Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Chicago’s handgun ban. Gun rights groups hailed the ruling as a seminal moment in their ongoing fight to roll back restrictive gun-control legislation. As far as the National Rifle Association (NRA) is concerned, McDonald settles the matter once and for all: “This decision makes absolutely clear that the Second Amendment protects the God-given right of self-defense for all law-abiding Americans, period.” Be that as it may, the McDonald decision is really a victory for and about black Americans. At least it should be.
America’s gun-control laws owe their genesis to the post-Civil War era, when white southerners moved to disarm freed slaves. The former Confederate states’ successful efforts to restrict gun ownership had disastrous long-term consequences for black Americans’ life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
The Supreme Court’s majority opinion recognized this historical context. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. framed the McDonald decision in terms of black Americans’ struggle for equality - and survival. He highlighted the court’s Cruikshank ruling after the Colfax Massacre, a genocidal slaughter perpetrated in 1873.
“Dozens of blacks, many unarmed, were slaughtered by a rival band of armed white men,” Justice Alito wrote. “Cruikshank himself allegedly marched unarmed African-American prisoners through the streets and then had them summarily executed. Ninety-seven men were indicted for participating in the massacre, but only nine went to trial.” A Louisiana court dismissed all charges, including depriving the victims of their Second Amendment right to bear arms.
In Cruikshank, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to bear arms “is not a right granted by the Constitution” and is not “in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence.”
More than 100 years later, the Supreme Court has finally restored black Americans’ Second Amendment protections. They did so on behalf of a beleaguered black man living in Chicago - a man who shared his ancestors’ desire to protect himself, his family and his property with a firearm.
History is, of course, repeating itself. Just as Southern states subverted black Americans’ right to vote through intimidation and discriminatory eligibility requirements, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley has just signed handgun-licensing legislation that violates both the spirit and the letter of the McDonald decision - with the unanimous support of the Democrat-controlled City Council.
The Chicago handgun-licensing laws enacted just four days after the Supreme Court ruling include four hours of mandatory training and testing (at the prospective handgun owner’s expense), tri-annual licensing fees and registration with the Chicago Police. (That’s in addition to existing federal requirements.) The new regulations prohibit gun ranges within Chicago; applicants will have to travel outside the city for training.
While the new requirements may appear to pass the “reasonable” test suggested by the Supreme Court in the McDonald decision, the mayor has made no secret of the fact that the laws reflect his desire to make handgun ownership as difficult as possible. And they will. For whom?
While Chicago’s laws will be applied equally, regardless of race, it’s clear that crime-plagued, low-income black Americans will find it hardest to satisfy their requirements. By both intention and design, the city of Chicago will prevent handgun ownership by the municipality’s poorest, least educated and most vulnerable inhabitants.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Chicago’s new handgun-licensing laws are inherently racist. For proof, consider Washington, D.C.
In 2008, the Supreme Court’s Heller decision struck down the capital city’s handgun ban. Since that decision, about 1,200 D.C. residents have purchased a handgun.
According to the U.S. census, the District is currently home to slightly under 600,000 souls. Those 1,200 guns buyers represent .002 percent of the city’s population.
What’s the bet that the vast majority of these new handgun owners are wealthy white residents, like the Glock-owning lawyer recently profiled by NPR? Who else can afford $500 in fees, plus the cost of a gun, and the time and effort required to obtain a handgun license?
The McDonald decision didn’t go far enough. The Supreme Court failed to learn from experience. They should have mandated that states and cities shall make no laws abridging Americans’ right to bear arms. Instead, they created a “reasonableness” test that opened the door to the same racist regulations that inspired Otis McDonald to seek legal redress in the first place.
Once again, the U.S. Supreme Court has left the black community defenseless against armed gangs, thugs who terrorize and plunder law-abiding Americans.
And yet one hears nothing about blacks’ gun rights from the NRA or any other mainstream gun rights’ group. That’s a shame. If the right to bear arms is to be defended, it must rest on the bedrock of equality, stripped of false pretense and deadly prevarication.
Robert Farago is managing editor of www.thetruthaboutguns.com.