The Equalizer


May 10, 2000

The Million Mom Marcher-types would have you believe that guns are just nasty – the playthings of rednecks and brutes, and certainly of no use to decent people. But Col. Colt's revolver earned the nineteenth-century nickname "the equalizer" for good reason. As a weapon of self-defense, it ended the age of brawn and put clerks and school-teachers on a par with bruisers for the first time since ... well, ever.

With a loaded pistol in hand, the frailest woman could fend off the meanest thug, and a black sharecropper might persuade a racist mob to play nice – somewhere else. That equalizing effect has grown over the years since, as firearms have improved to literally offer more bang for the buck.

But that bang only helps if you're allowed to have it.

Nineteenth-century America being the sort of place that it was, African-Americans were often in particular need of personal protection. And, the times again being what they were, they were hampered in those efforts by the very people they needed protection from.

As early as colonial days, laws forbade blacks from carrying weapons for fear they might harbor some resentment against the folks wielding the whip. Free blacks were often subject to the same restrictions as slaves out of concern over their loyalties – especially after Nat Turner's Rebellion.

As Clayton Cramer pointed out in a piece for the Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy, "The fear of armed blacks had become so extreme that dogs were considered weapons. Maryland prohibited free blacks from owning dogs without a license and authorized any white to kill an unlicensed dog owned by a free black."

Talk about your strict arms control.

The Civil War apparently did little to improve attitudes in the defeated states of the Confederacy. While the Constitution was amended to forbid explicitly racist laws, "It appears," said Cramer, "that the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement to treat blacks and whites equally before the law led to the adoption of restrictive firearms laws in the South that were equal in the letter of the law, but unequally enforced."

Of course, it's easy to bash the post-bellum South for racist attempts to disarm African-Americans. What's less widely admitted is that even "progressive" northern states harbored similar views toward folks dusky and disfavored.

According to a Chicago-Kent Law Review article by Robert J. Cottroll and Raymond T. Diamond, "In New York, these fears found expression in the passage of the Sullivan Law in 1911. Of statewide dimension, the Sullivan Law was aimed at New York City, where the large foreign-born population was deemed peculiarly susceptible and perhaps inclined to vice and crime. ... It is not without significance that the first person convicted under the statute was a member of one of the suspect classes, an Italian immigrant."

Cottroll and Diamond add that, no matter what arguments are made in favor of gun controls, "[i]f safety concerns must be conceded, it should be recognized as well that local governments have sought to ban firearms from what is frequently considered one of today's untrustworthy and suspect classes, the urban poor."

The authors of those weapons restrictions surely knew they were putting the clamps on something pretty powerful, or they wouldn't have bothered. But that's all in the past, right?

Now that the government puts the screws to people without concern for race, creed or color, is the equalizer still a necessity?

Well, even if bad guys no longer come government-approved (and let's leave that argument for another time), freelance thugs don't seem to be in short supply. Fear of violent crime has served as an important spur in recent years to liberalized concealed-carry laws, which make it easier for people to pack pistols in public without running afoul of the law.

Prof. John Lott performed a now-famous study on the effect of concealed carry laws, published as More Guns, Less Crime. He determined that jurisdictions that loosened restrictions on concealed carry enjoyed pretty-much across-the-board reductions in violent crime rates as street toughs turned their energies to less dangerous property crimes.

That's not a bad tradeoff. What would you rather have go missing, your car or your daughter?

Now, guess who Lott's study said enjoyed the greatest benefits from packing heat? Give up?

Said Lott: "[T]he results are at least suggestive that rapists are particularly susceptible to this form of deterrence. Possibly this arises since providing a woman with a gun has a much bigger effect on her ability to defend herself against a crime than providing a handgun to a man."

And besides women, Lott added: "Not only do urban areas tend to gain in their fight against crime, but reductions in crime rates are greatest precisely in those urban areas that have the highest crime rates, largest and most dense populations, and greatest concentrations of minorities."

Hey, they call it an "equalizer" for a reason.

But even as personal firearms provide comfort and protection to women and minorities, the American right to bear arms is under the sort of attack not seen since those old efforts to disarm blacks and immigrants. This time, though, everybody is under the gun – gun-banners, that is.

Well, mostly. Laws targeted at so-called "Saturday night specials" seem to have an explicitly ... ummm ... dark side. The very nickname of these inexpensive handguns is derived from the term "niggertown Saturday night" and the laws have their roots in fears of black urban violence.

But even gun restrictions that are entirely free of bias hit minorities and women harder than they affect white men – for the same reason that blacks and women derive the greatest benefits from concealed carry laws. As the likeliest targets of violent crime, they have the greatest need for self-defense, and they suffer the most in its absence.

So it's a special irony that among the loudest voices raised in favor of firearms restrictions and outright gun bans are those of the leaders of mainstream women's groups and African-American organizations. Their efforts include the NAACP's attempts to extort concessions from gun-makers in the courtroom and the Million-Mom March in favor of "sensible" gun controls (whatever those are).

A little more literally than anybody could like, these groups are apparently cutting their own throats.

Of course, there's no unanimous vote here for a return to the pre-Colt age of brawn. The aforementioned Prof. Robert Cottroll is himself black, and an outspoken believer that "the ultimate civil right is the right to defend one's own life, that without that right all other rights are meaningless."

Likewise, groups like Women Against Gun Control and the Second Amendment Sisters voice their own sentiments that in a world in which men are born bigger and stronger than women, a gun is perhaps not such a terrible idea.

That is, after all, the whole point of the equalizer.

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12 may 2000