While taking in the sights of Moscow, during my student days in 1978, I ran into an elderly couple from New Jersey. “What a wonderful country!” the woman exclaimed. “There’s no crime. You can walk the streets after dark without being afraid.”
No crime? The irony of her statement was not lost on me. I knew that the Soviets had murdered tens of millions of people (20 million, according to Stephane Courtois’s Black Book of Communism; 60 million, according to Alexander Solzhenitsyn). Surely this qualified as a “crime” of some sort. But I held my tongue politely.
Arguing would have seemed insensitive. I knew that, back home in New Jersey, elderly people such as they were prime targets for muggers and burglars. Who was I to begrudge them whatever small pleasure they might glean from strolling Red Square unmolested, under the watchful gaze of gray-uniformed militsionyeri?
Yet I wondered how deep their admiration for Brezhnev’s police state really went. Did those dreamy looks on their faces mean they actually preferred Soviet dictatorship to our own system? I tried not to think about it.
That chance encounter in Moscow returned to haunt me later, when I stumbled across two disheartening statistics. The first were nationwide poll results showing that 83 percent of African Americans would support a ban on all gun sales, except by special police permit. The second came from a Department of Housing and Urban Development survey of public housing residents, indicating that 68 percent believed that allowing police to conduct random searches for guns, without warrants, would improve safety in their projects.
Like those elderly tourists in Moscow, black Americans are clearly fed up with crime. And who can blame them? Fully 50 percent of all murder victims in the U.S. are black. But, like those short-sighted tourists, many African Americans appear dangerously willing to tolerate police-state tactics, in exchange for safer streets.
An authoritarian crackdown might well succeed in curbing crime. Did not Mussolini get the trains running on time? But African Americans would be nave to expect our government to continue working in their best interests, once it has stripped them of their liberties.
The Slippery Slope
The Clinton Administration lured many black civil rights leaders into supporting the anti-gun movement. But some have declined to jump on the bandwagon.
Niger Innis is one (first name pronounced Nigh-jer). Growing up in Harlem, Innis lost two brothers to gun-wielding killers. But these tragedies only deepened his conviction that an armed and vigilant citizenry is the best curb on lawlessness.
“Not every cop can be everywhere at all times,” says Innis, who is national spokesman for the New York-based Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). “Decent men and women with families need to be able to defend themselves and their property. It’s that simple.”
More to the point, Innis sees gun control as a slippery slope toward outright gun confiscation. Loss of Second Amendment rights, he says, would leave both whites and blacks vulnerable to tyranny.
Disarmed and Disenfranchised
“Traditionally, when governments want to disenfranchise people, the first thing they do is disarm them,” says Innis. “That was the case in Nazi Germany, when the Jews were disarmed. That was the case in the American South, after slavery.”
Innis is correct, on both counts. On November 7, 1938, a 17-year-old Jewish refugee named Herschel Grynszpan shot and killed a German diplomat in Paris. The highly publicized shooting gave the Nazis the excuse they needed for a major crackdown.
German newspapers whipped up hysteria over the threat of Jewish terrorism. Then, on November 11, the Nazi government ordered Jews to surrender all firearms, clubs and knives. Without weapons, the Jews were easily herded into concentration camps.
Southern slaveowners also understood the need to keep their victims helpless and unarmed, as gun-law expert Stephen P. Halbrook documents in his book That Every Man Be Armed.
“No slave shall go armed with a gun, or shall keep such weapons,” declared an 1854 law of North Carolina. Violators received 39 lashes.
After the Civil War, many white southerners feared that black freedmen would take bloody vengeance on their former masters. Fears of a black uprising were particularly intense in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, where blacks outnumbered whites.
White southerners responded by creating a race-based caste system — a U.S. version of apartheid. Gun control was crucial to making it work. Southern whites tried to maintain their antebellum monopoly over firearms. Many states barred African Americans from owning guns.
Local police, state militias and Ku Klux Klansmen rode from house to house, demanding that blacks turn in their weapons. Once disarmed, they were helpless against lynch mobs.
“Before these midnight marauders made attacks upon peaceful citizens,” Representative Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts informed the U.S. Congress in 1871, “there were many instances in the South where the sheriff of the county had preceded them and taken away the arms of their victims.”
On the other hand, freedmen who kept their guns were able to fight back. Representative Butler described an incident in which armed blacks successfully resisted a Klan attack.
“The colored men then fired on the Ku Klux, and killed their leader or captain right there on the steps of the colored men’s house…. There he remained until morning when he was identified, and proved to be ‘Pat Inman,’ a constable and deputy sheriff….”
According to Halbrook, the Fourteenth Amendment temporarily stymied the gun-control efforts of southern whites. It forbade the states from passing any law that would deprive citizens of their constitutional rights, including the right to keep and bear arms.
But in the 1960s, fear of armed blacks soon got the ball rolling again. Race riots spread from city to city. The Black Panther Party urged African Americans to arm themselves for revolution.
