Fear of a Black Gun Owner

Ironically, the NRA used to support gun control -- when the Black Panthers started packing.

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Huey Newton of the Black Panthers at a Revolutionary People's Party Convention in 1970 (David Fenton/Archive Photos/Getty)

(The Root) -- It may seem hard to believe, but the modern-day gun-rights debate was born from the civil rights era and inspired by the Black Panthers. Equally surprising is that the National Rifle Association -- now an aggressive lobbying arm for gun manufacturers -- actually once supported, and helped write, federal gun-control laws.

In light of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre that claimed the lives of 20 children as well as escalating violence in cities like Chicago, which saw 500 homicides in 2012 alone, President Barack Obama recently unveiled his plan for stricter gun control. The proposal calls for a universal background check and a ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, along with 23 executive orders. But these efforts -- no matter how reasonable -- are not without their critics.

In a statement released last week, the NRA expressed its disappointment that "the task force spent most of its time on proposed restrictions on lawful firearm owners." Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) went so far as to threaten impeachment if President Obama used executive action. The conservative entertainment complex -- from Fox News and the Drudge Report, which likened gun control to Nazi Germany, to talk-radio host Alex Jones, who invoked the Tea Party insurrection of 1773 -- employs propaganda tactics to convince Americans that Obama wants to take away their guns. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the history of this debate is a curious one.

It is ironic that the modern-day argument for citizens to arm themselves against unwarranted government oppression -- dominated, as it is, by angry white men -- has its roots in the foundation of the 1960s Black Panther movement. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale became inspired by Malcolm X's admonishment that because government was "either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property" of African Americans, they ought to defend themselves "by any means necessary."

UCLA law professor Adam Winkler explores this history in his 2011 book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. "Like many young African Americans, Newton and Seale were frustrated with the failed promise of the civil-rights movement," Winkler writes. In their opinion, "the only tangible outcome of the civil-rights movement had been more violence and oppression, much of it committed by the very entity meant to protect the public: the police." Winkler goes on to say, "Malcolm X and the Panthers described their right to use guns in self-defense in constitutional terms." Guns became central to the Panthers' identity, as they taught their early recruits that "the gun is the only thing that will free us -- gain us our liberation."

The Panthers responded to racial violence by patrolling black neighborhoods brandishing guns -- in an effort to police the police. The fear of black people with firearms sent shockwaves across white communities, and conservative lawmakers immediately responded with gun-control legislation.

Then Gov. Ronald Reagan, now lauded as the patron saint of modern conservatism, told reporters in California that he saw "no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons." Reagan claimed that the Mulford Act, as it became known, "would work no hardship on the honest citizen." The NRA actually helped craft similar legislation in states across the country. Fast-forward to 2013, and it is a white-male dominated NRA, largely made up of Southern conservatives and gun owners from the Midwest and Southwestern states, that argues "do not tread on me" in the gun debate.

The gun-rights movement has been co-opted in the post-civil rights era. Loud voices both inside and outside the NRA use the claxons of government tyranny and fear of supposed "street thugs" to justify deregulation. The Second Amendment text that calls for a "well-regulated militia" is often ignored in favor of the ambiguous phrase, "the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

The framers never could have imagined the sophisticated artillery available in 21st-century America, yet despite military-style assault weapons being used by the likes of Jared Loughner in Tuscon, Ariz.; James Holmes in Aurora, Colo.; or Adam Lanza in Newtown, Conn., the gun lobby and their most ardent supporters remain obstinate.

It seems the arguments and the players have been reversed. At its founding in 1871, the NRA was an organization dedicated to promoting marksmanship, firearms-safety education and shooting for recreation. Today it promotes utter irresponsibility and unfettered access to deadly weapons.

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