The always-tendentious gun control debate came to the fore in U.S. politics once again in February 2018, after 17 people were killed in a Valentine’s Day mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Most of the victims were under age 18.
Many Americans, including young survivors of the attack, called for more stringent gun control laws to make it harder to obtain rapid-fire weapons such as the legally-purchased semiautomatic rifle used in the Florida shooting. For its part, the National Rifle Association (America’s most powerful and deep-pocketed gun rights lobbying group) fell back on the well-trodden argument that more guns, not fewer guns — in the hands of teachers and armed guards in schools, for example — was the best way to ameliorate the gun violence issue.
Over the past 50 years, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has opposed most legislative efforts to restrict citizens’ right to bear arms, regardless of the justification. But, as gun control advocates were quick to point out in the wake of the Florida shooting, a notable exception occurred in 1967:
1967 Huey Newton & the Black Panthers entered the California
Statehouse armed.This terrified The White Establishment & with
NRA approval Gov. Reagan signed the Mulford Gun Ban Act
into law. pic.twitter.com/Dp9YUZyxXq
— IN THE MIDST. (@PaulJon54388869) February 18, 2018
Social media postings noted that in contrast to their current policy of backing laws that allow citizens to openly carry loaded firearms in public, in 1967 the NRA supported a statewide ban on open carry in California after armed members of the Black Panther Party started patrolling city streets to counter police brutality. A Facebook meme hammered the point home with an image of Black Panthers brandishing weapons in the California state capitol:
It’s true that the Mulford Act, which prohibited anyone outside of law enforcement officers (and others explicitly authorized to do so) from carrying loaded firearms in public, was enacted largely in response to the militant activities of the Black Panther Party. It’s also true that the bill was written by a Republican legislator, California Assemblyman Don Mulford of Oakland, and was passed with the full backing of Republican governor Ronald Reagan and the National Rifle Association.
The bill was introduced in April 1967, six weeks after it had been reported that an armed group of Black Panthers acting as an escort for Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, were involved in tense, nonviolent confrontations with airport security officers and police in San Francisco. As leftist writer Sol Stern later noted in Ramparts, “Local cops were dumbfounded to discover that there was no law which prohibited the Panthers from carrying loaded weapons so long as they were unconcealed, a legal fact which the Panthers had carefully researched.”
In a statement quoted by Associated Press, a Panther spokesman said, “The cops asked us what we were doing and we told them. ‘We’re exercising our constitutional rights and we’re not going to take any bull.'”
The Mulford Act was designed to impose a limits on those very constitutional rights in the state of California, establishing that “every person who carries a loaded firearm on his person while on a public street, or in a public place within any city or in a vehicle while in any public place or on any public street in an incorporated city or in an inhabited area of unincorporated territory is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Recognizing that they were its primary targets, the Black Panthers protested the Mulford bill by sending an armed contingent to the state capitol on 2 May 1967. That was a day Ronald Reagan would never forget — nor, for that matter, remember accurately.
This is how he described the event and its aftermath in a personal letter written in 1979:
The Black Panthers had invaded the legislative chambers in the Capitol with loaded shotguns and held these gentlemen under the muzzles of those guns for a couple of hours. Immediately after they left, Don Mulford introduced a bill to make it unlawful to bring a loaded gun into the Capitol Building. That’s the bill I signed. It was hardly restrictive gun control.
It wasn’t true, however, that the Black Panthers had held legislators “under the muzzles of guns” for hours. They were disarmed by the capitol police soon after entering the building, and, according to most contemporaneous accounts (including that of the Associated Press) were escorted out of the chambers 30 minutes later:
About 40 Negroes — armed with loaded rifles, shotguns and pistols — walked into the state capitol at noon Tuesday. A half dozen went into the Assembly chamber while the House was in session.
They identified themselves as members of the “Black Panther Party” from Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond and said they were protesting “racist Oakland police” and demonstrating for the right to bear arms.
State capitol police herded the men out of the chamber and took many of their guns away. There were shouted protests and some struggling but no violence.
The police took the men and guns to the capitol police office, unloaded some of the guns and gave them back.
The Negroes left the capitol about half an hour after entering and just before Gov. Ronald Reagan came out on the lawn to meet some visiting school children.
Reagan called the demonstration “a ridiculous way to solve problems.”
Assemblyman Don Mulford, sponsoring a bill protested by the Negroes, called it “the worst invasion of the legislature in its history.”
Reagan was also in error when he stated that the bill was introduced after the Panthers departed (as noted above, it had been introduced a month earlier), but it was revised with provisions strengthening security measures for the governor and the legislature in particular, and it was fast-tracked for passage the following month.
An addendum justifying immediate enactment of the bill specifically referenced the Black Panther incident (although this verbiage was generalized in a later draft to cite the threat of “organized groups and individuals publicly arming themselves for purposes inimical to the peace and safety of the people of California”):
This act is an urgency statute necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety within the meaning of Article IV of the Constitution and shall go into immediate effect. The facts constituting such necessity are:
An organized band of men armed with loaded firearms has recently entered the Capitol of the State of California, knocked aside an Assistant Sergeant at Arms of the Assembly and invaded the Chambers of the Assembly, thereby creating a serious threat to the orderly function of the government of the state. Existing laws are not adequate to prevent such serious interruptions in the orderly processes of the government of this state and threats to the safety and welfare of the officers of this statute. It is, therefore, imperative that this statute, which will make unlawful actions such of these of the armed band which invaded the State Capitol, take effect immediately.
The bill cleared the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee on 1 June 1967 after Mulford testified that it had been very carefully considered and had the support of the National Rifle Association, according to a United Press report published the following day. It was passed by a bipartisan majority of the full Senate and signed into law by Governor Reagan in July.
Sen. John Schmitz, who had tried unsuccessfully to defeat the bill, penned an editorial holding the NRA directly responsible for its passage, saying: “Members of the National Rifle Association in California should know that their organization, despite its record of opposing gun control bills in the past, favored this bill and that without NRA support it almost certainly would have been defeated.”
Despite angrily observing that the first real “victim” of the Mulford Act was “not a ‘Black Panther,’ nor a rioter, nor a criminal,” but rather an upstanding member of the Republican Party arrested for carrying a loaded gun in his vehicle, Schmitz failed in his efforts to repeal the act.
The National Rifle Association would later (during the 1970s) harden their stance against any limitations on the right to bear arms, but in 1967, when the Black Panthers emerged as the most militant defenders of that right, the NRA took a very different position.
Their mutual legacy, the Mulford Act, is still on the books today.