I first learned about the contradictions of gun politics when I was about 10 years old, growing up in the radical milieu of 1970s Berkeley. My mother and stepfather were members of a revolutionary organization called the International Socialists. Although the group’s members were mostly bookish nerds with little taste for violence, their inspiration was Leon Trotsky, who led the Bolsheviks’ armed insurrection in 1917 and then headed up the Red Army, which killed hundreds of thousands of the Soviet regime’s opponents in the ensuing civil war. Because my parents’ politics were primarily an exercise in middle-class intellectual fantasy, I was never exposed to real violence or even violent rhetoric, and they never owned a gun.
My stepfather’s best friend, Jeff, who lived in a cottage behind ours, was a member of the Spartacist League, a rival Trotskyist organization that was less shy about the violent implications of its rhetoric. The Spartacists were known for physically attacking strikebreakers and Klansmen and for rumbling with Maoists over the imagined turf of the Bay Area’s revolutionary working class. One day I happened upon Jeff cleaning a pistol at his kitchen table. Despite the fact that his and my parents’ hero was one of the greatest perpetrators of gun violence in the 20th century, I somehow saw guns as not only scary but also right-wing and politically “bad.” I told Jeff I hated guns and wished they all would be rounded up and melted down. “But we can’t have a revolution without them,” he said with a sanguine smile.
As an adult I continued to fear and hate guns and to generally align myself with the gun control cause, but Jeff’s suggestion that the regulation of people’s access to guns is essentially conservative nagged at me, unresolved, until I read UCLA law professor Adam Winkler’s stunning new book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. At the heart of his narrative, Winkler convincingly argues that the people who began the movement against gun control operated not out of the National Rifle Association’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C., but out of a nondescript two-story brick building three blocks from where I sat staring at that pistol: 3106 Shattuck Avenue, in the heart of radical Berkeley. It was there, in 1967, at the headquarters of the Black Panther Party, that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale planned an armed march into the California State Capitol that “launched the modern gun-rights movement.”
Despite my feelings about guns, even as a child I admired that the Panthers made their name shortly after their founding in 1966 by patrolling West Oakland streets with rifles and shotguns and confronting police officers who were detaining blacks. It seemed to me that there was no more effective means of curbing the daily police brutality being meted out to the residents of Oakland’s ghetto. But I did not know until reading Gunfight that the Panthers’ armed patrols provoked the drafting of legislation that established today’s gun regulation apparatus, or that the champions of that legislation were as conservative as apple pie.
In 1967 Don Mulford, the Republican state assemblyman who represented the Panthers’ patrol zone and who had once famously denounced the Free Speech Movement and anti-war demonstrations at the University of California at Berkeley, introduced a bill inspired by the Panthers that prohibited the public carrying of loaded firearms, open and concealed. As Winkler puts it, the text of what became the Mulford Act “all but pointed a finger at the Panthers when it said, ‘The State of California has witnessed, in recent years, the increasing incidence of organized groups and individuals publicly arming themselves for purposes inimical to the peace and safety of the people of California.’ ” The law made California the first state to ban the open carrying of loaded firearms.
Shortly after Mulford introduced his bill, a contingent of 30 Black Panthers arrived in a convoy of cars in front of the Capitol in Sacramento. They loaded ammunition into .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols, then brought the guns up the steps of the statehouse, where Bobby Seale read a statement denouncing the Assembly’s attempt “at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror and repression of black people.” Seale concluded that “the time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late. The pending Mulford Act brings the hour of doom one step nearer.” With that, the Panthers marched with their weapons through the front doors of the statehouse and into the viewing area of the Assembly chamber. Carrying loaded guns into the Capitol building was perfectly legal—until three months later, when Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford bill into law.
