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When Black Panthers Carried Guns, Conservatives Supported Gun Control

The debate around guns has not always been the partisan stalemate it is today. But it has, like so many other political issues in the US, always been partly about race.

Posted on August 9, 2019, at 11:14 a.m. ET

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A Black Panther Party member holds a rifle outside the California State Capitol on May 2, 1967, during a protest against a bill that banned carrying loaded guns in public.

The images from the two mass shootings this past weekend — in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — were, as with all mass shootings, devastating. No matter how many news cycles come and go, it is impossible to stay numb to the story of a woman in El Paso who was shielding her baby son so that her dead body’s fall broke his bones while saving his life.

But for the generation that came of age in the wake of the 1999 Columbine shooting, these horrors and the constant anxiety that they bring have begun to feel normal — even inevitable. There have been well over 2,000 mass shootings in this country since 20 children and 6 staff members of Sandy Hook Elementary School were gunned down six and a half years ago. That’s just about one per day. And if gun violence in the United States now feels as inevitable as sickness, old age, and death, any cure feels equally unattainable.

In 2004, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired; in 2008, the Supreme Court codified a once-extremist view of the Second Amendment, declaring that it protects an individual and not just a collective right to bear arms; in 2012, the Senate failed to pass even symbolic gun control measures after Sandy Hook, while the parents of 20 dead children grieved and then-president Barack Obama cried on national television. Americans’ feelings of hopelessness and futility in the face of gun violence have been confirmed time and again.

Over the same period of time, we have seen political partisanship skyrocket. Mostly since 1994 — when Newt Gingrich and a new wave of Republicans seized Congress in the so-called Republican Revolution, rewriting a new “Contract With America” — political attitudes have shifted toward the poles. Americans increasingly sort themselves by political belief structure, and political affiliation has become an increasingly central tenet of individual identity. In 1994, Congress also passed the assault weapons ban, which would prove to be the last major piece of federal legislation restricting gun possession.

Ever since then, the issue of gun violence and how to solve it — as with almost every political issue — has mapped neatly across the increasingly polarized political divide. Thanks in large part to interest groups like the National Rifle Association and the Federalist Society, the mainstream conservative pro-gun position has become absolutist and intolerant of any reform. As former Republican congressional representative Scott Rigell — who faced fierce criticism after he broke ranks to try to pass bipartisan gun control legislation after Sandy Hook — recently told BuzzFeed News, “Content doesn’t matter; if it’s gun-related, they will oppose it.”

And so, following each incident of mass gun violence, we find ourselves in a frustratingly familiar partisan loop. Democratic politicians from Chuck Schumer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez express outrage and demand congressional action. Republican politicians offer their now-clichéd “thoughts and prayers.” Democratic politicians will continue to criticize the NRA; Republicans will remain silent. No actions will be taken. Nothing will change. (It still seems too soon to say if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s “new willingness” to discuss a bill expanding background checks for gun buyers will lead to any meaningful change.)

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People attend a candlelight prayer vigil near the scene of a mass shooting that left 22 people dead on Aug. 5 in El Paso, Texas.

But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, in the long history of gun politics in this country, a history that dates back centuries, this pattern of partisanship and inaction is a relatively recent development. Not long ago, there were conservatives in this country who accepted, and even supported, legislation to restrict gun use and ownership — as did the NRA.

In 1963, just after the assassination of then-president John F. Kennedy shocked the nation, Democratic Sen. Thomas Dodd of Connecticut proposed strengthening a pending gun control bill that would, among other measures, ban the mail-order purchase of guns. It was through the mail that Lee Harvey Oswald obtained the rifle he eventually used to kill the president.

The executive vice president of the NRA at the time, Franklin Orth, testified about the bill to Congress, and in his testimony praised the mail order prohibition: “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.” The NRA endorsed that gun control bill, which wasn’t out of step with the group’s established role as an authority on safe and responsible firearm practices; the NRA had helped draft gun control legislation in the past, including the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1938 Federal Firearms Act.

