The Black Panthers, NRA, Ronald Reagan, Armed Extremists, and the Second Amendment

  • Date:
  • April 08, 2020

In 1967, California codified into law A.B 1591, otherwise known at the Mulford Act.  Sponsored by Oakland assemblyman Don Mulford, A.B. 1591 made it a felony to publicly carry any firearm—either openly or concealed—in public places without a governmental license to do so.  The law came about after the events of May 2, 1967, when a group of thirty Black Panthers appeared visibly armed at the California State Capitol building to protest an earlier version of A.B. 1591.  At that time, there was nothing in California law that expressly prohibited the open carriage of firearms, either in public or private.  A.B. 1591 effectively closed this loophole.

Today, given that A.B. 1591 is seen as a reaction to the actions of the Black Panther Party, it is not uncommon to hear from scholars that A.B. 1591 is, at least in part, racist.  For instance, on this blog, Jake Charles categorized A.B. 1591 as one of several firearms laws with an “ugly past.”  While it is understandable why someone might view A.B. 1591 as being tainted by racism, the legal rationale behind A.B. 1591 is not.  The legal rationale for A.B. 1591 was about opposing armed vigilantism by anyone, not just vigilantism threatened by African Americans.

It must be remembered that the events of May 2, 1967 came a day after the NRA published the American Rifleman editorial “Who Guards America’s Homes.”  The editorial was interpreted by many in the news media—fairly or not—as promoting armed vigilantism and extremism.

Certainly, extremists, like the militantly anti-communist Minutemen, used American Rifleman editorials like “Who Guards America’s Homes” to spread their ideology.  This despite the fact that the NRA rightfully rejected any intentional association with the Minutemen.  Since 1940, after news of several NRA members being linked to the anti-Semitic Christian Front and the German Bund, opposing extremism had been a requirement to even join the NRA.  And, while it was rare within the pages of American Rifleman to see anyone pictured who was not white or Caucasian, at no point did the NRA ever take the position of excluding anyone from the organization on the basis of race, color, or creed.

Conversely, at least one newspaper columnist read the American Rifleman editorial as promoting the Black Panthers’ creed of going publicly armed anywhere and everywhere. A Black Panther document titled “What We Want Now! What We Believe,” included the following:

“We believe we can end policy 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 a right to bear arms.  We therefore believe that all black people should arm themselves for self-defense.”

However, to link any of the NRA’s literature with the Black Panthers’ belief on the necessity of going publicly armed was more nominal than real. What undermines this link between the NRA and support of armed protest by the Panthers was the fact that the NRA not only helped Mulford in drafting A.B. 1591, but also supported its passage.  The actions of the Black Panthers on May 2, 1967 utterly shocked California lawmakers and all but ensured A.B. 1591’s passage. But that does not mean that A.B. 1591 was motivated by racial animus.  The fact remains that it is was the NRA that aided in A.B. 1591’s passage.  The NRA did so in part because the organization had recently published several press releases denouncing armed extremism in all its forms.  The editorials came about due to the public backlash to the editorial “Who Guards America’s Homes.”  One of the NRA press releases recited the organization’s anti-extremist organization policy, and read as follows: “The NRA does not approve or support any group activities that properly belong to the national defense or police.  The NRA does not approve or support any group that by force, violence, or subversion seeks to overthrow the Government and take the law into its hands, or that endorses or espouses doctrines of operation in an extralegal manner.”

The NRA’s anti-extremist policy undoubtedly applied to the Black Panther Party, but that was not the only reason the NRA, Mulford, and an overwhelming majority of California lawmakers supported A.B. 1591.  What few histories on A.B. 1591 mention is that it was not just the Black Panthers that California lawmakers were concerned about.  Governor Ronald Reagan’s office had been warned on several occasions that white suburban communities were forming armed patrols in contravention to the requests of local law enforcement. As Mulford noted in a letter defending A.B. 1591, “Let me assure you…that there are no racial overtones in this measure.  There are many groups that have been active in Californian with loaded weapons in public places and this bill is directed against all of them.”   In another letter defending A.B. 1591, Mulford wrote: “This legislation was specifically designed with the help of the National Rifle Association to protect our constitutional right to bear arms and yet to assist the law enforcement people who asked for this bill do to something about the armed bands of citizens who are walking our public streets and in public places with loaded weapons.”

In addition to opposing armed extremism, A.B. 1591 was in line with how the NRA and other sportsmen groups viewed the Second Amendment outside the home circa 1967—as a limited right to transport firearms for lawful purposes, such as for recreational shooting, hunting, and to and from residences.  Throughout most of the twentieth century, the NRA had supported a policy of having more armed citizens to deter crime. This policy preference was frequently conveyed within the pages of American Rifleman. Up to 1985, however, the NRA made sure to hedge its preference of having more publicly armed citizens on the conditions that the person be law-abiding, properly trained in the use and handling of firearms, and have a justifiable reason for doing so.  This limited Second Amendment right to transport firearms was echoed by governor Reagan, who signed A.B. 1591 into law.  In 1966, Reagan had in part run his gubernatorial election on a gun rights platform.  Yet, as it pertained to the Second Amendment outside the home, Reagan’s view was in line with the NRA’s.  “I don’t know of any sportsman who leaves his home with a gun to go out into the field to hunt or for target shooting who carries that guns loaded,” stated Reagan in support of A.B. 1591, adding, “The first thing any real sportsman learns is to carry an empty gun until he gets to the place where he’s going to do the shooting.”