Does slavery have any place in the gun control debate?

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Actor and human rights activist Danny Glover has created controversy for comments he made on the Second Amendment.  Speaking at a recent event at Texas A&M University, Glover said the purpose of the amendment was to preserve slavery and keep down Native Americans.

“I don’t know if you know the genesis of the right to bear arms,” Glover said during his campus visit. “The Second Amendment comes from the right to protect themselves from slave revolts, and from uprisings by Native Americans. So, a revolt from people who were stolen from their land, or revolt from people whose land was stolen from, that’s what the genesis of the Second Amendment is.”

Similarly, responding to the argument that a gun control measure lacks the votes to pass through Congress, Fox News’ Shepard Smith compared guns and slavery.  Smith offered, “If we stuck with the polls, though, we’d have had slavery a lot longer than we did.”

Glover and Smith are not the only people to make a comparison between gun control and social movements such as the struggle to abolish slavery.  For example, others have made references to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  Whether appropriate or not, slavery and civil rights have become part of the debate over gun control.

With regard to slavery, there is evidence that the Founding Fathers had that institution in mind when drafting the Second Amendment.

In a recent news analysis in Truthout, Thom Hartman argued the amendment was ratified to preserve the militias in the Southern states, also known as the slave patrols — a step which was necessary in order to secure Virginia’s vote for the Constitution.  Ratification by nine states was necessary for passage, and Virginia was concerned about the federal abolition of slavery.

Professor Carl T. Bogus of the Roger Williams University School of Law challenges the notion that the Second Amendment provides a right of citizens to bear arms for their own individual purposes, or to fight a tyrannical government.  Rather, according to Bogus, this right only applies to a right to bear arms within a militia.  He maintains the Second Amendment was an assurance to the Southern States that Congress would not disarm their slave patrols.

“In effect, the Second Amendment supplemented the slavery compromise made at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and obliquely codified in other constitutional provisions,” Bogus writes.  The Northern states were disgusted by slavery and wanted to do away with it.  As Pierce Butler of South Carolina, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention said: “The security the Southn. States want is that their Negroes may not be taken from them which some gentlemen within or without doors, have a very good mind to do.”

At the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of slave rebellions had taken place across the South, and in many areas, blacks outnumbered whites.  The militias in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia were regulated slave patrols that protected whites against slave insurrection.  Most Southern white men were obligated to serve on these slave patrols at some point in their lives.

But the Southern whites feared that if their slave patrol militias were not protected by law, the result would be the unraveling of the police state that maintained slavery.

Patrick Henry declared “If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress [slave] insurrections [under this new Constitution]. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress . . . . Congress, and Congress only [under this new Constitution], can call forth the militia.”

“In this state,” Henry noted of his native Virginia, “there are two hundred and thirty-six thousand blacks, and there are many in several other states. But there are few or none in the Northern States. . . . May Congress not say, that every black man must fight? Did we not see a little of this last war? We were not so hard pushed as to make emancipation general; but acts of Assembly passed that every slave who would go to the army should be free.”

In his first draft of the Second Amendment, James Madison wrote ,“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

However, to satisfy Patrick Henry, George Mason and others who wanted to preserve the state slave patrols, Madison replaced the word “country” with the word “state.”  The result was the Second Amendment as we know it today: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Meanwhile, legal scholar Paul Finkelman disagrees that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to preserve the slave patrols.  Although he concedes the patrols were important to the South and the maintenance of slavery, he argues the patrols were not the militias, and the amendment was directed toward the federal government, which was prohibited from disarming state militias.

If slavery is invoked in the current debate over gun control, so too is the civil rights movement.