Americans today are all too familiar with the debate surrounding the Second Amendment and how far the government should go in curbing the right to bear arms, as well as the National Rifle Association’s place at the front of the line in opposing virtually any new gun regulations whatsoever.
But fewer Americans likely recall a time when the NRA, as well as Republicans and a large swathe of white Americans, supported restricting Second Amendment rights of one portion of the populace: black people.
Specifically, lawmakers in California sought to keep the Black Panthers -- the first group to assert their right to carry any gun, anywhere, at all times -- from patrolling the streets with weapons.
Throughout the late 1960s, the militant black nationalist group used their understanding of the finer details of California’s gun laws to underscore their political statements about the subjugation of African-Americans. In 1967, 30 members of the Black Panthers protested on the steps of the California statehouse armed with .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns and .45-caliber pistols and announced, “The time has come for black people to arm themselves.”
Rather than convince legislators of the undeniable right to bear arms, the group’s display struck fear in the hearts of politicians, including then-Governor Ronald Reagan.
The result of that fear was the Mulford Act, which prohibited the open carry of loaded guns in the state of California, as well as a measure dictating that no loaded weapons were allowed in the state Capitol.
Why were white Americans and politicians so fearful of the Black Panthers carrying guns?
The Black Panthers -- founded in 1966 with the original name Black Panthers for Self-Defense -- rejected the idea that peaceful protests and incremental change would result in meaningful change for black Americans.
Rather, its leaders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale believed more aggressive measures were necessary to ensure safety and promote equality within their community, following closely the ideology of Malcolm X.
A large part of the group’s campaign against racial injustice relied on gun ownership and training. Newton and Seale began collecting a variety of guns during the early years of the Black Panthers, including machine guns, rifles and handguns. New recruits were required to learn how to wield, clean and shoot guns, in addition to understanding their right to carry firearms and how to communicate that to police in California.
Armed with his guns, knowledge of the law, and a bit of good fortune, Newton successfully navigated a run in with Oakland police in 1967 over the numerous firearms he was carrying in his vehicle.
As onlookers gathered, the police tried to disperse the crowd while Newton welcomed them. He knew that under California law, bystanders could legally view an arrest as long as they didn’t intrude. Since there were no violations for the police to charge the Black Panther members with (and a growing pack of witnesses), they were able to leave the scene without any trouble from law enforcement.
From that point forward, the Black Panthers regularly patrolled the streets, offering legal counsel to African Americans who were stopped by police for openly carrying firearms in what they came to term "police patrols".
“Bobby Seale and Huey Newton used the Second Amendment to justify carrying guns in public to police the police,” says [Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms]. “The Panthers would stand to the sidelines with their guns, shouting out directions to the person. That they had the right to remain silent, that they were watching and that if anything bad happened that the Black Panthers would be there to protect them.”
And then came the demonstration at the statehouse:
Before entering the building, Bobby Seale read a written statement on the Capitol steps in front of Governor Ronald Reagan: “The American people in general and the black people in particular,” Seale declared, must “take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless.”
The group of activists occupying the Capitol with fully loaded weapons on full display was an unforgettable sight. However, their demonstration backfired and the bill passed both the state Assembly and Senate, with the full support of the NRA. In addition to repealing open carry gun laws in California, Mulford made it illegal to take firearms into the Capitol. On July 28 it was signed into law by Governor Reagan, who later commented that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
According to Winkler, it was the gun regulations passed to keep African Americans from carrying their guns in public that led to "rural white conservatives" fearing their own weapons were at risk.
In less than a decade, the NRA would go from backing gun control regulations to inhibit groups they felt threatened by to refusing to support any gun control legislation at all.