In 1968, after years of debate, a later iteration of Dodd’s bill passed in the House of Representatives 305–118, with 157 Democrats and 147 Republicans voting in favor. It then passed in the Senate with support from 39 Democrats and 31 Republicans — in other words, with a level of bipartisan support that’s pretty much unimaginable for any gun control bill today.

Kennedy’s assassination — and, just months before the 1968 bill was passed, the assassinations of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy — no doubt helped rally support for the Gun Control Act. But an even more telling event in the history of conservative support for gun control had unfolded a year earlier on the other side of the country: the May 1967 confrontation between armed Black Panther Party members and California state legislators in Sacramento, who were voting on a state bill that targeted the Black Panthers by making it illegal for them (or anyone else in California) to carry loaded guns in public.

In his book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, as well as in a seminal 2011 piece in the Atlantic on the subject, UCLA law professor Adam Winkler details a counterintuitive history of gun control. The 1967 California bill and the Black Panthers’ protest of it are a significant part of that history, and worth revisiting because they remind us that the debate around how to address gun violence has not always been nearly as partisan, or entrenched, as it is today. And, as with so many other issues in American politics, the debate has actually been in large part about race.

The image of who carries guns in the popular imagination has changed since 1967. And as the faces of those advocating for and carrying assault weapons have become whiter and more conservative — and as the Second Amendment has become less often invoked in the context of racial justice and collective self-defense and more often in the context of hunting and individual self-defense — the politics of gun control have shifted drastically.

What might look today like a principled, uncompromising stance that the NRA and the modern-day conservative movement have taken on gun rights is far less long-standing than it seems. Just over 50 years ago, it was sacrificed in the name of a higher political priority: undercutting radical advocates of racial justice whose insistence on exercising their constitutional rights threatened white Americans’ political and social dominance in a way that white conservatives couldn’t accept.

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Two members of the Black Panther Party were met on the steps of the California State Capitol in Sacramento, May 2, 1967, by Police Lt. Ernest Holloway.

By 1967, the newly formed, Oakland-based Black Panther Party had made the public display of guns central to its organizing power. That year, the party published a “Ten-Point Program” outlining its demands and beliefs, listing housing, employment, education, an end to the draft, and full prison abolition for black men as basic tenets of its new political platform. Led by charismatic figures like Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the emerging movement was younger, more revolutionary in philosophy, and more confrontational in strategy than King’s nonviolent protest movement.

Arguably most consequentially, the platform also included this statement: “We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.”

The Panthers told recruits that “the gun is the only thing that will free us — gain us our liberation.” Just a few years earlier, Malcolm X had appeared in an iconic 1964 photo in Ebony magazine posing with a rifle, creating a striking visual representation of his “by any means necessary” strategy of fighting for racial justice.

Newton and other party members took advantage of California’s permissive open carry laws to directly confront law enforcement, “policing the police.” Part public defenders and part security patrol, party members listened to Oakland police frequencies on short-wave radio and, when they heard officers preparing to make an arrest, rushed to the scene with law books and loaded guns. The altercations never turned violent but provided some semblance of protection — legal and physical — for those interacting with police.

The party’s flamboyant and confrontational strategy came to a crescendo May 2, 1967, when Black Panther Party members went to the California State Capitol to protest a pending bill they saw as an existential threat. The bill was proposed by a conservative Republican in the California legislature named Don Mulford, who sought to prohibit the public carrying of loaded firearms in the state — a move clearly targeted to disband or weaken the Black Panthers by criminalizing their signature tactic. The NRA supported Mulford’s bill, which was consistent with the moderate stance the organization had taken on gun control legislation throughout most of its history up to that point.

On May 2, 31 members of the Black Panther Party, led by Seale, entered the capitol in Sacramento with loaded guns to protest the proposed policy, which was designed, according to Seale, to “[keep] black people disarmed and powerless.” With their guns pointed at the ceiling, the party members peacefully entered the legislature to demand their right to carry. The protesters held a de facto press conference reiterating their demands for racial justice; afterward, the group was arrested by Oakland police on charges of conspiring to disrupt the legislative session occurring inside.

