The Right to Bear Arms, but Not for All: Anderson Uncovers the Second Amendment’s Racist Legacy

Constitutional interpretations of the Second Amendment have consistently disadvantaged African Americans, leaving them more vulnerable to violence.

By Kevin Anderson

The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, by Carol Anderson. Bloomsbury, 2021. 258p index, 9781635574258 $28.00, 9781526645227

Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice is highlighting select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews will be broader than those applied to the standard 190-word Choice reviews, many of the guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. The intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be useful to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.

The book cover of The Second, about the Second Amendment

Does the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantee all American citizens the right to bear arms? Is it the foundation for the individual right to self-defense? What is the historical record of the Second Amendment as a tool for African Americans’ protection and liberation? Anderson (Emory Univ.) explores the history of this amendment in relation to the racial dynamics of American politics and finds a consistent pattern of constitutional interpretation that disadvantages African Americans, rendering them victims of white violence and citizens unprotected by one of the central freedoms defined by the Bill of Rights.

Anderson, the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University, previously explored the impact of race on the evolution of American society in her 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award–winning book, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, and in her 2018 study of the history and politics of voting, One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying our Democracy. She extends her historically grounded analysis here to the history and political fights surrounding the meaning, implementation, and impact of the Second Amendment on the Constitution. In the context of the deep divisions presently fracturing American society over race, partisanship, and the ways Americans understand their past, the analysis here helps clarify the Second Amendment’s role in fueling this political divide and in determining the circumstances that impact the lives of African Americans.

Anderson contextualizes the Second Amendment as part of the Bill of Rights added to the Constitution in an attempt to ensure the document’s ratification in 1789. She explains that modern understandings of the Second Amendment (as guaranteeing people the right to own a gun) ignores the context of the debate that led to the inclusion of the “right to bear arms.” The fear of a strong centralized government (the issue at the core of the rebellion against the King of England) influenced the idea of citizens having access to guns, but it was not thought of as an essential right of individual self-defense.

The movement toward enshrining this right became part of a legislative compromise needed to bring along recalcitrant representatives from states where slavery was both legal and essential to the economy and culture. How could plantation owners protect themselves from the ongoing threat of slave rebellions? Did the fact that the British offered freedom to American slaves during the Revolutionary War represent an ongoing threat to their livelihood and their lives? Did this concern fuel the necessity of legally defining the right to bear arms? Anderson discusses these circumstances in detail and illuminates how these questions ultimately structured the text of what became the Second Amendment. She notes the following:

Madison conveyed that he believed the ‘great rights’ were ‘trial by jury, freedom of the press and “liberty of conscience.”‘ On the other hand, the right to bear arms and a well-regulated militia, in both his discussion in the House of Representatives and with Thomas Jefferson, did not make his list. … The Second Amendment was, thus, not some hallowed ground but rather a bribe, paid again with Black bodies. It was the result of Madison’s determination to salve Patrick Henry’s obsession about Virginia’s vulnerability to slave revolts, seduce enough anti-Federalists to get the Constitution ratified, and stifle the demonstrated willingness of the South to scuttle the United States if slavery were not protected.

p. 32

Her analysis also speaks to a broader concern regarding the individual liberties enshrined in the Constitution. The neutral language of the rights described in the first ten amendments leaves them open to different political and judicial interpretations, a fact that has historically been problematic for African Americans. As Anderson demonstrates, this ambiguity could and very often did lead to contradictory understandings of the meaning of the Second Amendment for both white and Black people. It could compel gun ownership in one circumstance (during the debate over the Constitution, for instance), yet limit the right in another. Anderson describes a different understanding of the Second Amendment in California during the modern Civil Rights Movement and the rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland in 1965:

In a report marked ‘Confidential,’ the Oakland Police Department reported to the state legislature that Seale and Newton’s ‘prime objective is to arm the negro community to act as a deterrent to … the Oakland Police Department and the San Francisco Police Department.’ … The local newspapers were equally alarmed. The Panthers didn’t just bear arms or carry weapons; ‘Oakland’s Black Panthers Wear Guns, Talk Revolution’ ran a headline in the San Francisco Examiner. Even more frightening—’It’s All Legal,’ the headline warned.

pp. 132–133

The primary argument in The Second points to a consistent element of inconsistency: the rights of African Americans to own guns and make claims to self-defense fluctuate given the racial tensions and politics of a given era. The very fact that there are political and legal questions regarding these rights undermines the claim that this is a fundamental aspect of life granted to all citizens. The impact of this is problematic in that so many of the questions surrounding the limits and privileges of gun ownership often involve life-and-death situations. Given such high stakes, a degree of ambiguity regarding free speech or freedom of religion is a major concern, however rarely a confrontation over these rights leads to the immediate possible loss of life.

The only consistent aspect of these interpretations is that African Americans have been continuously denied treatment equal to that of white citizens. What are the consequences for African Americans of these shifting interpretations of the law? The pattern of disadvantage that Anderson highlights illuminates a systemic problem: a focus on individual rights fails to notice group exclusion and deprivations. When one African American loses access to guns because of a judicial ruling, that raises a specific legal concern that can be addressed through litigation, but if the right is restricted by legislation, a broader political strategy will be required, and that evolving dynamic complicates African Americans’ Second Amendment rights. What strategy (legal or political) is best suited to protecting the right to bear arms and how can this right be connected to other civil liberties to ensure full citizenship for African Americans?

In the era of Black Lives Matter and public protest against police brutality, the relevance of understanding what the Second Amendment means and how it is enforced is more important than ever. Though numerous states have passed laws extending the Second Amendment’s reach, the interpretation of how that right applies continues to be vexing. Two cases from Florida after the 2005 adoption of a Stand Your Ground Law (allowing citizens to use deadly force if their lives are in danger) are illustrative. In 2010, Marissa Alexander, an African American woman (and licensed gun owner) fired a warning shot toward her ex-husband who was threatening her in her home. She claimed self-defense under Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law—she had filed a restraining order against him after a previous domestic violence incident—but was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison (even though no one was injured), serving three years before being released in 2015 under a plea deal. Only two years later, in 2012, George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman, confronted and shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman also claimed a Stand Your Ground defense, alleging that his life was in danger when he confronted Martin and they fought. Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder. What was the difference in the two cases? Which interpretation of the Florida law (and understanding of the Second Amendment) is correct?

Contemporary protest movements regarding police brutality and gun violence often reflect the contours of the history and arguments surrounding the Second Amendment that Anderson outlines in this book. Relatively recent calls to “defund the police” (or at least move away from the use of military-style weapons and tactics by government agencies) as well as the push for background checks, gun registrations, and assault weapons bans, reflect an ongoing debate about a constitutional provision that is often understood in unstated but influential racial terms.

In The Second, Anderson makes a compelling case that the perceptions of violence and threats associated with racial prejudice undermine any possibility that African Americans can reasonably expect to exercise their Second Amendment rights. This book is a clear and powerful statement of the continuing impact of race in the US. The fact that contemporary politics is still divided over questions of race, history, and their meanings for current debates over education and public policy underscores the importance of this book’s poignant, historically grounded, compelling argument for assessing all human rights in the context of American politics.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers through faculty; professionals.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Law & Society, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America

Kevin Anderson is professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri.