Research News

Opposition to gun control grounded in post-Civil War paranoia


Published January 21, 2013

Carol emberton.

Carol Emberton

The debate about gun control in the U.S. 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 UB historian Carole Emberton.

“The demand for little or no restriction on gun ownership,” says Emberton, assistant professor of American history, “is related to disillusionment with and fear of the federal government and nonwhite ‘others,’ which developed in the Reconstruction South, as well as the West and in the country’s growing urban centers.

“In 1865, 4.5 million slaves were freed. Whites feared that the recently freed slaves would retaliate against them,” she says.

“In 1870, the 15th 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 continuing 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 government.”

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,” she explains.

Emberton’s research focuses on the discourse of emancipation in the late 19th century and how it became entangled with justifications for violence, both during the war and after.

Her first book, “Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence and the American South after the Civil War ” (The University of Chicago Press, 2013), explores how meanings of citizenship, manhood and freedom emerged from and enlarged cultures of violence in the Civil War Era.

Her second book, “An Empire for Freedom: America’s Greater Reconstruction,” traces how movements for social reform in the 19th 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.