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  • An Unequal Right to Bear ArmsState Weapons Laws and White Supremacy in Texas, 1836–1900
  • Brennan Gardner Rivas (bio)

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Andrew Jackson Sowell, Texas Ranger, photographed by D. P. Barr in 1871. Sowell is sporting three weapons, two of which would have been illegal for most men to carry in public by the end of 1871. Photo AR-X-016-J274, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

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n association between Texas and guns runs deep. From the famous "Come and Take It" flag raised at the Battle of Gonzales and Davy Crockett wielding "Old Betsy" at the Alamo to the pistol-toting cowboy and the storied Texas Ranger, firearms have long been an integral part of Texas history and the Texas mystique. In the modern era, when guns and the rights of gun owners have become hot-button issues nationally, the Lone Star State has occupied a prominent place in the debate. Texans have been particularly adamant about protecting their Second Amendment rights, legalizing licensed concealed carry in 1995 and open carry in 2015. Modern gun-rights advocates have not been shy about invoking Texas's history as a gun-friendly state; indeed, the "Come and Take It" flag, often with its original cannon image changed to a modern military-style assault rifle, has become a ubiquitous symbol at pro-gun events. The clear suggestion from such imagery is that any state effort to restrict the ownership or bearing of arms is a recent phenomenon foisted upon the citizenry by an overreaching government.

History tells a more complicated story. As this article demonstrates, although guns have certainly played a prominent role in defining Texas culture, for much of its history the Lone Star State has had relatively stringent gun regulations. Indeed, the state's first gun-control measures date back to the Republic of Texas, and in 1871 Texas became a pioneer in the field of arms-control when lawmakers banned the carrying of deadly weapons outside the home. Perhaps most surprisingly, this legislation, for reasons that are explored below, garnered support from both Republicans [End Page 285] and Democrats and remained on the books into the modern era. The stereotype of nineteenth-century Texas as a gun-lover's paradise, then, clearly mistakes the past for the present.

Since the founding of the Republic of Texas in 1836, Texans have endorsed the Second Amendment by enshrining the right to bear arms within every version of the state constitution. Each one contains a clause in its bill of rights guaranteeing the citizen's "right to bear arms in defense of himself and the state."1 Invoking the term "citizen" meant that, until the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, this protection excluded significant portions of the population.2 In antebellum Texas, citizenship was a white male prerogative and citizens bore arms to defend themselves, their dependents (an extension of self), or the state.3 And they did just that in the Texas Revolution, the U.S. war with Mexico, and countless wars and skirmishes against the region's many Indian tribes. Their sense of civic duty demanded this organized and politically justifiable bearing of arms, but the construction of masculinity in the antebellum South embraced both the controlled violence of war and the disorderly violence of the duel and the brawl.4 The white men of Texas enjoyed a virtually unrestricted right to use all manner of weapons, including guns, to exercise their masculinity.5

Although antebellum Texans did not accept infringements upon the citizen's right to bear arms, they did assent to the state's right to legislate on the subject of weapons. Unsurprisingly, in the first three decades following independence regulations targeted the non-white persons of Texas, particularly the male slaves and Indians who posed a threat to the [End Page 286] safety and social order of white communities. Thus, antebellum gun laws were primarily about race, and the state legislature had the power to make laws limiting the wearing, bearing, and carrying of weapons as long as they did not undermine the absolute right of white men to own and use them.6



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