The response from white America was swift and predictable. As liberal anti-gun crusader Robert Sherrill put it, in his 1973 book The Saturday Night Special, “The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns but to control blacks….”
In their fear of black unrest, white Americans had given birth to a Frankenstein’s monster. The machinery of gun control set up in the 1960s is now being turned against its creators a case of “the chickens coming home to roost,” as Malcolm X would have put it.
A glimpse of what may lie in store for white America can be seen in some of the extreme measures that have already been used against blacks.
In the early ’90s, some cities experimented with “sweeps” of public housing projects, in which police, without warrants, would systematically enter and search every apartment for weapons. Bill Clinton praised the program, urging its adoption nationwide.
Project residents were divided in their opinions about the sweeps. Referring to Chicago Housing Authority chairman Vince Lane, who spearheaded the program in that city, one tenant told the Chicago Sun-Times: “He’s using the Southern, Jim Crow, Ku Klux Klan method on his own people.”
Other residents declared themselves more than willing to give up their rights, if it would bring peace. “Sometimes you got to sacrifice your rights to save your life,” Daisy Bradford told the New York Times. “As far as I’m concerned, the Constitution needs to be changed. The innocent people are being violated by the criminals.”
A federal judge struck down warrantless sweeps in 1995, calling them a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. But in view of their popularity among public-housing residents, it seems only a matter of time before some pretext is found to bring them back.
The Civil Right No One Talks About
Niger Innis believes that blacks are being hoodwinked by their leaders.
“The Jesse Jacksons and the NAACPs are mouthpieces of the liberal establishment and the gun prohibitionist crowd, ” he charges. “They are not serving their constituents within the black community. They’re serving their masters within the liberal Democratic party.”
According to Innis, the right to keep and bear arms is a fundamental freedom. Yet, of all the major civil rights organizations, CORE is the only one defending it.
“My father [CORE national chairman Roy Innis] is a lifetime member and a board member of the National Rifle Association,” says Innis. “We and the NRA are kindred souls, when it comes to the Second Amendment.”
In 1990, CORE defended Kenneth Mendoza, a 19-year-old Hispanic resident of East Harlem hailed in the press as a “Good Samaritan.” Mendoza had rescued his pregnant neighbor from a knife-wielding intruder.
The woman called Mendoza her hero. But, after gunning down the assailant with a .38 pistol, Mendoza was charged with murder and possession of an unlicensed weapon. CORE general counsel Mel A. Sachs managed to get both charges dismissed.
“No other civil rights organizations have spoken in defense of Good Samaritans,” Sachs laments. Yet, about 80 percent of Good Samaritans are minorities, he observes. CORE routinely defends such cases in court.
Shortly after Mendoza’s arrest, the New York Times interviewed the “Good Samaritan’s” neighbors, finding strong support for Mendoza’s action. “There is a code of law we live by in this neighborhood: people have to survive,” said Ralph Vello, 25. “He did the right thing.”
An Ancient Right
The code to which Vello referred is not unique to East Harlem. It is a timeless principle, enshrined in common law: the right to self-defense.
Since ancient times, society has recognized the right of free men to arm themselves, in defense of their lives, homes and families. Slaves, however, were often denied this right. Under the laws of William the Conqueror, the difference between free men and slaves was actually defined by ownership or non-ownership of weapons.
“If any person is willing to enfranchise his slave,” said the Norman law code, “let him…deliver him free arms, to wit, a lance and a sword; thereupon he is a free man.”
Innis believes that black Americans have an intuitive grasp of the link between guns and freedom, an understanding that will eventually force them to part ways with the Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson crowd.
Referring to public housing tenants such as Daisy Bradford, who have supported warrantless sweeps, Innis remarks, “People in a housing project that is under siege might not care about an esoteric right, like the right not to be searched without a warrant.
“But those individuals damn well know what the right of self-defense is. And they know the power of having a gun on the premises.
“I’ll bet if we were to go into that project right now, there would be many law-abiding, decent citizens that have guns in their households, and they are branded as criminals because of unfair gun laws. Those people in that project have a desire to protect themselves more than anybody else. And they’ll do it by any means necessary.”
History Will Judge
Speaking in defense of gun sweeps, back in 1994, Bill Clinton dismissed the charge that warrantless searches violated people’s freedom. “The most important freedom we have in this country is the freedom from fear,” he declared before the tenants of a violence-plagued Chicago housing project.
Clinton’s words got a respectful hearing from those shell-shocked tenants. But our founding fathers would have seen right through them.
“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” chided Benjamin Franklin.
In the end, history will judge whether our generation cared more about saving its freedom or saving its skin. Should we manage to retain any semblance of our constitutional liberties, it will be thanks to the courage of men such as Roy and Niger Innis, who dared to speak out when all around them were silent.
Tomorrow: Guns and Feminism
November 5, 2003