Over the Independence Day weekend I started reading Charles E. Cobb Jr.'s new book This Non-Violent Stuff'll Get You Killed. Its provocative subtitle is How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, but Cobb, a journalist drawing on some first-hand experience of the movement, doesn't seem to have intended his book as an intervention in the current gun-rights debate. Still, the gun lobby and the larger gun culture will draw inspiration from Cobb, whether he intends it or not. How can they not when he tells a first-hand account from the early Sixties of an old black man whose gun was confiscated by a segregationist mayor. The man is told by the civil-rights workers that he has a right to his gun in the Constitution. He goes back to the mayor and, barely literate, points to where he was told the Second Amendment was in the text -- and got his gun back. The moral for Cobb is that gun culture was so ingrained in the South -- and guns were still understood as necessary for hunting for poor blacks and whites alike -- that in this one case, at least, a white racist would deny a black man many of his civil rights, but not his right to bear arms.
While that tale is almost heartwarming there's more violent and suspenseful stuff in Cobb's book. He spotlights a history lost in the shadow of Martin Luther King's nonviolent demonstrations. In that history, armed blacks defended themselves, their families and their homes against racist attacks. Sometimes it was enough for the Klan to know that blacks were armed, and sometimes they had to be shot at. How did this make the Civil Rights Movement possible? It helps to understand the Movement as a kind of performance, the show Americans saw on the evening news with dogs and fire hoses. There non-violent resistance had its effect on public opinion. Off-stage, so to speak, Movement activists were thought to be in constant danger of attack by Klansmen or other "night riders," and there were enough actual incidents of murder to justify the suspicion. They often protected themselves with firearms -- even Dr. King kept some in his rooms when he traveled, though I don't know whether he had any in Memphis or if they could have saved him from a sniper -- or were protected by armed locals. In recounting all this, Cobb makes an important distinction between the right to armed self-defense, which King himself affirmed, and armed retaliation or outright insurrection. Until the later "Black Power" period, Movement leaders warned consistently against retaliation or revenge attacks, purging those few who advocated such measures. If one thing above all distinguishes the Movement from 21st century militia movements, if only in the eyes of gun-control activists, it is the perception that the militias are using the Second Amendment to assert a right to insurrection, while the Civil Rights people, or at least those discussed by Cobb, did not.
Can a believer in gun control justify civil-rights activists' appeals to the Second Amendment while refusing today's claims by the NRA and other groups? In other words, can you approve of the activity Cobb describes and still deny an individual right to bear arms? On a purely emotional level you would want the beleaguered heroes of Cobb's history to have every resource to protect themselves from racist terror -- especially when racists controlled local governments and law-enforcement and were unlikely to offer blacks the protection they were owed. When government clearly isn't doing its job, individuals have no recourse but to take up arms themselves. Some people may feel they're in a similar predicament today but after reading Cobb it's hard to take their complaints seriously. Whether or not we can take them seriously is one thing, however, and whether all such claims are equal under law is another. The constitutional question can't be settled simply by saying these people were good guys, but we think those people are bad guys. Meanwhile, new complications have emerged that could not have been anticipated fifty years ago, most notably the threat of the amoklaufer or mass shooter, which probably weighs more on most gun-control advocates than the threat of private militias. The real problem with the Second Amendment may be that it abstracts gun-control issues, especially when jurists interpret it through the filter of natural-rights theory, when the question of when people need to take up arms, either against oppressive neighbors or an oppressive government, may always be a matter of situational ethics and specific circumstances. Put another way, it actually may be correct to say they had a right to take up arms, but you don't -- that ends sometimes do justify or disqualify means -- but the Constitution gets in the way of actual moral judgment of such cases. You can't read Cobb's book without raising such questions for yourself, and I don't know if anyone --even the most ardent gun nut -- can read it without having some core assumptions challenged. I haven't finished the book yet, but I definitely can recommend it.