Guns-rights advocates want to change a state firearms law that they say has a racist past.
But black lawmakers say those advocates are using the story of a Reconstruction-era massacre of African-Americans to justify letting Georgians tote weapons in churches and other public places.
Next month is the 140th anniversary of the Camilla Massacre, when a group largely made up of blacks heading to a Southwest Georgia Republican political rally were shot up by white locals after being warned not to bring guns to town.
Gun-rights advocates say the September 1868 massacre, in which at least nine freedmen were killed and up to 25-30 were wounded, led the General Assembly to ban citizens from carrying firearms at political rallies and other “public gatherings.” The aim, they say, was to keep guns away from blacks.
“It was entirely about race,” said Ed Stone, president of GeorgiaCarry.org.
But many African-American lawmakers don’t see the “public gatherings” law as a civil rights issue. In fact, at the Capitol, black lawmakers have been some of the leading backers of gun-control legislation over the years.
One, Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), called GeorgiaCarry’s use of the Camilla massacre “deeply offensive.”
“It’s very cynical, even more-so when you understand that in many African-American demographics, gun homicides are the number one cause of death,” Fort said. “To have these people use the history of discrimination against African-Americans going back 140 years to say this is why we need to have guns in churches, restaurants and schools …. where is this going to end?
GeorgiaCarry.org led the charge during the 2008 session to pass legislation allowing Georgians with carry licenses to take guns on MARTA, into restaurants and state parks. They are battling city of Atlanta officials in court over a ban on guns in non-secure areas of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The next target may be churches and college campuses.
Earlier this month the group made a presentation to a Senate committee that will consider legislation for the 2009 session that would likely loosen the “public gatherings” section of state law, allowing Georgians with licenses to carry firearms in more places. During the meeting, Stone told lawmakers about the Camilla Massacre.
The incident has been called one of most violent episodes of Reconstruction.
It happened after the white-dominated General Assembly expelled 32 black legislators. One of them, Philip Joiner, helped lead a march Sept. 19, 1868, of several hundred blacks and a few whites to Camilla to attend a Republican political rally. Some were armed with walking sticks, shotguns and other various firearms, according to historical accounts of the event.
When the procession was a few miles outside of town, the local sheriff warned them not to come to town with firearms. The marchers told the sheriff they meant no harm and continued on. posse of armed white townsmen gathered to await the group.
When the marchers arrived, they were met by a posse of armed white townsmen, who opened fire. The white Republicans and freedmen fled, but the sheriff’s men pursued them, shooting the freedmen as they tried to escape, according to the state histories. State officials blamed the marchers for defying the sheriff’s order not to bring guns to town.
Two years later, the General Assembly passed legislation prohibiting citizens from carrying guns into places of public worship, court, voting precincts or other “public gatherings.”
E.R. Lanier, a Georgia State University law professor who teaches Georgia legal history, said historical documents connecting the massacre with the gun law from that time are limited. But, he said, ” There is a connection, there is no doubt about it.”
While that may be true, Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta), a longtime civil rights activist, said it’s dishonest for groups like GeorgiaCarry to use “horrible stories to justify why the Legislature and the courts should allow for easier access to guns.
“It’s very disingenuous and it is not appropriate to link these horrible massacres to what they are doing in 2008,” Brooks said. “We need less guns on the street rather than more guns. If you took the guns off the street, particularly in African-American, Hispanic and poor white communities, the homicides would drop dramatically.”
Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), a member of the Senate gun-laws study committee, supports giving more freedom to Georgians with carry licenses. He said the arguments about gun violence don’t hold water because Georgians who go through background checks to get the licenses generally aren’t the ones committing crimes.
“The gun violence that is occurring there is not happening with the people who are going through background checks, it’s happening with people who already have a criminal history,” Rogers said. “If they have a criminal history, particularly a violent criminal history, then we don’t want them carrying a weapon.”
Rogers called the Camilla massacre a sad piece of Georgia history that resulted in the “public gathering” law.
“Law enforcement back then thought you ought to disarm African-Americans,” Rogers said. “Now we are seeing people arguing about the same thing. If they are law-abiding citizens, regardless of what color they are, they ought to be able to protect themselves.”