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.
In just a few short decades, what was once a reasonable debate in Washington has become corrupted. In 1989, Republican President George H.W. Bush issued an executive order banning the importation of semiautomatic weapons. Bill Clinton followed suit in 1998 and, in 2001, banned the importation of assault pistols. Today the inmates are in control of the asylum, with Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee refusing to entertain any civilian restriction to military-style assault rifles.
But unlike Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the NRA and their GOP allies find it hard to justify unbridled support of gun ownership and access. As MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry brilliantly described in a recent segment, the Black Panthers may not have been what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they described “a well-regulated militia” taking up arms against the tyranny of the state, but that is exactly what they represented.
The Panthers sought to protect themselves and other law-abiding citizens against indiscriminate violence perpetrated by police forces. But firepower in the hands of black men was — and still is — seen as dangerous and wildly inappropriate. Unless, of course, that violence is intraracial. When black males from Baltimore to Chicago shoot each other, policymakers hardly notice. Apathy breeds inaction, and big business encourages that the status quo be maintained.
The justified anger that informed decisions by the likes of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers to fully embrace their Second Amendment rights has been bastardized by contemporary arguments for lax gun control. And as money continues to corrupt, it only gets worse.
Last week, just one month after the Newtown massacre, the NRA released an iPhone app that teaches children age 4 and up how to shoot at targets. With gun sales at record highs, the NRA and its client roster profit at the cost of innocent lives. This prize of profits over people should make Obama’s decision to bypass Congress and issue gun restrictions by executive order all the easier.
As arguments over gun rights continue and the debate about what constitutes “well-regulated” becomes clearer, perhaps history will inform policy and remind Americans of a time when the tyranny wasn’t colorblind.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.