The Panthers weren’t the only black people using guns for political purposes. Two months after the invasion of Sacramento, riots erupted in response to instances of police brutality in the black sections of Detroit and Newark. From rooftops, windows, and doorways, gunmen fired on police, National Guardsmen, and Army troops sent to quash the rebellions. Congress responded by passing the Gun Control Act of 1968 and its companion bill, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. Although Winkler chastises “extremists” on both sides of the current gun control debate who characterize their opponents as totalitarians, he does note that while drafting the 1968 bills, Sen. Thomas Dodd (D-Conn.) had the Library of Congress provide him with an English translation of the gun control regulations that the Nazis used to disarm Jews and political dissidents.
The 1968 legislation, which underlies the modern system of federal gun regulation, prohibited interstate sales except among licensed dealers and collectors. It also banned gun sales to “prohibited persons,” including felons, the mentally “defective,” illicit drug users, and anyone who, like many black radicals at the time, “has renounced his citizenship.” These laws “marked Congress’s first attempts at serious gun regulation since the 1930s,” Winkler writes, “and, like California’s law, they also represented a backlash against armed blacks who were seen to be undermining social order.”
Winkler shows that Mulford, Reagan, and Dodd weren’t the first political elites to attempt to quell popular resistance through the regulation of guns. The Founding Fathers advocated the forcible disarmament of not only slaves, free blacks, and people of mixed race but also of whites who refused to swear allegiance to the cause of independence. The Loyalists whose guns were confiscated during the War of Independence “weren’t criminals or traitors who took up arms on behalf of the British,” Winkler writes. “They were ordinary citizens exercising their fundamental right to freedom of conscience.” More important, despite their reputation as freedom lovers, the Founders proved to be “perfectly willing to confiscate weapons from anyone deemed untrustworthy—a category so broadly defined that it included a majority of the people.”
Although contemporary gun control moralists such as Michael Moore portray their cause as being on the right side of history, Gunfight establishes that the first gun control organizations in the United States were the posses that terrorized freed slaves after the Civil War. Many freedmen came into possession of guns that were confiscated from former masters and Confederate soldiers. But organizations with names like the Men of Justice, the Knights of the White Camellia, and the Knights of the Rising Sun roamed on horseback across the South, shooting, hanging, and disarming blacks. “The most infamous of these,” Winkler reports, “was the Ku Klux Klan.”
Winkler found that in the allegedly gun-loving outposts of the wild West, gun confiscation was commonplace. “Frontier towns handled guns the way a Boston restaurant today handles overcoats in winter,” he writes. “New arrivals were required to turn in their guns to authorities in exchange for something like a metal token. Certain places required people to check their guns at one of the major entry points to town or leave their weapons with their horses at the livery stables.” Further confounding the notion that gun control is a people’s cause, Winkler reports that guns were taken away not just in the interest of public safety but also to promote what leftists now call corporatism. Because the political leaders of frontier towns wanted to attract business investors who would spur economic development, they chose to follow the dictum of a newspaper editor in the cattle town of Caldwell, Kansas: “People who have money to invest go where they are protected by law, and where good society and order reign.”
The next surge of gun control legislation accompanied the progressive movement of the early 20th century, when New York state adopted the Sullivan Act of 1911, the first law in the United States requiring a permit for the possession of a firearm. Winkler notes that “enhancing public safety by regulating guns was of a piece with the progressive ferment that pushed for minimum-wage laws, child labor laws, and food quality legislation.” He does not mention that—at least according to many historians of progressivism—gun control and minimum wage laws were also of a piece with the progressives’ overarching desire for social control.
Similarly, Winkler fails to connect his argument that gun control historically served the interests of political elites with his analysis of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who as president launched a massive campaign against the right to bear arms through the Bureau of Investigation. According to Winkler, “the New Deal for Crime” was designed merely to protect innocent citizens from gangsters and their guns. Yet his main source for this section of the book is Claire Bond Potter’s War on Crime, which presents a scholarly case that Roosevelt’s Bureau of Investigation helped establish the supremacy of centralized government over individual rights and social movements in mid-20th-century American culture.
Despite Winkler’s apparent fondness for modern liberalism and consequent blind spots, he presents a history that turns on its head the modern liberal’s conceit that those who side with gun control necessarily side with the people.
Thaddeus Russell is the author of A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press).