The Former Civil Rights Activist Who Created the Right to Bear Arms
The first time I saw a gun was in high school, when a stoned friend of mine decided it would be funny to point one at my head.
Five very long seconds later, he put the gun down, laughed his ass off, and I didn’t end up on the local news that night. But with the state of the debate over guns the way it is, I can’t help but think that if I had been killed like that, gun rights advocates would use the case to prove their point that we need more guns, not fewer. They would have said that my death just proves that crazy people on drugs need to be put in jail so they don’t shoot people. Or they’d say that somebody else with a gun should have been around to shoot my friend before he shot me.
I’ve been having trouble understanding these lines of reasoning, so I called up Don Kates—one of the men responsible for the progun rhetoric of today.
Kates is a Yale-educated lawyer who started his legal career fighting for civil rights in the South during the 1960s. A few years later, however, he ended up at the NRA, crafting legal arguments and publishing academic papers that defended the Second Amendment and inspiring many of the gun rights mantras people use today. His work has been used over the years by lawyers on behalf of gun rights and was an important factor in Justice Antonin Scalia’s decision in DC v. Heller, the Supreme Court case that ruled individuals, as opposed to militias, have a constitutional right to own and use a gun.
That case is a big reason you hear a lot of people these days saying, “What part of ‘shall not be infringed’ don’t you understand?” And Kates is a big reason gun rights proponents are so confident they are right.
VICE: You describe yourself as a long-time liberal Democrat. So how did you become a gun rights scholar who worked for the NRA?
Don Kates: From my teenage years, I had always had an affection for guns. And when I was a law student, I became a civil rights worker with the Law Students Civil Rights Defense Council, an organization that’s probably been defunct for decades.
As a civil rights worker in the South, I carried various guns—as did many other whites in the movement—for protection. And Southern black civil rights activists were almost all armed, since they were largely rural Southerners. I recall one night when I sat watch outside the home of a black teacher who had been threatened along with five or six blacks. I was underarmed since what I had was the ineffectual M1 carbine. I didn’t know any better. The blacks with whom I was sitting watch all had shotguns or battle rifles.
The image of gun-toting civil rights activists is one that’s rarely depicted, especially given their reputation of nonviolence. But there were guns around. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. allegedly had an “arsenal” in his home. Why do you think it’s not talked about very often?
I assume that is because it would contradict the pacifist image of civil rights activists. The publicity we received came from journalists who were themselves quasi pacifist and antigun, so self-defense and gun ownership were not things they were attuned to, much less what they wanted to portray.