Guns Laws, Decatur, and Protecting Black Lives

  • Date:
  • January 20, 2021

I just finished Kathleen Belew’s excellent book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, and one story there stuck out to me. It’s a story about racist violence motivating stricter gun regulations with particular resonance for this moment.

In 1979, a small group of Black protesters was marching in protest of the shoplifting arrest of a Black man in Decatur, Alabama (yes, the Alabama one). A group of 200 robed Ku Klux Klan members carrying rifles, pistols, and shotguns surrounded the 8 protesters. They wounded four protesters and fired into a car before police broke up the confrontation. In response to this armed intimidation, the Decatur City Council passed an ordinance banning the carrying of weapons within 1,000 feet of any public demonstration. There is no doubt that the City Council enacted the law in response to white supremacist violence and armed intimidation and that at least one goal was to protect peaceful protest, including for the Black Americans whose gathering had previously been interrupted. And the KKK understood the ordinance as aimed at their armed confrontations. The New York Times reported at the time that shortly after the law was passed “200 robed and heavily armed Klansmen paraded through town and circled the home of Mayor Bill Dukes, jeering defiance as Decatur policemen stood by, some waving in greeting. Ray Stelle, Klan kleagle, or lieutenant, said, ‘If the Mayor wants our guns, he’ll have to come and get them.’”

This episode reminded me of another gun law motivated by a concern for Black lives. The law struck down in Heller—banning handguns from the District—was strongly endorsed in the District’s Black communities and passed by its majority Black City Council. James Forman describes how those at the time viewed the law as “a civil rights triumph.” It helped to show that, “at least in D.C., the killing of black men mattered.” Gun laws, like these, have been used many times in our history to protect racial minorities from the harms that guns can cause to communities of color.

To be sure, throughout U.S. and English history, gun laws—like all laws—have sometimes targeted racial or religious minorities. And, as a matter of enforcement, even today's neutral gun laws are often enforced disproportionately against communities of color. These are systemic problems with the criminal legal system that should give pause to those who seek to further criminalize gun-related conduct. But the Decatur and D.C. examples alone demonstrate that it is overly simplistic to suggest “all gun control is racist." The situation in Decatur shows democratic institutions, even in the Deep South, responding to armed intimidation and violence against Black Americans by enacting gun laws designed to protect them. The fact that the KKK interrupted a peaceful protest—a quintessential act of democratic participation—demonstrates how guns can threaten harm even when no one is shot or killed. As Joseph highlighted last week, his new article with Reva Siegel unpacks these ways that guns can, especially through armed intimidation like that undertaken by the Decatur Klan, inflict a public harm on civic life. And just as legislatures can take action to guard against the physical injuries that guns cause—like the D.C. City Council in 1975—they can also act to guard against the democratic injuries that guns cause—like the Decatur City Council in 1979.