The Second Amendment is not about guns -- it's about anti-Blackness, a new book argues
Updated 9:57 AM ET, Sun May 30, 2021
(CNN)One of Charlton Heston's greatest performances came not in a Hollywood film but on a convention stage where he electrified a crowd of gun-rights enthusiasts.
Heston was president of the National Rifle Association in May 2000 when he spoke at the group's national gathering in Charlotte. The actor described gun owners as patriots and said owning a gun was "something that gives the most common man the most uncommon of freedoms."
As the crowd cheered, Heston then raised a replica of a Revolutionary War-era flintlock rifle and delivered a warning in his thundering baritone to anyone who would try to take his guns away: "From my cold, dead hands!"
It was a stirring moment because Heston dramatized the belief that an individual's right to own guns is enshrined in the Second Amendment. The amendment declares that a "well-regulated Militia" is necessary for the security of a free state," and that "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Gun rights supporters say the Founding Fathers created the amendment so that citizens could protect their homes from tyrannical governments abroad and at home.
But while that interpretation may provide great political theater, it's sloppy history, according to a prominent scholar in a provocative new book. In "The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America," Carol Anderson argues that the Second Amendment is not about guns -- it's about anti-Blackness. She says it "was designed and has consistently been constructed to keep African-Americans powerless and vulnerable."
Anderson cites legislative debates from the Founding Fathers and a range of historical records to make some bold points. She says some early lawmakers who supported the Second Amendment were more worried about armed Blacks than British redcoats. She says that even after the Civil War ended, many Southern states banned Black citizens from owning weapons.
And that famous line about a "well-regulated militia?" Well, that was inserted primarily to deal with potential slave revolts -- not to repel a foreign army, she says.
Anderson's book is a fast-moving narrative with plenty of startling statements. She contends that the Second Amendment has never been applied equally to Black citizens. As evidence she cites the 2016 shooting death of Philando Castile, a Black man who was shot to death by a suburban Minneapolis police officer during a traffic stop despite having a license to carry a gun.
Some historians say the fear of slave revolts wasn't the primary reason for the creation of the Second Amendment. Instead, they cite other factors, such as the desire to keep the nation's military in check, because the Founding Fathers were leery of a professional army that could turn on its own citizens.
Anderson's book will add to that discussion, and it arrives at a time when the gun debate is as heated as ever. Mass shootings are now commonplace, and the Supreme Court has announced it will reexamine the scope of the Second Amendment in a new case that some say "could lay waste to many of the nation's laws."
It's not the first time Anderson, chair of the African American Studies department at Emory University, has used the past to illuminate the present. She is the author of "One Vote, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy," and "White Rage: The Unspoken Truth About Our Racial Divide," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism.
Anderson spoke recently to CNN. Her answers were edited for brevity and clarity.
I've been told that the Second Amendment was about an individual's right to self-defense and to protect against a tyrannical government. But you say it's also "a bribe placed on Black bodies." What does that mean?
The crafting of the Constitution was of primary concern for folks like James Madison because the Articles of Confederation were not working. And when they went to the Constitutional Convention, the Southern delegates made it really clear that they weren't going to sign off on any kind of Constitution to strengthen the United States of America unless they could get the clear extension on the Atlantic slave trade, the Three-Fifths Clause so they could get more representation than they were due in Congress, and the Fugitive Slave Clause. Those were the bribes. That was the sign-off for the South to sign off on the Constitution.
But then as Virginia is looking at this Constitution and sees the federal control of the militia, this is when Patrick Henry and George Mason really started leading the charge. And that charge was about either scuttling the Constitution or getting a Bill of Rights to curtail the power of the central government and protecting the militia. Protecting the militia means that they are protecting slavery.
One of the things that many previous historians have not linked up was the role of the militia in putting down slave revolts, in buttressing slave patrols and keeping enslaved Black people, and free Blacks, under the boot of White supremacy.
Why haven't more historians made this link you talk about?
It's because of several things. The emphasis on the Second Amendment has been crafted as a well-regulated militia in terms of (opposing) a tyrannical government or stopping a foreign invasion, and the individual right to bear arms. That's the way it's been cast in the legal debates. That's driven our historical debates. We've got a weird bifurcation in the scholarship between the history of slavery and the history of the Second Amendment. What I'm doing is saying these things are all happening at the same time. Let's see what's going on. And what actually drew me into this was the killing of Philando Castile.
How did Castile's shooting spark this?
Here was a Black man who was pulled over by police, who followed NRA guidelines in letting the police officer know that he had a license to carry a weapon. And that led to Philando Castile being shot dead. And then the NRA went virtually silent with what I call "non-statement statements" [A NRA spokeswoman eventually called Castile's death a "terrible tragedy that could have been avoided" after the group was criticized for its silence on the shooting.] And then journalists were saying, "Don't Black people have Second Amendment rights?" And I went, "That is a great question." And I went hunting. That was the genesis of this book.