It’s been almost 50 years since the passage of the Mulford Act, a 1967 California bill that repealed a law allowing public carrying of loaded firearms. Republican Gov. Ronald Reagan famously signed that bill into law — a move that for a time put him at odds with the National Rifle Association, which eventually endorsed his presidential campaign.
In a week during which armed anti-government protesters have seized a remote wildlife refuge in Oregon, it is important to revisit this history. The Mulford Act garnered national attention after members of the Black Panther Party marched bearing arms upon the California State Capitol. Inspired by Malcolm X’s call for self-defense “by whatever means necessary,” black protesters took the instrument that once enforced Jim Crow and white supremacy and turned it into a symbol of black empowerment. Legislative action followed.
In Oregon, a group of “concerned citizens” has forcefully and illegally taken over federal property and has threatened to defend itself “by whatever means necessary” if force is used against it. Its precise demands are unclear, but by evoking defense of the Constitution using its constitutional right to bear arms, the group has somehow paralyzed law enforcement.
In both cases, race and firearms are central issues. Police seem to have no problem dissuading “concerned citizens” at Black Lives Matters protests, for example. Indeed, their response typically is swift, severe and certain in a deliberate effort to deter future protest action. But in Oregon, there is no such sign of overwhelming force. Instead, Ammon Bundy and his disciples are given the oxygen of publicity. What’s the difference? The protesters in Oregon are white, not black. And they are carrying guns. Big guns. And lots of them.
Establishing a constitutional right to carry a gun for the purpose of self-defense was central to the mission of the Black Panther Party. After years of police brutality and unlawful searches and seizures, Huey Newton and colleagues bore arms to encourage some decorum and procedural justice whenever cops came knocking. In essence, the watchmen were being watched. They didn’t like it. Black guys with guns scared white people. Gun control was the logical answer.
As President Obama tries to rally support for tighter gun laws, then, perhaps Black Lives Matter would be better served showing up for its rallies armed to the teeth. I’m being facetious, of course, but as Shakespeare said, a lot of truth is said in jest. Maybe then police would be more inclined to listen and less inclined to shut it down. Better yet, legislators may suddenly be inclined to address the bigger threat to black lives than police brutality — guns. It’s well-known that gun violence disproportionately affects the country’s African-American population.
Interestingly, law-and-order legislation that disarmed black radicals in the 1960s under the auspices of fighting crime and controlling civil unrest woke the sleeping giant now responsible in part for the situation in Oregon. Only after passage of the Mulford Act did the NRA, which in the 1960s was chiefly a sporting and hunting association in favor of common-sense gun control, begin aggressively arguing that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to carry a gun as a means of self-defense above the people’s right to form armed militias that provide for the common defense.
Since then, the idea that owning and carrying a gun is both a fundamental American freedom and an act of citizenship has gained wide acceptance — the unintended consequence being that folks can visibly carry guns in public to “take back” something that isn’t theirs to take (already taken some 200 years ago, but that’s another story), and both command the respect of law enforcement and be heralded as patriots in some circles.
By no means am I advocating potentially deadly law enforcement intervention in Oregon — the FBI learned that lesson the hard way 23 years ago in Waco, Texas. Waiting out Bundy and others may well be the least worst option. But if a group of Muslims or black people took the same extreme measures, history tells us that police wouldn’t just stand back, watch and wait. And conservatives certainly wouldn’t celebrate their service to the country. Another double standard in the United States of amnesia.
James Densley is an associate professor in the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University.