Charles Lane, author of The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, writes in today's Washington Post about the import of Reconstruction for understanding the extent to which the Constitution protects gun ownership.
During oral arguments on Tuesday, the justices debated what the framers of the Second Amendment intended. The members of the court did not mention Reconstruction. Yet during this period, we the people gave the Union a second "founding" through constitutional amendments abolishing slavery, granting blacks citizenship and enabling them to vote. And, to clarify blacks' newly secured freedom, Congress wrote laws identifying the specific rights of individual U.S. citizens. One of these was the right to have guns.
Before the Civil War, gun ownership was a prerequisite not only of militia service but also of participation in sheriffs' posses and for personal defense. But it was a right for whites only. Southern states forbade slaves to own guns, lest they revolt. (Free blacks, in the North and South, could sometimes have guns under tight restrictions.) After the Civil War, the same Congress that made African Americans citizens through the 14th Amendment considered the antebellum experience and concluded that equal access to arms was a necessary attribute of blacks' new status.
The Freedmen's Bureau Act of 1866 promised that "personal liberty, personal security, and the acquisition, enjoyment, and disposition of estate, real and personal, including the constitutional right to bear arms, shall be secured to and enjoyed by all the citizens." This was no theoretical concern. As senators noted during the debate on the bill, many Southern states sought to reimpose legal bans on gun ownership by blacks -- leaving them at the mercy of Klansmen and other white terrorists.