The issue of gun rights is mostly fought on party lines in the present day, but what we forget is that the hot-button topic was largely racialized mere decades ago.
If there's any group that loves their guns, it's got to be conservatives. Despite all of the mass shootings that have taken place in the United States, some resulting in the death of innocent school children, they cling on to their constitutional right to bear arms as if it were a matter of life and death for them personally. One would assume that this is how it's always been, since time immemorial. However, that's not the case. When black empowerment political party Black Panthers carried guns, exercising their second amendment right just like any other American citizen, conservatives were quite keen on implementing gun control.
Gun control rights became an issue of political partisanship only recently. It is in the current age that party polarization pushed politicians to the fringes, forcing conservatives to become hesitant to push gun control reform. With lobbying groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Federalist Society throwing money and political clout in the faces of lawmakers, the chances of bi-partisanship sink even lower. Meanwhile, Democrats and liberals continue to take the streets, call for changes in legislation, and criticize the GOP for their lack of action - all to be shot down in Congress. Thus the loop prevails. But was it always this way? The answer would be no.
Years ago, just after then-President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Democratic Senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut proposed strengthening gun control laws, with a special focus on banning mail-order guns; it was through the mail that Lee Harvey Oswald obtained the rifle he used to eventually kill the President. And who was the strongest proponent of this move? None other than Franklin Orth, the NRA's executive vice president at the time. He affirmed in his testimony to Congress, praising the bill Senator Dodd had introduced, "We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the President of the United States." The NRA, which had aligned itself then with the principles of safe gun use and ownership, had endorsed the bill. They had helped draft similar control measures in the past, including the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1938 Federal Firearms Act.
The ensuing assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy only bolstered conservatives' fervent interest in passing gun control legislation. However, there was one event that truly characterized the motives behind this interest: the May 1967 confrontation between armed members of the Black Panther Party and California state legislators in the city of Sacramento. At the time, the legislators were working on a bill that would specifically target the Black Panthers, making it illegal for them (or anyone else in the state) to carry loaded guns in public. By 1967, the Black Panthers had made one thing clear. The liberation of African Americans would come only through the right to bear arms. In a 'Ten Point Program,' they asserted, "We believe we can end police brutality in our black community by organizing black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second amendment of the constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We, therefore, believe that all black people should arm themselves for self-defense."
The conservative party, comprising then mostly white Americans just as it does today, thus took quite an even stronger fancy to inhibiting gun ownership. That brings to light a crucial part of America's history with gun control - it was never about which party you belonged to, but it had - and still has - more to do with race. It was and still is about who should own guns. California's then-Governor Ronald Reagen further racialized the issue of gun control, stating once at a fundraiser, "You won’t get gun control by disarming law-abiding citizens. There’s only one way to get real gun control: Disarm the thugs and the criminals, lock them up, and if you don’t actually throw away the key, at least lose it for a long time." A newly anti-regulation NRA backed his Presidential bid in 1980.
Gun control may seem like a distant hope for this generation of young people, one of the most diverse that the United States has ever seen. No generation has been more acutely aware of our country's racist past and its intersections with gun control. While it is easy to accept legislative change as a thing reserved for foolish optimists, we must remember that even conservative icons like Reagen once supported gun control. If his politics could shift in the past, there is absolutely no reason that today's conservatives can't change their minds too. We've just got our work cut out for us.