Study Guide

Right to Bear Arms - The Colfax County Massacre

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The Colfax County Massacre

  • First Supreme Court gun rights case grew out of 1873 KKK massacre in Louisiana
  • Government charged that KKK mob had violated black citizens' rights to keep and bear arms

On 12 April 1873, an armed white gang, including many Ku Klux Klan members, converged on the county courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana. The sheriff, backed up by members of the local black militia, was barricaded inside. Tempers had been running hot since November, when state elections failed to produce a clear winner in the governor's race. In Colfax County, both the Democrats and the Republicans had claimed victory and subsequently had argued over which candidates' appointees should fill the county offices. The Klan-backed Democratic mob marched on the courthouse to force the incumbent Republican sheriff to turn over the office. When the sheriff refused, the Democrats assembled outside set fire to the building and gunned down the sheriff and his black posse as they attempted to flee. An estimated 100 people were killed.

The "Colfax County Massacre" provided the United States Supreme Court with its first gun rights case. Despite 80 years of controversy, and several previous attempts to lay the issue before the Court, the Court had managed to sidestep the issue until this case reached its docket in 1875. But which side, do you suppose, invoked the guarantees of the Second Amendment? Was it the white, heavily armed gang who fought to claim the county offices they felt they had won? Or was it the incumbent sheriff, and his posse, holed up inside the courthouse with rifles and shotguns?

If you guessed the sheriff and his posse, you would be correct. The federal government charged the gang storming the courthouse with violating the constitutional rights of the black citizens rallying to the sheriff's defense. Among the government's 32 charges related to the massacre was the allegation that 98 persons, including William Cruikshank, had conspired to deprive the citizens inside the courthouse of their constitutional right to bear arms.

The State of the Question in 1875

  • Whether or not the Second Amendment guaranteed and individual right to bear arms had not yet been settled in 1875
  • Violence of the Civil War led many to become more skeptical of states' rights theories
  • Some northerners believed an individual right to bear arms would help black citizens defend themselves

By 1875 the meaning of the Second Amendment had still not been fully resolved. Prior to the Civil War, essentially four interpretations had circulated.

  1. One claimed that the Second Amendment conveyed what one historian has labeled a "civic" right. And in 1875, the United States Supreme Court embraced a states' rights interpretation of the Second Amendment just a decade after the end of a war in which the federal government had spent millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives to deny the broader theory of states' rights.

    Confused yet?

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