United States v. Cruikshank, Racism Linked to First Gun Control Legislation

Dion McNeil

Gun control didn’t start with saving children from a rifleman in a school or in a movie theater. It started with a word that is apart of gun control. That word is control.

If you were in a coma for the past 50 years and woke up you’d probably find something strange about today’s conversations about gun control. You’d likely be confused. Much of the gun control debates fail to mention one important aspect of gun control. The true history of gun control legislation isn’t rooted in stopping a man from entering a school with a rifle, preventing suicide, or any other form of violence. Instead, the true history of gun control is rooted in racism. When freed slaves attempted to obtain firearms they would be prevented from doing so either by the federal or state governments.

South Carolina’s Black Codes

After the American Civil War, several states moved to restrict the rights of newly freed African Americans. One of the first laws to be established in South Carolina was the “black codes.” South Carolina didn’t want to have freed slaves voting, owning guns, peacefully assembling, or doing anything other than being submissive and quiet. There was a whole host of unlawful statutes, black codes, and infringement upon the rights of African Americans. For the most part, legislation was stacked on top of other legislation. If you were to check to see how the rights of African Americans were removed in South Carolina you may notice something familiar. Just like a lot of today’s gun control legislation, none of the unlawful black codes were presented right away. Instead, blacks were considered “servants” under South Carolina law at that time.

If people of color wanted to work they would usually have to take on the title of a “servant” and the person they worked for (usually white) was considered by law to be a “master.” Here is an example of a black code that forced people of color into servitude:

“XXXV. All persons of color who make contracts for service or labor shall be known as servants, and those with whom they contract shall be known as masters. . . .”

Keep in mind that these newly freed slaves probably didn’t own land or have much money. They worked for free. One should compare their situation to an abused person leaving a violent spouse. Often times, it’s hard to pick up the pieces and find decent work. Since many of these people were slaves they usually had few skills other than agriculture and hospitality work. Many of them weren’t able to read because for a long time it was illegal for a person of color to read. These people were poor, most were illiterate, and some displayed behavior comparable to Stockholm Syndrome. This was a way to force people of color, usually African Americans, into slavery. It’s just that now the slavery was redefined as the person being a “servant.”

Blacks were banished from owning guns. This was a common trend in South Carolina and other states that were usually in the South. Here is another black code:

“XIII. Persons of color constitute no part of the militia of the State, and no one of them, without permission in writing from the district judge, or a magistrate, shall be allowed to keep a fire-arm, sword, or other military weapon. . . .”

African Americans couldn’t even own a sword. The idea was to disarm these people in order to oppress them. This is why racism is never a good idea. Today, most black people lean left, and many support gun control either out of blind allegiance to a set of particular political and social ideologies or a lack of knowledge involving the true history of gun control. However, the people who are against gun control right now in the majority are white people. So, what was intended to only affect people of color is now being implemented against white people. Racism and other regrettable beliefs harm a nation as a whole.

Before Cruikshank

Gun control legislation was aimed at African Americans. Just like racist laws enacted during the Jim Crow Era, gun control legislation has been implemented slowly over time. Back during the Jim Crow Era, there were claims that people of color, especially black men, were dangerous. This was used as a justification to disarm black people. The idea was to first paint people of color as inherently dangerous and then convince the masses that disarming those dangerous people was for the good of the country and, somehow, for the good of the communities who wouldn’t have access to firearms.

Gun control legislation has protected members of the Ku Klux Klan. The first major U.S. Supreme Court case involving gun control was in 1876. The name of this case was United States v. Cruikshank. Before getting into the court case we must first look into what led up to that court case.

Andrew Johnson

During the 1800s, the State of Louisiana had an issue with black people voting. In Colfax, Louisiana, armed militias and voters attempted to allow black citizens in Louisiana to vote in the gubernatorial race. Then-U.S. President Andrew Johnson wasn’t a fan of African Americans. President Johnson would routinely refer to Louisiana Republicans as “agitators” who didn’t understand that it was in the best interest of blacks to have their rights limited. President Johnson appeared to believe that black people were less intelligent than whites and thus shouldn’t have the same rights. These beliefs are further confirmed by Johnson’s unwillingness to support the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

In 1865, Then-Louisiana Governor James Wells, a Democrat, allowed the Louisiana Legislator to pass black codes that restricted the rights of African Americans in the State of Louisiana. Governor Wells had a change of heart and supported steps to disenfranchise former Confederates and grant voting rights for blacks. The rest of the Louisiana Democratic Party didn’t like this. Governor Wells attempted to hold a constitutional convention in order to accomplish his goals. The convention that was intended to give blacks some measure of rights was met with violence and death by the hands of Southern Democrats.

Depiction of New Orleans Massacre

The proof that there was resistance against the idea of treating blacks the same as whites can be demonstrated by the New Orleans Massacre. On July 30, 1866, during the convention, a group of angry Louisiana Democrats, Louisiana police officers, and firemen attacked unarmed blacks and white Republicans. The attackers didn’t want black people to have the right to vote and especially not the right to own guns. Why would these attackers want their targets to be armed? Since the Louisiana black codes prevented most black people in Louisiana from owning firearms it was easy for an angry mob to kill people who just wanted equal rights.

