The most arresting idea in Adam Winkler's impressively learned study of US gun law, Gunfight, is the suggestion that contemporary American gun culture was more or less invented by the Black Panthers.
Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the party founders, had studied law and discovered California allowed the carrying in public of loaded rifles and shotguns, provided that the guns were not pointed at anyone. They seized on this law to stage theatrical confrontations with an Oakland police force they deemed hostile and oppressive - and then, most dramatically, in May 1967, to walk armed into the chamber of the California State Assembly. Police tried to intervene, but Newton and Seale recited the authorizing law, and pushed ahead.
The Newton-Seale stunt - and the outrage and surprise it deliberately elicited - was made possible by America's pre-1960s gun culture. Pre-1960s Americans lived comfortably both with guns and with substantial gun regulation. Nineteenth century Americans banned concealed weapons. Often they forbade firearms altogether within the limits of a city. Twentieth century Americans outlawed categories of weapons associated with criminal activity: Tommy guns, for example, in the National Firearms Act of 1934. continue reading