The black nationalism of the Black Panthers — otherwise known as the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense” — couldn’t be further from our own vision of building a future for black and white Americans together. But they weren’t wrong that law enforcement in certain cities was not trustworthy in 1966. When the Panthers started placing armed patrols in neighborhoods known for police abuse, the overwhelmingly white state legislature proposed the Mulford Act, named for Oakland assemblyman Don Mulford, which prohibited carrying loaded firearms in public spaces. The media dubbed it the “Panther Act” in spite of Mulford’s claim that it wasn’t racially motivated, and indeed, most of the examples cited in favor of the bill involved the Panthers, even though there were many armed groups at that time.
The Mulford Act, signed by Governor Ronald Reagan, opened the door to the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, which prohibited former felons, among others, from owning guns and introduced background-check requirements. The use of gun control as a way to oppress black men has now turned into a significant element of our mass-incarceration crisis, as black men are far more likely to have gun charges stacked onto other charges (whether or not the gun was involved in the crime) or be sent back to prison for owning a gun, even if no other crime was committed. Given the dangers many people face in destabilized neighborhoods, it is unsurprising that even well-intentioned citizens returning from prison may choose to arm themselves.
In 1962 Robert F. Williams found support from the NRA, but by 1968 the organization was supporting the Gun Control Act, and it has been silent when the gun rights of black Americans have clashed with police tactics. In contrast, Gun Owners of America reiterated its ongoing concerns that no-knock warrants are incompatible with the right to self-defense. Every American has the right to defend himself or herself against violent aggression, and conservatives need to defend this right consistently, no matter who the aggressors may be.