Monday, Jan. 27, 2020 | 2 a.m.
RICHMOND, VA. — Around 22,000 people came here last week to protest potential new restrictions on guns under consideration by the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly. Most of the protesters were outside the grounds of the state Capitol, and most appeared to be carrying weapons: handguns, shotguns, carbines and semi-automatic rifles. There were armed men in camouflage and military-style equipment threatening insurrection if the state’s elected representatives acted contrary to their wishes.
Walking through the crowds, I saw Gadsden flags emblazoned with “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Come and Take It” banners alongside “Blue Lives Matter” patches sewn into vests and T-shirts with oft-used quotations like Thomas Jefferson’s famous claim that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
The rhetoric may have been violent, but the overall event was calm — a “peaceful protest,” Brian Moran, the Virginia secretary of public safety, told The Washington Post. A model of democratic assembly.
But that “peace” can’t be separated from intimidation; progressive groups urged members not to go to the Capitol to avoid violent confrontation with extremists. There were no counterprotests or rival demonstrations. The Second Amendment had effectively limited the First.
As I watched the rally, it was impossible not to think through counterfactuals. What if these were left-wing protesters instead? Twenty-two thousand members of the Democratic Socialists of America, armed and threatening insurrection if the Commonwealth of Virginia didn’t establish a system for single-payer health care. How would the state authorities react? Would they give them a wide berth or would they assume hostile intent?
What if this were 22,000 black nationalists, similarly armed, similarly enraged at the prospect of gun control? Would the police have had the same light touch, watching and listening but allowing events to unfold? Or would they have gone into overdrive with riot gear and armored vehicles, aggressive tactics and a presumption of criminality?
We know the answer. In Virginia and many of the 30 other states that allow open carry, Americans have a right to mass, armed protest. But that right, and the right to bear arms in general, is informed by the settler history of the American nation and structured by hierarchies of race and gender, despite our collective pretense to universalism. Or put another way, every American has a right to gun ownership, but the paradigmatic gun owner is still a white man.
The reasons stretch back to our colonial origins. The drive to expropriate Native Americans’ land — and later, to control a surging population of enslaved Africans — produced requirements for gun ownership enforced by governments in nearly every English colony along the Atlantic Coast. In 1658, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes in “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment,” Virginia “ordered every settler home to have a functioning firearm, and later even provided government loans for those who could not afford to buy a weapon. Similarly, New England colonial governments made laws such as the 1632 requirement that each person have a functioning firearm plus two pounds of gunpowder and 10 pounds of bullets.” Colonists formed militias to seize indigenous territory and created patrols to combat resistance from slaves.
Mandatory gun ownership went hand-in-hand with strict gun restrictions, and in the emerging racialized polity of British North America, this meant banning guns among enslaved Africans and free blacks as well as strong prohibitions on selling guns to indigenous people. What’s more, historian Kathleen Brown observes in “Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race and Power in Colonial Virginia,” mass gun ownership among white men enabled a “male popular culture that appeared to transcend social differences,” one which “permitted white men to participate in a solidarity of race that minimized their class differences but also in a fraternity of men, united and empowered by the gun culture they shared.” The “inherent honor of white manhood,” she writes, “became increasingly based on the right to carry a gun.”
These dynamics carried over into the creation of the United States. At its founding, the nation was a white republic whose Constitution reflected settler preoccupation with racial control. As it grew and expanded, so would Americans’ racialized understanding of rights, responsibilities, personhood and citizenship.
Gun ownership in particular was for white men. It took disunion and the threat of political dissolution to break that taboo, although, in the aftermath of the Civil War, many white Americans retained their hostility to arms-bearing blacks. Postwar “black codes” in former Confederate states like Alabama prohibited “any freedman, mulatto or free person of color to own firearms, or carry about this person a pistol or other deadly weapon.” None of this actually stopped blacks, especially former Union soldiers, from owning guns, and subsequent decades would see black Americans develop a tradition of arms carried for defense against white supremacists, either lawless terrorists or state-sponsored vigilantes.
But the right to bear arms would remain structured by race, by the idea that gun ownership — and the full citizenship it implied — was reserved for white men. This held in the face of war. Hundreds of thousands of black Americans registered for military service in World War I, but most were confined to labor and support roles, with few seeing combat. It was reinforced in pop culture — from the “heroic” night riders of “The Birth of a Nation” to the idealized white manhood of western gunslingers like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood — as well as in politics. Led by Gov. Ronald Reagan, California banned open carry in response to armed patrols by members of the Black Panther Party.
Read in light of this history, the demonstrations in Richmond were a touch ironic. Twenty-two thousand people — most of them armed, most of them white, most of them men, some threatening insurrection — afraid of losing an expansive right to own and possess guns, seemingly unaware of how they’re the only ones who could protest in this manner.
It’s because they are paradigmatic — because they represent the idealized gun owner — that the state can tolerate their presence. The Richmond rally may not mean much for the future of gun control in Virginia, but it definitely illustrates the ways race continues to shape the right to bear arms, the same way it shapes almost every other aspect of American citizenship.
Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.