A New Study Suggests That Black Southerners’ Access to Firearms Reduced Lynchings
In her 1892 pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, the journalist Ida B. Wells argued that firearms were an essential tool in preventing the deadly white supremacist violence that she chronicled. “Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year, the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves in Jacksonville, Fla., and Paducah, Ky, and prevented it,” she wrote. “The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.”
Wells thought the lesson was clear: “A Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great risk of 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 and lynched.”
Many African-American leaders, including Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Du Bois, T.R.M. Howard, Roy Wilkins, and Martin Luther King Jr., took a similar position, which was supported by voluminous anecdotal evidence. A recent paper by Clemson University economists Michael Makowsky and Patrick Warren reinforces Wells’ case for self-help by showing that “rates of Black lynching decreased with greater Black firearm access” during the Jim Crow era.
Makowsky and Warren’s data on lynchings come from a 2019 inventory by University of Georgia sociologists E.M. Beck and Stewart Tolnay. “Our sample includes a mean of 2.16 lynching deaths per year, with 41% of state-years experiencing at least one Black lynching death and a maximum of 13 in Georgia in 1922,” the economists write. “Lynching deaths per state capita steadily decrease through our window, with upticks in 1919 and 1933.”
During this period, Makowsky and Warren note, “Black citizens were subject to state and
Article from Reason.com