In the aftermath of last week’s horrific shooting in San Bernardino, terrorism and gun control—typically regarded as two separate issues—became complementary parts of the same discussion.
As if those topics aren’t heated and textured enough on their own. Now they’ve been lumped together, with advocates of gun control claiming that decreased access to guns will help prevent firearms from falling into potential terrorist hands, while gun rights advocates argue that Americans need to be armed to stay safe from the growing terrorist threat within our own borders.
There really isn’t much common ground between the two sides. Though it’s hard to imagine tougher restrictions on, say, semi-automatic weapons preventing another jihadist attack on American soil, we should know from our own history that terrorists are, in the words of Donald Trump, “yuge” fans of gun control.
Just ask the Ku Klux Klan.
Going back to the American Revolution, though our founders didn’t see eye-to-eye on every matter, the right to self-defense was a topic that provided shared footing. As David B. Kopel notes in The Truth About Gun Control, John Adams supported “arms in the hands of citizens, to be used at individual discretion,” for “private self-defence.”
Adams’ philosophical sparring partner, Thomas Jefferson, borrowed heavily from Italian scholar Cesare Beccaria when justifying the need for individually owned firearms. To Beccaria, “The laws which forbid men to bear arms…only disarm those who were neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes.”
Adams and Jefferson believed that honest citizens needed legal access to weapons for self-defense because bad guys, no matter what the law says, will be armed.
After the Civil War, southern state legislatures enacted gimmick after legal gimmick—known as Black Codes—to keep African Americans as close to their prior slave status as possible. Though these laws varied by state, a common effort was to remove guns from black hands.
And, as Homer Plessy’s (Plessy v. Ferguson) attorney, Albion Tourgee, remembered, wherever the Ku Klux Klan thrived, “almost universally the first thing done was to disarm the negroes and leave them defenseless.”
Why? Because terrorists find it easiest to, you know, terrorize when their targets are unarmed. As Kopel sees it, “the Ku Klux Klan was America’s first gun control group.”
Even as Reconstruction took hold across the South and the Fourteenth Amendment gave African Americans the same rights as their white peers, states worked vigorously to make sure blacks could not own guns. For instance, in 1871, Tennessee passed the “Army and Navy” law, which prohibited the sale of handguns except the “Army and Navy model.”
Guess who already had those guns? Ex-Confederate soldiers. Guess who couldn’t afford to purchase them? Newly freed men. Multiple southern states passed similar laws to Tennessee’s, which, compounded by other quasi-legal maneuvers, left an entire people defenseless against domestic terrorism and vigilante justice.
Of course, it’s never advisable to draw a straight line from the pages of the history books to the here-and-now. After all, let’s be real: aside from their methods of coercion, Nathan Bedford Forrest doesn’t have all that much in common with Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik.
That said, not much squinting is required to see that as terrorism threats are becoming more prevalent here on the home front, the right to self-defense as envisioned by our nation’s founders is as needed as it ever was. Because few things would make a terrorist’s heart go pitter-patter more than the sight of Americans handing over their most potent means of self-protection.