The state’s governor at the time was Ronald Reagan, who took a public stance in favor of Mulford’s bill. In fact, he praised gun control generally, telling reporters that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons” and calling gun possession a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of goodwill.” He soon signed the Mulford Act into law, and it’s still in effect in California today.

But in the decade that followed, a dramatic shift occurred. In 1977, an internal coup within the NRA would drive the organization’s pivot toward aggressive lobbying against gun control, citing — like the Black Panthers — the Second Amendment as grounds for individuals’ rights to own and carry guns. Reagan would follow suit, and in 1980, he was the first presidential candidate endorsed by the newly anti-regulation NRA. At a 1983 Republican Party fundraiser in California, two years after he himself was shot in an assassination attempt, Reagan expressed the opinion that “You won’t get gun control by disarming law abiding citizens. There’s only one way to get real gun control: Disarm the thugs and the criminals, lock them up, and if you don’t actually throw away the key, at least lose it for a long time.”

It’s not all that hard to imagine that Reagan — whose voice can be heard on a tape released last week calling black people “monkeys” who are “still uncomfortable wearing shoes” — might have categorized the Black Panther Party members as “thugs and criminals,” rather than “law abiding citizens.” And in that sense, what might seem like a surprising about-face among conservative politicians, from supporting gun control to opposing it, is actually consistent. It was always about who was using the guns.

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Rancher Cliven Bundy speaks at a rally on April 24, 2014, in Bunkerville, Nevada.

In the 1860s, in the aftermath of the Civil War, several Southern states passed racist gun control measures that were explicitly designed to disarm newly freed black Southerners. And in the 1930s, NRA President Karl T. Frederick helped draft legislation to restrict concealed carry of guns at the state level in response to gun violence in cities that many Americans associated with Italian immigrants (who were not necessarily, at the time, considered “white”).

Fast-forward about 75 years, and recall Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who, backed by three militias, led an armed standoff against federal law enforcement in 2014. Bundy was not protesting police brutality, nor a lack of housing, education, or safety; he simply did not recognize the legitimacy of the federal government and was defending his (self-proclaimed) right to let his cattle graze on federally owned land for decades without paying fees he owed the government for doing so.

Although Bundy was eventually arrested two years later — after all, he was breaking the law — the reaction by politicians in 2014 paled in comparison with their response to the Black Panther Party’s peaceful political demonstration in the California legislature half a century earlier. There were no gun control measures passed — and needless to say, the NRA didn’t endorse any reasonable gun control legislation this time. In fact, last summer, President Donald Trump pardoned two anti-government extremists whose convictions for committing arson of federal land inspired a second armed Bundy family standoff in 2016.

When Philando Castile, a black man, was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in 2016 while he was carrying a gun and a legal permit for it, the NRA did not offer the vigorous and unqualified advocacy it is known for; instead, then–NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch essentially blamed Castile for his own death.

Today’s young people in the United States form the most racially diverse generation the country has ever seen. They are also the most aware of race and racism’s deep, unending influence on our politics and national character. But the story of guns and gun ownership has been sold as a fixed and classic clash between conservatives and liberals — one in which liberal, racially diverse voters in urban areas have always favored gun control, and white, NRA-supporting conservatives in rural areas have always stood up for gun rights. And because of the structural political advantages that conservative-leaning rural voters now enjoy — from disproportionate representation in the Senate to the Electoral College system — gun control legislation feels like a doomed pipe dream.

But it’s essential to remember that that political division itself was intentionally fostered by a conservative movement, led by another California Republican, Richard Nixon, whose “Southern Strategy” of dog-whistle racism largely redefined American politics for generations to come. Opinions on gun control haven’t always overlaid so neatly onto the contemporary political map that strategy helped create.

Gun control was once accepted, even endorsed, by both Reagan — the icon of modern conservatism — and the NRA, perhaps the most stubborn and effective advocacy organization that this country has ever seen. Gun control used to be bipartisan — when the most visible “law abiding citizens” holding the guns were black. And if the politics of this debate have shifted in the past, there’s no reason they can’t in the future. ●


Joshua Manson is a freelance reporter based in Brooklyn. He is interested in race, gender, and justice.

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