First US Law To Treat Repeating Arms Differently

Attorney and Second Amendment scholar David Kopel had an interesting article published yesterday. It dealt with the racist history of gun control and how it is still being written by gun control advocates.

The article recounted the advice of journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells to fellow blacks to “buy a Winchester”. As Kopel notes, Wells was the leading anti-lynching advocate of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She felt that a repeating rifle in the hands of armed black men and women was essential to lynch mobs.

On June 25, 1892, Wells penned an iconic article for the New York Age, which was reprinted as a nationally circulated pamphlet, “Southern Horrors.” After noting cases in which lynch mobs had been defeated by armed blacks, Wells continued: “The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for the protection which the law refuses to give.

“When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged, lynched.”

Wells was referring to an incident in Jacksonville, Florida in which armed black men with their repeating rifles prevented a black prisoner from being lynched.

The result of this incident is that that Florida legislature enacted a gun control law in the next session that required a license to carry or possess “a pistol, Winchester rifle or other repeating rifle.”

This appears to be the first American statute that treated repeating arms differently from other arms. The 1893 Florida tradition is continued today by states such as California and Massachusetts, which ban many common repeating rifles and shotguns, and limit magazine capacity to only 10 rounds. (emphasis mine)

In the 1941 case Watson v. Stone, the Florida Supreme Court construed the statute narrowly. The court held that the statute didn’t apply to carrying in an automobile. Concurring, Justice Buford explained the racial background:

“I know something of the history of this legislation. The original Act of 1893 was passed when there was a great influx of negro laborers in this State drawn here for the purpose of working in turpentine and lumber camps. The same condition existed when the Act was amended in 1901 and the Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers. … The statute was never intended to be applied to the white population and in practice has never been so applied. (emphasis mine) … [T]here has never been, within my knowledge, any effort to enforce the provisions of this statute as to white people, because it has been generally conceded to be in contravention of the Constitution and nonenforceable if contested.”

This law was only repealed in 1987 when Florida adopted shall-issue carry permits.

The gun control lobby is still trying to keep “repeating arms” out of the hands of blacks – and whites and Asians and Latinos and Native Americans. Indeed, Joe Biden, he of the double-barrel shotgun, vows to do away with “repeating arms” on his campaign website. He may call them by a different name but they are still repeating arms.


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