Martin Luther King Jr. sought a permit for him to carry a firearm after his house was attacked in 1956. Mac Sim Butler the county sheriff refused to issue a permit for King Jr. to carry a gun despite the potential danger King was facing as leader of the Montgomery bus boycott.
The Supreme Court will review a New York law that is similar to an Alabama statute next week. This gave Butler the power to determine who can exercise their constitutional right to bear weapons. Some briefs asking the Court to repeal New York’s statute are from African American organizations. These briefs emphasize the long tradition of black self-defense, racism and adverse effects of gun control laws on ethnic and racial minority groups.
King stated that King had visited the sheriff to apply for a permit for guards who were keeping me safe. He spoke to other protest organizers during a meeting in February 1956. He said, in essence, that you are the ones who can do anything.
It was against the law in Alabama at that time to have a gun “in any vehicle” or conceal it on your person. According to the law, a sheriff, police chief or probate judge “may” issue licenses “if there is good cause to fear injury to one’s person or property or any other reason that permits you to carry a gun.”
Alabama is required to issue carry permits today, as with most other states. New York requires applicants to demonstrate “proper Cause”, a vague standard which isn’t satisfied by an applicant’s general interest in self defense.
In its Supreme Court briefing, the National African American Gun Association points out that Southern states have historically used discretionary carry permits laws to disarm blacks, leaving them open to violence by white supremacists. African Americans could be arrested if they defied law to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
This is true even in New York as noted by the Black Attorneys of Legal Aid, and other public defense organizations in their brief. They claim that they represent “hundreds of poor people in New York who are criminally charged for exercising their rights to keep and bear arm.” Nearly all of them are Hispanic or black.
The brief states that this is not unusual considering New York’s origins in gun licensing. The Sullivan Act of 1911, which required a license to own handguns and “gave local police broad discretion to decide who could obtain one,” was enacted after “years of hysteria over violence that the media and the establishment attributed to racial and ethnic minorities—particularly Black people and Italian immigrants.”
Black Guns Matter briefs that New York’s gun laws are comparable to the Southern states’ firearm restrictions after the Civil War. The 14th Amendment prohibiting explicitly racist laws led to white supremacists switching to facially neutral rules, which made it hard or impossible for black people defend themselves.
Black Guns Matter emphasizes that “armed self-defense has always been vitally important to the African American community”—a tradition that stretches from the struggle against slavery through the civil rights movement. As Fordham University’s law professor Nicholas Johnson explains in his 2014 book, this was true until relatively recent times. The Gun and NegroesHowever, major black organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the NAACP have maintained this tradition.
But not anymore. This is no longer the case.
New York’s case argues that the “important tool” of the state’s ban on public carrying is a way to address urban violence. This organization does not consider that arming self-defense could be an effective tool to address the same issue.
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