Brendan O'Neill writes:
There was a time when Charlton Heston was known as the tall, rugged, old-style American who played great historical figures in great Hollywood movies: Moses, Ben-Hur, Michelangelo. He was also known as a warrior for civil rights and racial equality. Some of today's newspapers carry a snapshot of a young, dashing Heston picketing a whites-only restaurant in Oklahoma City in 1959, carrying a placard that said: "All men are created equal."
Towards the end of his life, however, he became better known as a cranky spokesman for the National Rifle Association, a wrinkled and possibly mad Marlboro Man who said the authorities would have to prize his beloved rifle from his "cold, dead hands". As today's Independent points out, younger cinema audiences will most likely know Heston from Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. The scene in which, in the Independent's words, Moore "lured Heston into playing a cameo as a rich, foolish old voice of reaction" still makes for uncomfortable viewing.
From great actor and progressive campaigner to reactionary old fart who loved guns: everyone agrees it was a tragic fall from grace. But did Heston really make a dramatic political u-turn? Actually, no. From the 1950s to the 1990s, he remained rather consistent in his commitment to upholding America's freedoms. It was his liberal critics in the gun control lobby on the east coast and in trendy parts of LA who changed their tune, and made a mad swing from liberalism to authoritarianism.
How gun control came to be seen as a liberal cause is one of life's great mysteries. In both the US and across Europe, fully paid-up lefties and progressives will tell you with pride, even pomposity, that the American authorities ought to disarm their populace and ban guns.
What a turnaround. Demanding gun control has traditionally been the preserve of reactionary, even racist elements in American society. Up until the 1980s, gun control was mostly a conservative campaign, driven by a conviction amongst right-leaning activists, politicians and lawmakers that ordinary people, especially those of the non-white variety, could not possibly be trusted with guns. Only the state, they believed, should have the right to use fatal physical force.
The revolutionary government of 1791 made the second amendment to the US constitution, insisting on the right of the citizenry to bear arms as a safeguard against oppressive government. Over the years, various state officials and legislators sought to restrict that right. In its earliest incarnation, gun control legislation was explicitly aimed at disarming black people. Following the Nat Turner's rebellion of 1831, when black rebels shot up white slave owners and freed their slaves, a rising fear of armed blacks led the state of Tennessee to alter its constitution. It changed the guarantee "that the freemen of this state have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence", to a guarantee "that the free white men of this state have a right to keep and to bear arms for their common defence".
In 1840, the North Carolina supreme court passed a statute decreeing: "That if any free negro, mulatto, or free person of colour, shall wear or carry about his or her person, or keep in his or her house, any shot gun, musket, rifle, pistol, sword, dagger or bowie-knife ... he or she shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and may be indicted therefore." This law did not apply to whites - only black or mixed-race people.
In the 1890s, Florida also passed race-specific gun control laws. In 1941, Justice Burford, a judge in the supreme court in Florida, overturned a conviction for carrying a handgun without a permit on the basis that the state's original gun control statutes had a racial basis. "I know something of the history of this legislation", he said. "The act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro labourers ... and to give the white citizens in sparsely settled areas a better feeling of security. The statute was never intended to be applied to the white population and in practice has never been so applied."
At the turn of the 20th century, gun control became a fashionable conservative cause again - in response to an influx of immigration from eastern and southern Europe. New local restrictions on gun ownership were passed, such as the 1911 Sullivan law in New York City, in order to prevent the strange newcomers from getting their hands on weaponry. As Gary Kleck points out in his book Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America, gun control was anything but a liberal cause back then: "In the 19th and early 20th century, gun control laws were often targeted at blacks in the south and foreign-born in the north."
Throughout the twentieth century, too, gun control tended to rise to the top of the political priority pile when the authorities feared that certain communities were getting out of control. The Gun Control Act of 1968 was ostensibly passed in response to assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but its real targets were inner-city black communities where there had been violent riots for three summers running, and where some black activists were beginning to arm themselves. That is why the act specifically targeted cheap imported pistols, such as the "Saturday night special"; in other words, the affordable guns of the black ghetto.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton, recognising that gun control was mutating into a liberal concern, began to talk about assault rifles as the great evil of modern America. Who tended to own assault rifles? "Drug dealers, street gang members and other violent criminals", as the administration put it. These are long-established codewords in polite political circles for blacks and latinos. Whatever you think of the NRA (I am not a fan), it is hard to disagree with their observation that: "The historical purpose of gun control laws in America has been one of discrimination and disenfranchisement of blacks, immigrants and other minorities." They have also been used to "disarm and facilitate repressive actions against union organisers [and] workers."
There is nothing remotely liberal in demanding that the state should have a monopoly on the use of force over the rest of the population. Liberals have cast off the overtly racial lingo of yesteryear's gun control campaigns - today it is their powerful sense of disconnection from everyday American society that leads them to believe that people with guns are automatically dangerous and demented individuals.
Whatever his motives, whatever underpinned his passion for guns, Charlton Heston, in demanding equal treatment for blacks in the 1950s and later calling for everyone to have the right to bear arms, was a better representative of the spirit of American equality than any of those gun control campaigners who turned him into their favourite redneck whipping boy. You don't have to be a friend of the NRA or a supporter of the senseless shootings in America's poorer communities to oppose gun control. You just have to have some healthy trust in the American people and some healthy distrust of the American state - both qualities that liberals in America and Europe seem to lack today.