The most memorable conversation I ever had about gun ownership was with a friend, a gun owner and NRA member. Though our political views diverged, we liked and respected one another, and often talked about his enthusiasm for guns. He enjoyed shooting, and brought his kids to the range sometimes so they could learn to use the several models of pistol, shotgun, and military-style rifle he collected. At home, he kept his guns safely locked up, spending money on locks and modern gun safes. He even had a biometric safe that allowed him to keep a pistol right beside his bed, but prevent the kids from getting it.
I asked why he felt the need to keep a pistol beside his bed. “Because,” he said, “someday, some thug is going to come for me and my family, and I need to be ready.”
A variation on the male power fantasy that motivates many gun owners, yes, but the part that struck me was the choice of word, “thug.” I’d seen him use this word before, on Facebook and in conversation. It always meant the same thing: A black man.
I’ve had versions of this conversation with many gun owners over the years, and found it to be a consistent truth: That “responsible gun owner” might keep his weapons safely locked away, taking them out on weekends to shoot clay pigeons or targets the way other hobbyists shoot golf balls, but if you drill down far enough you’ll find his gun ownership is motivated by a deep fear and distrust of other races.
Far from being limited to a few conversations with friends, the racism that informs gun culture is deeply embedded in American history, and in the history of firearms themselves. As early as the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors used a primitive musket, called a harquebus, to intimidate and murder indigenous Americans. In the colonies that would become the United States, European settlers were required by law to own firearms for the specific purpose of fighting off the Indians who had been deposed from their land. Samuel Colt invented his revolver, the weapon that “won the west,” specifically to quell slave rebellions. The Maxim gun, one of the earliest machine guns, was so vital to the European colonization of Africa that it was commemorated in a famous poem: “Whatever happens / We have got / The Maxim Gun / And they have not.”
The common refrain among pro-gun activists that guns “protect liberty” is patently absurd. One common myth holds that the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment was intended to arm Americans against a tyrannical government. Quite to the contrary; the “Well-regulated militia” referenced in the amendment were, very specifically, those able-bodied men required by law to arm themselves and fight for their state governments —most frequently, against Indians.
Another common myth holds that the Nazis disarmed the German populace, leading to the Holocaust. While it’s true the Nazis used Weimar-era lists of gun owners to disarm specific political enemies, the Nazi regime in fact loosened restrictions on firearm ownership — for Germans who were not Jewish.
Such racial disparity in gun ownership is familiar today. The NRA regularly decries the “persecution” of gun owners, and shouts about tyranny at the merest suggestion of gun safety regulation — and yet when Philando Castile was shot to death despite warning police that he was a licensed owner with a permit to carry a weapon, the NRA was strangely silent. When a police officer killed Tamir Rice, a child with a toy gun, in less than two seconds — in an open-carry state — the NRA said nothing. When Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed for holding a handgun in North Carolina, another open-carry state, the NRA said nothing. Why is that? Might it be that these three people were black?
The NRA’s racist history is somewhat cloudy. Liberals are fond of pointing out that the NRA was founded mere months after federal law declared the KKK an illegal terrorist organization, however there is little evidence one led directly to the other. NRA defenders, meanwhile, repeat an equally mythological origin story in which Union founders sought to defend freed slaves from the KKK — there is no evidence for this, either. What we do know is that the NRA, historically, supported gun control laws when those laws targeted black Americans, including the 1967 Mulford Act and 1968 Federal Gun Control Act, intended to disarm the Black Panthers and similar activist organizations. And we know that the modern NRA, regardless of its history, produces propaganda videos laden with racist dogwhistles, and that its leader, Wayne Lapierre, delivered a speech at CPAC just this week in which he labeled immigrants, the Chinese, Black Lives Matter, and George Soros as enemies.
The NRA is not a white supremacist organization. They are a lobby group funded by gun manufacturers, and their only goal is to sell more guns. It just happens that the primary consumers of guns today are steeped in white supremacy, racism, and fear of the other. Statistics show that half of all guns in the United States are owned by just three percent of our population. The motives for gun ownership have diminished over 250 years, as our nation has urbanized, the frontier has vanished, and most of us obtain our food from the supermarket instead of the forest.
Sure, there are still rural populations who encounter bears and choose to hunt for food, and weekend hobby shooters — but the greatest driving motive behind American gun sales today, and that to which the NRA and conservative lawmakers pander, is racism.
In 1978, the author William Luther Pierce (writing as Andrew Macdonald) published his apocalyptic novel The Turner Diaries. The novel begins just after the passage of the Cohen Act (please note the name), a federal law that prohibits firearm ownership. The Jewish-controlled government sends “Negroes” [his word] with machetes to confiscate all guns from white households. As the story proceeds, the protagonist Earl Turner and his heavily-armed white militia fight to overthrow the American government; in an epilogue, we learn that all non-white people on the planet Earth were killed, and that “the dream of a white world finally became a certainty.”
It’s unknown how many people have read The Turner Diaries. Today it is widely available for free on the Internet, but we know since publication it’s sold more than 500,000 physical copies. The Anti-Defamation League calls it “One of the most widely read and cited books on the far-right.” The Southern Poverty Law Center calls it a “bible of the racist right.” Last year, the Atlantic reported that the book had inspired “dozens of armed robberies, and at least 200 murders.” It’s cited by any number of far-right organizations, and was famously found in the car of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who reportedly had a habit of carrying multiple copies of the book on his person, and selling them to people at a loss — mostly at gun shows, where McVeigh also met the people who helped him carry out his bombing.
Belief in the coming race war is widespread in white supremacist circles. At this point, even people who have never heard of The Turner Diaries know the future scenario it depicts. It is the specific scenario envisioned by white supremacists when they talk about the government “coming for your guns.” It’s the scenario referenced when conservatives like Charlie Kirk speculate about the government becoming “too powerful against us.”
And yes, it’s what my gun-enthusiast friend was likely imagining when he described that “thug” one day coming for him and his family. As in so much of what’s wrong with American culture, you don’t usually have to dig very far to find that racism is the true motive behind our gun culture.