One rather odd aspect of the recent debate regarding gun laws is the claim that Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior would support the NRA position on guns. Given that Dr. King was assassinated with a firearm and preached against violence, this sort of claim seems both ironic and somewhat distasteful. However, it does seem worthwhile to consider Dr. King’s views regarding guns and gun rights.
On the one hand, there are not unreasonable grounds for claiming that Dr. King supported and accepted gun rights.
In his “I have a Dream” speech, Dr. King made it clear that he respected and accepted the constitution: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Given that the second amendment is part of the constitution, it is not unreasonable to accept that Dr. King respected that amendment. However, this inference would obviously be somewhat weak—after all, he might value certain aspects of the constitution while also taking issue with certain parts (such as counting African-Americans as 3/5 of a person).
As far as more practical evidence, Dr. King owned guns in the 1950s for the purpose of self-protection in the face of death threats from racists—in face, his house was described as an arsenal and was guarded by armed supporters. He even applied for (and was denied) a concealed weapons permit.
Given Dr. King’s use of armed protection and his ownership of guns, it is not unreasonable to infer that he accepted the right of self-protection and took this right to include the possession and presumably the use of firearms. As such, it would not seem to be a stretch to claim that there would be some overlap between the views generally presented by the NRA and Dr. King’s own views regarding guns.
Of course, it is well worth noting that Dr. King was clearly in danger of assassination (and he was ultimately assassinated) and hence his views at the time must be taken within this context—a context that also included the fact that Dr. King had good reason to believe that the police might not be inclined to act in his defense. As such, the sort of principle at work here would seem to be that the possession of guns would be acceptable when a person is in clear danger from wrongly harm and there is a very reasonable expectation that the state will not offer protection against that danger. As such, to infer what Dr. King would think about guns in more “normal” contexts would be a matter of speculation.
While the above does provide some reasons to believe that Dr. King accepted gun rights in the 1950s, the story would not be complete without considering what occurred and was said latter.
In the “I have a Dream” speech that made his respect for the constitution clear, Dr. King also made it clear that he opposed the use of violence—at least in the context of the struggle for civil rights. He said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” This view is, of course, supported by his use of the methods of civil disobedience and his well-known opposition to the use of violence.
It might, of course, be pointed out that his rejection of violence would seem to be in a very specific context—namely that of the struggle for civil rights. It could also be argued that this approach was motivated primarily by practical reasons, such as the realization that the use of violence would not achieve his goals. As such, it could be contended that he did not reject his 1950s view of guns as a means of defense but rather had adopted non-violence as a specific tactic for a political struggle. After all, the fact that a person supports non-violence in politics does not entail a rejection of gun rights or the use of force in other contexts.
However, Dr. King directly addressed the matter of guns and gun violence. In response to the assassination of John Kennedy, King said “…by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
This would seem to clearly indicate that Dr. King’s later view of guns included a rejection of the idea that guns should be available for purchase “at will.” While this is open to interpretation, this does seem to suggest a support for limiting the ability of people to purchase guns.
It is interesting to note that the current NRA spokesmen and Dr. King clearly agree on one point, namely the influence of movies and television on creating a culture of violence. However, this obviously does not entail that Dr. King and the NRA share the same general views. After all, Dr. King made his views on the ready availability of firearms for sale clear and this obviously does not match the position of the NRA.