's first gun control group, as well as its first domestic terrorist organization, says Kopel, was the Ku Klux Klan.
    How the KKK got into gun control
    The KKK took so easily to gun control because the nation's first gun control laws in the 19th century were rooted in racism, historians say.
    Before the Civil War, Southerners passed laws to keep guns away from slaves and free blacks because they feared slave revolts. After the war ended, Southern states passed laws that made it illegal for blacks to possess guns or ammunition.
    The Klan's rise was driven by the fear of blacks with guns, Kopel says. He quotes one 19th century lawyer who said that when the Klan took control of an area, "The first thing done was to disarm the Negros and leave them defenseless."
    These racial fears may seem like they belong to another era, but sometimes the present looks like the past, one historian says.
    There was a run on gun stores when President Obama was elected and another when he was re-elected. There was also a run on gun stores just before President Clinton signed the Federal Assault Weapons ban in 1994. One historian, however, says the surges in gun sales that accompanied Obama's elections were reminiscent of another era.
    When emancipated blacks starting winning political offices right after the Civil War, Southern whites went on gun-buying sprees, says Dylan Rodriguez, an ethnic studies professor at the University of California Riverside.
    "You had an absolute rush on guns by ordinary white citizens to arm themselves to the teeth because black people were being put in positions of white power," says Rodriguez, author of "Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide and the Filipino Condition."
    Race and ethnicity continued to be the "unspoken motive" in gun control efforts well into the 20th century, says Kopel, author of "The Truth About Gun Control."
    The state of New York passed the 1911 Sullivan Act, which made owning a handgun more difficult, after large numbers of Italian and Jewish immigrants pouring into America were blamed for urban crime.
    The fears of black people with guns resurfaced during the 1960s.
    After a group of armed Black Panther members invoking their open-carry gun rights barged into the California state Capitol, lawmakers there passed the Mulford Act, banning the open carrying of loaded guns in public in 1967. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed after race riots rocked the nation.
    Kopel says the Black Panthers had a different agenda than their contemporary counterparts.
    "The Panthers' arms-carrying was often intended to be intimidating," he says. "That's one difference between the Panthers and modern open-carry activists. The latter are attempting to convey the message that they are harmless and peaceful."
    When MLK packed a pistol
    It's a mistake to think that our gun culture is lily-white, historians say. Contemporary blacks may be some of the strongest supporters of gun control, but the black community has a strong gun rights tradition, particularly in the South.
    Guns helped spawn the civil rights movement, says Cottrol, the history professor at George Washington University.
    White vigilantes who tried to attack black communities were met at times by gunfire. The Deacons for Self-Defense, an armed black group, protected civil rights activists, says Cottrol, author of "The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race and Law in the American Hemisphere."
    Southern blacks in particular recognized the value of owning guns because they couldn't depend on anyone else to protect them during a time when the sheriff could be a member of the Klan, historians say.
    "The civil rights movement was made possible because the Klan knew that black communities were armed," Cottrol says.
    Even King, the apostle of nonviolence, once armed himself, says Adam Winkler, author of "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America." King applied for a concealed gun permit after his house in Alabama was bombed during his first civil rights campaign.
    "Witnesses from the time who were allies of Dr. King reported that his home was an arsenal," Winkler says. "One reporter who was trying to interview Dr. King almost sat on a loaded gun when he sat down on the couch."
    Why blacks should have more guns
    Some gun rights advocates say contemporary black communities could learn from that tradition of self-defense.
    Restrictive gun control laws often victimize black people more than any other group because they suffer disproportionately from violent crime, says John R. Lott Jr., author of "More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws."
    A black person is 6.5 times more likely to become a murder victim than someone who is white; and 92% of black murder victims are killed by members of their own race, Lott says.
    "Given the anger about police in many black communities, it might make more sense to let the law-abiding citizens in those communities have a greater chance to defend themselves," says Lott, founder and president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, a group that examines the links between gun control and crime.
