Does race shape Americans' passion for guns?

 A couple at a Michigan open-carry gun rally celebrates America and the right to bear arms.

Story highlights

  • You can't talk about guns in America without talking about race, scholars say
  • Some believe gun culture is rooted in fears that go back to slavery
  • Gun rights advocates disagree that fear is a motive
  • Each week seems to bring a new viral video that raises questions about guns and race

(CNN) Here's a thought experiment:

What if large groups of African-American men carrying shotguns and semi-automatic rifles started moseying into stores across America to tout their support of open-carry gun laws?
    Would they be greeted by the same anxious looks shoppers gave groups of armed white men who did the same this summer at Target stores and chain restaurants like Chipotle? Or something more lethal?
    For Charles Gallagher, a sociologist who studies race, the answer to that "what if" is easy.
    "Whites walking down Main Street with an AK-47 are defenders of American values; a black man doing the same thing is Public Enemy No. 1," says Gallagher, a professor at La Salle University in Pennsylvania.
    The debate over guns in America traditionally has been framed as a Second Amendment issue. Gun enthusiasts evoke the right to bear arms, and the need to protect themselves against a tyrannical government.
    But does race play a role in some Americans' attachment to guns?
    It depends on who you ask.
    You can't talk about guns in America without talking about race, Gallagher and others say. The panic that would ensue at the sight of armed black men in public, they say, derives from the same racial fears that can be traced to the conquest of Native-Americans and the institution of slavery.
    The United States has the most armed civilian population on the planet, they say, because some of its white citizens have a history of confronting racial anxieties by "gunning up."
    Gun rights advocates reject that notion. They say racial paranoia doesn't explain America's gun culture, and that they actually want blacks to have more guns. They say blacks should support groups like the National Rifle Association because law enforcement officers have traditionally not protected them.
    "The NRA should stand for the Negro Rifle Association," says Robert J. Cottrol, a professor of law and history at George Washington University in Washington. "You would think the way many black politicians are supportive of gun control that African Americans were the most protected people in American history."
    These gun rights advocates acknowledge that racism shaped some American attitudes toward guns in the past. But they say it's race-baiting to insist it shapes gun culture today. Many non-whites, they point out, are supporters of gun rights but are ignored by the media.
    "There's very little about anything in America for which race is not part of the story," says David Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute in Colorado, which offers expertise on Second Amendment rights. "That doesn't mean that race is the only part of the story."
    The links between race and guns, though, may surprise you, some historians and gun scholars say.
    One of the first groups to dramatically tout its support of open-carry guns laws was not a predominantly white group like the National Rifle Association. It was the Black Panther Party.
    Southern blacks were such strong supporters of gun rights that even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once kept an "arsenal" in his home, one gun control historian says.
    And if you think gun control started with a liberal do-gooder group, you're wrong.
    America's first gun control group, as well as its first domestic terrorist organization, says Kopel, was the Ku Klux Klan.
    How the KKK got into gun control
    The KKK took so easily to gun control because the nation's first gun control laws in the 19th century were rooted in racism, historians say.
    Before the Civil War, Southerners passed laws to keep guns away from slaves and free blacks because they feared slave revolts. After the war ended, Southern states passed laws that made it illegal for blacks to possess guns or ammunition.
    The Klan's rise was driven by the fear of blacks with guns, Kopel says. He quotes one 19th century lawyer who said that when the Klan took control of an area, "The first thing done was to disarm the Negros and leave them defenseless."
    These racial fears may seem like they belong to another era, but sometimes the present looks like the past, one historian says.
    There was a run on gun stores when President Obama was elected and another when he was re-elected. There was also a run on gun stores just before President Clinton signed the Federal Assault Weapons ban in 1994. One historian, however, says the surges in gun sales that accompanied Obama's elections were reminiscent of another era.
    When emancipated blacks starting winning political offices right after the Civil War, Southern whites went on gun-buying sprees, says Dylan Rodriguez, an ethnic studies professor at the University of California Riverside.
    "You had an absolute rush on guns by ordinary white citizens to arm themselves to the teeth because black people were being put in positions of white power," says Rodriguez, author of "Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide and the Filipino Condition."
    Race and ethnicity continued to be the "unspoken motive" in gun control efforts well into the 20th century, says Kopel, author of "The Truth About Gun Control."
    The state of New York passed the 1911 Sullivan Act, which made owning a handgun more difficult, after large numbers of Italian and Jewish immigrants pouring into America were blamed for urban crime.
    The fears of black people with guns resurfaced during the 1960s.
    After a group of armed Black Panther members invoking their open-carry gun rights barged into the California state Capitol, lawmakers there passed the Mulford Act, banning the open carrying of loaded guns in public in 1967. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed after race riots rocked the nation.
    Kopel says the Black Panthers had a different agenda than their contemporary counterparts.
    "The Panthers' arms-carrying was often intended to be intimidating," he says. "That's one difference between the Panthers and modern open-carry activists. The latter are attempting to convey the message that they are harmless and peaceful."
    When MLK packed a pistol
    It's a mistake to think that our gun culture is lily-white, historians say. Contemporary blacks may be some of the strongest supporters of gun control, but the black community has a strong gun rights tradition, particularly in the South.
    Guns helped spawn the civil rights movement, says Cottrol, the history professor at George Washington University.
    White vigilantes who tried to attack black communities were met at times by gunfire. The Deacons for Self-Defense, an armed black group, protected civil