The Slave-State Origins of Modern Gun Rights


The idea that citizens have an unfettered constitutional right to carry weapons in public originates in the antebellum South, and its culture of violence and honor.


Gun-rights advocates have waged a relentless battle to gut what remains of America’s lax and inadequate gun regulations. In the name of the Second Amendment, they are challenging the constitutionality of state and municipal “may issue” regulations that restrict the right to carry weapons in public to persons who can show a compelling need to be armed. A few courts are starting to take these challenges seriously. But what the advocates do not acknowledge-and some courts seem not to understand-is that their arguments are grounded in precedent unique to the violent world of the slaveholding South.

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Claims that “may issue” regulations are unconstitutional have been rejected by most federal appellate courts-that is, until last year, when a court in California broke ranks and struck down San Diego’s public-carry regulation. This year, a court did the same with the District of Columbia’s rewritten handgun ordinance. Both decisions face further review from appellate courts, and perhaps also by the Supreme Court. If the justices buy this expansive view of the Second Amendment, laws in states such as New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Hawaii with the strictest public carry regulations-and some of the lowest rates of gun homicide-will be voided as unconstitutional.

Public-carry advocates like to cite historical court opinions to support their constitutional vision, but those opinions are, to put it mildly, highly problematic. The supportive precedent they rely on comes from the antebellum South and represented less a national consensus than a regional exception rooted in the unique culture of slavery and honor. By focusing only on sympathetic precedent, and ignoring the national picture, gun-rights advocates find themselves venerating a moment at which slavery, honor, violence, and the public carrying of weapons were intertwined.