Reconstruction and gun control: a historical perspective

For twenty-five or so years, now, I’ve been arguing one side or the other on the gun control issue. And in all that time, I do not recall the current brand of gun freedom discussion, so popular among those who try to shout me down on the issue. That is: that during the Reconstruction, white Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan actively sought out gun control as a means to control newly free black populations. The argument goes: this is what “the people in power” always want, therefore surrendering our guns now is just a huge mistake in a millennial struggle for power in democratic societies.

I cannot help but notice that an increasing number of Republican arguments against public policy seem rooted these days in a novel affection for racial history. I don’t think I am alone in finding the sight of the Party of Pat Buchanan casting the Klan as bad guys.. counter-intuitive.

Novelty notwithstanding, their argument is endowed with solid historical evidence, as University of Buffalo history professor Carole Emberton discusses in a History News Network article published on Monday. She describes a Reconstruction South that is rocked by violence and revolution. She describes this, our nation’s worst post-war reconstruction effort, having in this case, “devolved into a paramilitary contest in many areas.” In this chaotic environment, the right to bear arms and the right to vote became intertwined:

Radical Republicans paired the right to vote with the right to bear arms, citing black men’s participation in the war effort as evidence of their worthiness to cast ballots. They also cited white southerners’ determination to prevent their former bondsmen from becoming citizens by disarming them as a reason to reaffirm both voting and private gun possession as twin rights of post-emancipation citizenship.

Were we to read this article while keeping our eyes firmly cast on the players – the black citizens struggling for power and the white Southerners who took it from them – we can easily see that the black struggle was for the “right” and the Southern Democrat effort is for the “wrong.” If we keep an eye on the people who drive the narrative, we can pretty easily pick a favourite side for which we can root.

We can feel the burn of anger and resentment when “our side” loses. In every conflict, military or para, the objective is to disarm the enemy. And so they did. This isn’t a historical footnote and it isn’t the kind of injustice we would want to repeat. All very true.

If on the other hand, we focus instead on the machines that play their part, we clearly see that more guns did not yield a favourable result. The Civil War brought a flood of increasingly effective and cheap weapons to the United States. Guns during the Civil War entered their Industrial Age, suddenly becoming ubiquitous, sophisticated and brutally efficient. The demand for guns leading up to the Civil War nearly quadrupled the yearly output at the fabled Colt Company plants, as one example Professor Emberton notes.

Into this mess Radical Republicans pour a conflation of guns and democracy. White Southerners pour in their resentment and loss. “Militias” are formed and direct assaults on the institutions of our democracy begun. The result is a wound that, more even than the Civil War itself, leaves its continuing mark as evidenced by the whole argument.

History does not belong to any “side” in a political or historical argument. Certainly, not my side. But to me, the story of Reconstruction fire arms reads as a cautionary tale against allowing a build-up of dangerous weapons where they will inevitably get used. That reining in the power of the gun facilitated one sin or the next does not invalidate gun control as a worth-while public policy, any more than does the existence of street signs in Bathist Iraq make traffic law an instrument of dictatorship.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.