In the opening pages of her compelling social history, “The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America,” Carol Anderson writes that her book is neither pro-gun nor anti-gun. “Guns are not the key variable here,” she explains. “It’s Black people. Their legal status — enslaved, Free Black, denizen, Jim Crowed citizen, or citizen of ‘post-racial America’ — did not change the way the Second Amendment worked against their rights.” Backed by rigorous research, Anderson lays out the case that throughout history, Black Americans have largely been restricted from the right to bear arms.

Black Americans’ fraught relationship with the Second Amendment is as old as the nation itself. In the colonial period, slave patrols — set up to surveil and police Black people and preserve the institution of slavery — raided enslaved people’s dwellings for weapons and contraband. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Black Codes, enacted after the Civil War to restrict Black Americans’ freedom, and Jim Crow laws barred Black people in many parts of the United States from possessing weapons.

Throughout the history of Black freedom movements, Black gun possession and self-defense were stringently repressed. In 1892, journalist and activist Ida Wells, writing on the horrors of lynchings, observed, “The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.” She argued further that “a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”

Some civil rights leaders, including those who practiced nonviolence as a political strategy, found ways to circumvent discriminatory gun licensing for self-defense purposes. In the mid-1950s, after his house was bombed, Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a gun permit in Alabama. “The local police had discretion to determine who was a suitable person to carry firearms,” UCLA law professor Adam Winklerhas written. “King, a clergyman whose life was threatened daily, surely met the requirements of the law, but he was rejected nevertheless. At the time, the police used any wiggle room in the law to discriminate against African Americans.” Still, according to his adviser Glenn Smiley, King maintained an “arsenal” at his home.

In 1967, the California legislature was considering repealing a law that allowed the public carrying of loaded firearms, at a time when the Black Panthers had taken up armed patrols in Oakland intended to prevent police violence. The Black Panthers believed that the legislation was aimed at disarming them. In protest, members carrying weapons entered the Assembly chamber during a session. Two months later, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, banning open

carry. The law also effectively prohibited armed Black Panther patrols. Police later raided the homes and meeting places of the Panthers, looking for weapons.

Even in states where open carry is now legal, Black people have mixed feelings on whether to participate. This is understandable, since open-carry laws rarely provide protections for Black gun owners. The killing of Philando Castile — who informed police of his firearm before being shot seven times during a traffic stop — happened in Minnesota, an open-carry state. Despite the hesitations of some Black gun owners about open carry, members of Black gun rights groups have marched heavily armed in protests against police and vigilante killings of Black people.

Whatever the response, Black Americans still worry that rights that protect White Americans do not protect them. Anderson argues that “the Second Amendment is so inherently, structurally flawed, so based on Black exclusion and debasement, that, unlike the other amendments, it can never be a pathway to civil and human rights for 47.5 million African Americans.”

Indeed, anti-Blackness was built into the Constitution. Consider the example of the three-fifths compromise, a concession to enslavers that James Madison proposed during debates at the Constitutional Convention. The compromise was aimed at enticing slave states into the union by offering to count each enslaved person as three-fifths of a human, instead of entirely ignoring the enslaved population; in this way, the Southern states were able to bolster their population numbers for tax purposes and for power in the electoral college and the House of Representatives. “That is why the current-day veneration of the Second Amendment,” Anderson writes, “is, frankly, akin to holding the three-fifths clause sacrosanct. They both were designed to deny African Americans’ humanity and rights while carrying the aura of constitutional legitimacy. They both damaged American democracy and called into question the basic founding principles of equality.”

However, ensuring that Black people have access to Second Amendment rights will not remedy the foundational anti-Black nature of the Constitution. The tension between the Second Amendment and Black gun ownership has a long history, rooted in powerful and racist myths that depict Black people as inherently violent. The Second Amendment offers no sanctuary for Black people’s desires for self-defense and protection. Members of Black communities have a harder time legally gaining access to guns and are more likely to be arrested, injured or killed by police when they have a weapon, even if it is legal or fake.

Underscoring this reality are the many accounts of Black adults and youths arrested or killed by police while possessing a real or even a toy gun.”The second a Black person

exercises that right,” Anderson writes, “the second they pick up a gun to protect themselves (or not), their life —

as surely as Philando Castile’s, as surely as Alton Sterling’s, as surely as twelve-year-old Tamir Rice’s — could be snatched away in that same fatal second.” Despite this reality, Black gun ownership soared in the summer of 2020, amid widespread protest against anti-Black racism and police violence.

Black people owning and using guns has always been a trigger point in the United States. If Blackness is itself already regarded as a weapon or a threat, as Anderson argues, then gun ownership is viewed as a distinct danger to the

well-being of White America. The Second Amendment,

and the Constitution itself, were never intended to extend guarantees to Black people. Should the goal be to insist

that Black Americans are entitled to Second Amendment protections, or should we instead look to reconstitute

our relationship with the entire framework of rights and


“The eighteenth-century origins of the ‘right to bear arms’ explicitly excluded Black people,” Anderson writes. In Georgia, for instance, “not only were Blacks forbidden from owning or carrying firearms, but white men were required to own ‘a good gun or pistol’ to give them the means to ‘search and examine all negro houses for offensive weapons and ammunition.’ The distinction was clear: ‘Citizen(s) had the right to keep arms; the slave did not.’ “ Anderson’s book prompts another question: Can a Constitution rooted in anti-Blackness ever be a vehicle for freedom and justice for Black people? “The Second” is an important opening, and offers an opportunity to rethink our attachment to the Constitution and our entire body of laws.