Last month, hip-hop artist Killer Mike used an interview conducted by the National Rifle Association’s media arm, NRATV, to advocate for black gun ownership, chiding members of his community for being “lackeys” of the white gun-control movement. The interview prompted fierce social media blowback. Many argued that Killer Mike’s words merely served as fodder for the NRA’s attempt to undermine the youth-led March for Our Lives.
Days later, Killer Mike issued a two-part video apology on Twitter. The NRA “used the interview to disparage a very noble campaign that I support. My interview was supposed to be something that continued a conversation,” he clarified, “a conversation about African American gun ownership in these times. We have to remember in our allyship [with whites] that we still have to make sure there are certain rights and demands that we make for us and our community. … I support the march and black people owning guns.”
Although the controversy surrounding Killer Mike’s interview and apology received significant publicity, few have properly situated it in the history of white supremacy and gun policy. From the earliest days of the American colonies, gun laws have aimed to arm whites and disarm people of color and indigenous people, part of the quest to maintain white supremacy. People of color and indigenous people have long fought against this double standard, recognizing that gun ownership can be integral to securing equality — especially in a country where white gun ownership is valorized and protected.
From the earliest days of European colonization, gun laws served as a proxy for regulating and containing people of color and indigenous people. In 1647, “The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts” banned any man from repairing “any gun, small or great, belonging to any Indian. … Nor shall sell or give to any Indian, directly or indirectly any such gun, or any gun-powder, shot or lead, or shotmould, or any militarie weapons or armour.” Punishment entailed a fine of 10 pounds or, absent that, corporal punishment.
Connecticut replicated this statute almost word for word in 1650. Ten years later, Connecticut officials declared that “Negroes” and “Indians” were exempt from serving in the militia, which for practical purposes meant they could not possess firearms.
Such laws spread over the next 200 years. For example, in 1712, South Carolina disqualified slaves from gun ownership on account of their “barbarous, wild, savage natures,” as they could not be “governed by the laws, customs and practices of this Province.” This prohibition aimed to “restrain the disorders, rapines and inhumanity to which they are naturally prone and inclined; and may also tend to the safety and security of the people of this Province and their estates.”
In the aftermath of the ratification of the Constitution, a number of states sought to enact laws spelling out the racial boundaries of gun policy. In 1825, Florida’s “Act to Govern Patrols” provided that white citizens “shall enter into all negro houses and suspected places, and search for arms and other offensive or improper weapons, and may lawfully seize and take away all such arms, weapons, and ammunition.”
From the outset, people of color and indigenous people understood that disarming them was an integral piece of subjugating them — and accordingly resisted. In the 19th century, Harriet Tubman rescued hundreds from slavery while armed with a pistol and a three-foot-long ivory-handled sword. In 1893, a year after black abolitionist Ida B. Wells published “Southern Horrors,” a text detailing the lynchings of black people in the South, she observed that “the Winchester rifle deserved a place of honor in every Black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”
Leaders of the 20th-century struggle for civil rights recognized the ongoing need for self-defense in the form of gun ownership. In fact, even Martin Luther King Jr., one of the staunchest advocates of nonviolence, applied for a concealed carry permit in 1956 after his house was bombed. Although his application was denied, armed supporters guarded his home.
Contrary to mainstream narratives that highlight nonviolence, firearms were central to the modern civil rights movement. Influential organizations such as the Louisiana-based Deacons for Defense and Justice protected nonviolent demonstrations by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) against Ku Klux Klan violence by bringing their guns to protests. Malcolm X and advocates of Black Power, including Robert Williams, author of the 1962 bestseller “Negroes With Guns,” believed that because the U.S. government was “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property” of black people, they had to defend themselves “by whatever means necessary.”
Maybe the best parallel to Killer Mike’s orientation toward black gun ownership was the stance taken by the Black Panther Party a half-century ago.
The Panthers first took up arms in October 1966 to defend members of their community against repeated harassment and violence perpetrated by the Oakland Police Department. On May 2, 1967, a cadre of armed Black Panthers ascended the steps of the California State Capital Building in Sacramento. Co-founder Bobby Seale read a statement saying, “The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.”
In a direct response to the demonstration, however, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act (colloquially known as the Panther Bill), which, according to the Los Angeles Times, banned “the carrying of loaded weapons in most public places” in California. Reagan endorsed the bill by saying that guns were a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” As with denying King a concealed-carry permit, it was clear that white America would not accept African Americans taking advantage of their right to bear arms.
To this day, gun laws are wielded against black Americans. White people may be more likely to own or carry a gun, but black people are more likely to be imprisoned for it, or shot for legally practicing their Second Amendment rights, a reality most clearly exemplified by the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile, for which police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges.
In his NRATV interview and subsequent apology, Killer Mike highlighted the importance of having a serious and sustained national conversation about black gun ownership in the United States. Wherever one stands on the issue of gun ownership, one must wrestle with the reality that firearms policy has for hundreds of years served to regulate the bodies and movement of people of color and indigenous people. Arming themselves has helped African Americans escape subjugation and enjoy the equal rights promised to them by the law. Given the fierce resistance to gun control, Killer Mike just might be onto something.