Gun Rights And Civil Rights

Responding to Jeffrey Toobin's profile of Clarence and Virginia Thomas, Jonathan Blanks shoots down the idea that gun rights and civil rights are unrelated issues. Toobin wrote that "Thomas finds a racial angle on a broad array of issues, including those which appear to be scarcely related to traditional civil rights, like campaign finance or gun control."

As Blanks points out, with an assist from Adam Winkler, this isn't accurate. A key part of disenfranchising blacks during Reconstruction forward was ensuring that black people couldn't arm themselves in self-defense. As Blanks notes, "When marauding bands of hooded murderers ride the nights on horseback, the ability to protect one's family from them is very much a civil right—and the systematic removal of those rights doesn't require a special “angle” of jurisprudence to understand."

Here's a little more context from Winkler, who notes that in some instances gun control was specifically implemented in order to deny black people the right to bear arms:

The Fourteenth Amendment illustrates a common dynamic in America’s gun culture: extremism stirs a strong reaction. The aggressive Southern effort to disarm the freedmen prompted a constitutional amendment to better protect their rights. A hundred years later, the Black Panthers’ brazen insistence on the right to bear arms led whites, including conservative Republicans, to support new gun control. Then the pendulum swung back. The gun-control laws of the late 1960s, designed to restrict the use of guns by urban black leftist radicals, fueled the rise of the present-day gun-rights movement—one that, in an ironic reversal, is predominantly white, rural, and politically conservative.

This is a beautifully concise way of explaining how complicated arguments surrounding gun rights are. After all, as Winkler notes, even Martin Luther King Jr. applied for--and was denied--a gun permit. As much as we might like it to be otherwise though, the political history of guns is, like everything else in American politics, fraught with racial conflict.

As for the rest of Toobin's piece, I part company with Blanks here:

It's not that I think Toobin wrote this as a hit piece. (It was, if anything, a miss piece.) But by writing this as he did, he mischaracterized an important and well-documented aspect of traditional civil rights in America that—at the very least—any responsible Court watcher would instantly recognize from recent cases, whether or not he agreed with the policy outcomes. Toobin goes further to imply Thomas relies on a revisionist history that is perceived through his putatively unorthodox originalism and colored by his race. That is simply bullshit.

Well, I think it's rather obvious that Thomas' legal views are affected by his experience of race. He says as much, it comes through in his writing, and it's one of the reasons I think it's wrong to call him a "sellout." I find it ironic that Thomas' antiempathy empathy is so embraced by conservatives because it reflects their legal views, but that's another argument.

Toobin's profile of Thomas not only shoots down some pervasive liberal stereotypes, such as the idea that Thomas is a "Scalia clone." His point is that Thomas' originalism is not "unorthodox" but orthodox, unlike "faint-hearted" Scalia. The profile is a narrative of Thomas' intellectual impact on the court, and is only "negative" in the sense that it is likely to lead the court a place liberals would rather it not go, and that it identifies potential conflicts of interest in the case over the Affordable Care Act. But it's not a "hit piece" or (attempted "miss piece") in the sense that it treats Thomas not as some marginalized crank who is nothing more than the product of conservative affirmative action, but "an intellectual leader of the Supreme Court" whose "intellect and his influence have also been recognized by those who generally disagree with his views." 

I suspect liberals who read Toobin's profile will start to take Thomas' intellectual views far more seriously--as well they should. 

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