130 black people marched towards the U.S. Flag located at the Mechanics Institute in Louisiana. Then-New Orleans Mayor John T. Monroe took it upon himself to gather up ex-confederates, Louisiana Democrats, police officers, and others, to meet the group of peaceful marchers. Mayor Monroe claimed that his mob was present to prevent civil unrest. But Mayor Monroe’s mob caused the very unrest he claimed that he wanted to prevent.

These marchers showed bravery because as they got near the Mechanics Institute there were shots fired. The marchers moved on. Keep in mind that these black people and white Republicans were used to hearing gunshots whenever there were civil rights demonstrations. Upon arrival at the Institute, a group of police officers, confederates, and others, began indiscriminately beating and shooting anyone that was black or white Republicans. The people who attempted to flee, including women and children, were chased down and killed. Blacks who surrendered were still gunned down. There were blacks who were murdered that didn’t participate in the march. Some were just out and about and died because they dared to come outside. In total, 238 people were murdered with more than 40 injuries, massive property damage, and a state that would be forever changed.

This situation had to be mentioned before United States v. Cruikshank case to properly explain the historical context behind the decision.


In 1872, there was a gubernatorial race in Louisiana that resulted in violence. Just like the New Orleans massacre, many innocent African Americans lost their lives while trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Read More About United States v. Cruikshank: Click Here

The 1872 Louisiana governor’s race was only the second of its kind since the formation of the new Louisiana Constitution. The race featured a Republican named William Kellogg squaring off against Democrat John McEnery. Kellogg won the election but the Louisiana Democrats, ex-confederates, and those who opposed civil rights for African Americans refused to recognize Kellogg as the governor. Then-U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant had to step in by sending in the U.S. Army to force McEnery to concede the election.

Before President Grant got involved, John McEnery and a paramilitary group known as The White League took over New Orleans which was the capital of Louisiana. Contrary to some beliefs, President Grant actually ordered the U.S. Army to step in sooner. The Army arrived late.

Black people in uncountable numbers were mowed down by gunfire, bodies sliced by swords, and homes blasted through with a small cannon. The exact numbers of deaths are unknown.

For three days McEnery and the white supremacists held the capital until the U.S. Army marched. The 13th Regiment restored order and was headed by General Philippe Régis de Trobriand. McEnery conceded the election at last. None of the insurrectionists were charged with any crime. General Régis de Trobriand and the 13th Regiment remained in Louisiana until the 1877 Compromise. The Compromise was an unwritten, closed-door deal that effectively removed the civil rights of African Americans due to the U.S. Army leaving areas of the South. Once that happened blacks around the U.S. saw their rights removed and were summarily abused by Southern Democrat-led state governments.

As a result of this event, several individuals were arrested and faced federal charges under the Enforcement Act of 1870. State courts convicted the men responsible for the massacre but those men appealed their sentences. Their argument was that the federal government had no jurisdiction over this matter due to a belief that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment somehow didn’t apply to the people who were murdered.

In 1875, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) heard the case. Since this was an argument based on the U.S. Constitution, SCOTUS could interfere. In a ruling that would be later reversed, SCOTUS sided with the defendants in the Cruikshank case. In a nutshell, black Americans would see their rights eroded almost immediately when SCOTUS allowed states to control constitutional rights. During the 1800s, African Americans would have limited rights, if any, if states could just ignore the U.S. constitution without SCOTUS ruling racist and discriminating actions as unconstitutional.

This SCOTUS decision was also the first major gun control ruling. This ruling allowed states to control the 2nd amendment without any interference from the federal government. Much of this ruling was about limiting the rights of African Americans to own firearms. Why else would SCOTUS side with members of the White League, ex-confederates, and unapologetic white supremacists? Once blacks were disarmed with a rush of new black codes across the country there was a sharp increase in racial violence. Disarmed blacks made for easier targets. The evidence of this can be found in the Civil Rights Era. Racial violence didn’t decrease from the time of the Cruikshank decision but instead increased as white supremacists and racists had the full backing of SCOTUS.


The Cruikshank decision, even though it was based on pure racism and let murderers off the hook, lasted until 2010. In the landmark SCOTUS case McDonald v. Chicago, the ruling from Cruikshank was essentially reversed with gun rights restored for all Americans, including blacks.

This should serve as a lesson that gun control didn’t start with saving children from a rifleman in a school or in a movie theater. It started with a word that is apart of gun control. That word is control.

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Historical Racism Ended The Open Carry of Firearms in the United States

Racism and a desire to disarm the Black Panther Party is the reason why open carry was banned and is now considered taboo. Just like with the 1867 Cruikshank decision, gun control legislation has an undeniable link to historical racism and oppression. The same way it is a shame if a black person doesn't vote given the fact that civil rights leaders lost their lives for that right is the same way it would be a shame for African Americans to not own firearms.

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