BUFFALO, N.Y. – “The debate about gun control in
this country is not related to American Revolutionary thought, as
gun control opponents often claim, but is grounded in the paranoia
experienced by whites over the loss of slaves and their own
political domination, a state of mind that arose after the Civil
War,” says Carole Emberton, PhD, assistant professor of
American history at the University at Buffalo.
“The demand for little or no restriction on gun
ownership,” she says, “is related to disillusionment
with and fear of the federal government and non-white
‘others,’ which developed in the Reconstruction South,
as well as the West and in the country’s growing urban
“In 1865, 4.5 million slaves were freed. Whites
feared, that the recently-freed slaves would retaliate against
them,” says Emberton.
“In 1870, the 15 amendment permitted freedmen to vote and
run for office. Since there were many more of them than there were
white citizens in certain areas across the South — areas
known as the Southern Black Belt – they not only voted, but
won local, state and federal offices and formed the majority of
some state legislatures,” Emberton says.
“Across the Southern Black Belt, white citizens understood
that free black labor would no longer support the economy that had
supported their way of life for well over 200 years,” she
says, “and in addition, many in the South were policed by
black sheriffs, represented by black congressmen, senators and
state legislators, and living in areas run by black lieutenant
governors, mayors, city councils and so on.”
Emberton adds that while corruption was part and parcel of the
political game then as now, this behavior was used by some to
justify the continuance of racist beliefs and behavior.
“In fact, the Ku Klux Klan and other ‘secret
militias’ arose in this period to take up arms against black
people and ‘others’ they believed were appropriating
white privilege and destroying their way of life and the values
that accompanied it, changes that had the support of the federal
Fueled by rage and fear toward the freedmen they had once
explicitly controlled, these beliefs re-empowered those who felt
powerless against this change, Emberton says, and remain with us
today in the conflicted discourse about gun control.
“The debate, in some respects is about whether white
hegemony should be protected everywhere and in any way by armed
citizens, and not about the constitutional intentions of the
founders,” says Emberton.
Emberton’s research focuses on the discourse of
emancipation in the late 19 century and how it became entangled
with justifications for violence, both during the war and
Her first book, “Beyond
Redemption: Race, Violence and the American South after the Civil
War” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013),
explores how meanings of citizenship, manhood, and freedom emerged
from and enlarged cultures of violence in the Civil War
Her second book, "An Empire for Freedom: America's Greater
Reconstruction,” traces how movements for social reform in
the 19 century, specifically anti-slavery and Reconstruction-era
efforts to remake the former Confederacy and extend civil rights to
freed people, commingled with violent imperialist politics in the
American West and abroad in the last half of the century.