Negroes and the Gun


This next Liberty Law Talk is with Nick Johnson on his new book Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. Johnson writes that “The black tradition of arms has been submerged because it seems hard to reconcile with the dominant narrative of nonviolence in the modern civil rights movement.” Added to this, Johnson observes, was the rise of a “new black political class” that came to prominence “within a progressive political coalition that included the newly minted national gun control movement.” “The burgeoning black political class,” he writes, “embraced gun bans and lesser supply controls as one answer to violent crime in their new domains. By the mid-1970s, these influences had supplanted the generations old tradition of arms with a modern orthodoxy of stringent gun control.”

The full history, however, of the black tradition of arms ought not be submerged. The historical record that we discuss – it includes runaway slaves defending their communities from slave catchers and blacks in the Jim Crow South defending life and property – uncovers a tradition that affirms guns as essential to self-defense while avoiding their use in organized political resistance. For reasons not difficult to imagine, the conceptual separation between these two notions of self defense and political resistance was difficult, at times, to maintain in practice. Finally, Johnson notes that it was two black plaintiffs, Shelly Parker and Otis McDonald, would-be beneficiaries of enlightened, progressive supply-control policies, who led the lawsuits against strict gun prohibitions in Washington, D.C. and Chicago that recently bolstered every American’s constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

Nicholas J. Johnson

Nicholas J. Johnson is Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law is the author of Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms. He is the lead editor of Firearms Law and the Second Amendment: Cases and Materials (Aspen Press, 2012).

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