    There are some who say that gun laws actually discriminate against poor blacks by making it more difficult for them to buy guns for protection, he says. He says states do this by raising the costs of concealed gun permits, training and other fees that price out poor minorities.
    And gun restrictions don't help black people living in violent neighborhoods, he says. Every time guns have been banned, Lott says, murder rates have increased. When the state of Massachusetts increased the costs of gun ownership, the number of registered gun owners in the state plummeted -- and the state's murder rate rose. Other academics say Lott's research is faulty.
    "The big problem," Lott says, "is that law-abiding good citizens, not criminals, obey the gun control laws."
    But are gun proponents like Lott really promoting safety or, as one scholar says, are they selling fear?
    Gallagher, the sociologist, says gun producers and the NRA create a perpetual state of fear so that people can buy their products. An NRA spokesman, Andrew Arulanandam, was repeatedly contacted but declined to answer questions submitted for this article.
    "The line is that more guns will make us safer," Gallagher says. "That means that every single person in the U.S. has to be armed. Do we want to live in that world?"
    Gallagher cites his own research: Studies show that making guns more available, such as in the home, increases the chance of gun deaths. A study released by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center says that where there are more guns in a home there is more homicide.
    All about the bogeyman
    When some gun control advocates look at the nation's passion for guns, they see the same racial fears that drove previous generations to enact black codes. These fears, they say, are passed down, like genes, from one generation to another.
    Others disagree, and say it's not always about race. They point to the thriving gun culture in parts of the country that have no experience with slavery or black codes.
    "Why are people in Montana, who rarely encounter black people, so attached to their guns?" Cottrol asks. "People in Vermont are very attached to their guns and it's the whitest state in the Union."
    Guns would have been a huge part of the 19th century Southern way of life even without slavery, another gun rights advocate says.
    "Virtually all of them would have owned guns anyway," says Kopel, "given the necessities of rural life, including the importance of hunting to put food on the table, to protect isolated farmers from white criminals, and to protect crops from predators."
    Gallagher says those arguments are misleading.
    "There's a difference between gun culture and hunting culture," he says. "They're talking about hunting in Montana. They're not talking about walking into a Wal-Mart with a 9-millimeter strapped to their back."
    Gallagher says he's not accusing every white person who buys a gun of being a racist; he's accusing them of being human, of unconsciously absorbing stereotypical attitudes about black men and violence that are as old as America itself.
    "Do I think that people who own guns lie in bed at night thinking about shooting a black man? No," Gallagher says. "A lot of this is about the bogeyman, the fear that a young black man is going to come and get me."
    These old racial fears don't just lead to shootings; they lead to racist public policy, says Lisa Corrigan, professor at the University of Arkansas who has studied the black power movement.
    She says the passage of "stand your ground" laws, especially in the South, are "absolutely" fueled by white legislators who conjure the specter of a "non-white bogeyman to justify legislation that allows them to intimidate and kill" without repercussions. The nation's first bogeyman of color was the Native-American, she says.
    "White people have been motivated by fear of the 'brown other' since the nation was founded," she says. "When they get afraid that brown people are going to take their stuff, they gun up."
    The racial paranoia over the "brown other" isn't confined to America's past, Corrigan and others says. They point to recent headlines.
    Protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, when an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, was shot to death by a white police officer this summer.
    Those protests continue, and each week seems to bring a new viral video that raises questions about guns and race.
    There's footage of an unarmed young black man shot to death by a white police officer in an Ohio Walmart while swinging a toy rifle at his side and talking on a cell phone. And there's the dash cam recording of a black man being shot by a white South Carolina trooper as he reached for his license during a traffic stop.
    Did any of those shootings have anything to do with race?
    It depends on who you ask.
    When so many Americans disagree about the links between gun and race, well-meaning people look at the same videos and draw far different conclusions.
    That can only mean more controversial shootings, impassioned defenses of the Second Amendment and angry charges of racism.
    There may be a lot more people asking "what if" in America's future.