“Gun Rights Are Civil Rights”: Racism and the Right
to Keep and Bear Arms in the United States
Over 40,000 gun-owners and gun-rights enthusiasts from across the United States were making their way to Reno, NV, in April of 2002—answering the call put forth by the National Rifle Association (NRA) in its 131st Annual Conference theme, “I'll Fight For Freedom!” Settling into the taxi on my way to the convention center, I envisioned a sea of middle-aged white guys in faded jeans and T-shirts sporting the red, white and blue of the American flag. It was my first venture into the field for my research on gun-rights activism, and I was preoccupied with thoughts of how to minimize the differences between me, a left-wing woman in her twenties studying at a British university, and the rightwing activists I was sure I would meet. Though I grew up in the Midwest, I never interpreted the Second Amendment the way these activists do—as an individual right to keep and bear arms not only against criminal attack but also against government oppression. As if he could read my mind, the taxidriver, a middle-aged black man, shifted in his seat at a stop light so that he could look at me. “You're not here for the NRA Convention, are you? I have to say, you don't look like a member.”
Looking back, it's easy to see the common assumptions the taxi driver and I had made about each other when he told me I didn't “look like a member”—we both imagined we knew what a gun-rights activist looked like. Just that morning I had seen the then NRA President Charlton Heston on CNN, telling the news anchors: “Those old dead white guys who wrote the Bill of Rights knew what they were doing.” Associated Press polls consistently report that black Americans are much more likely to support gun control than white Americans (Lester 1999; McClurg et al. 2002). Traditionally, sociological accounts of the American gun-control debate describe a fundamental division between the urban, cosmopolitan Northeastern Americans, with little experience with, little use for, and often outright disdain for, firearms and Southwestern Americans, made up of rural traditionalists who grew up with firearms and see them as tools to which they have a constitutionally protected right (for example, see BruceBriggs 1976; Hofstadter 1971; Kennet and Anderson 1975; Tonso 1989).