What Gun Advocates Get Wrong About Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The National Rifle Association pushed a false history of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s views on firearms in order to promote gun ownership in a video commentary released on the national holiday commemorating the slain civil rights hero's birthday.

Gun rights activists frequently distort history by citing a 1956 attempt by King to acquire a gun permit as evidence that King favored gun ownership. This ignores that King later repudiated his earlier action, concluding, “How could I serve as one of the leaders of a nonviolent movement and at the same time use weapons of violence for my personal protection?”

In a January 20 video, Colion Noir -- one of several commentators hired by the NRA to produce videos for NRANews.com -- claimed that King would have “happily struggled with envy” over Noir's concealed handgun permit. Noir then related King's attempt to acquire a gun permit and falsely claimed that after failing in that endeavor, King filled his house with people carrying guns:

NOIR: Dr. King was a nonviolent man, but even he understood the realities of self-defense and protecting his home and his family in the face of life-threatening violence. This is why he tried to apply for that gun permit when the house where his wife and daughter lived was firebombed. When Dr. King was denied, he did the next best thing and surrounded himself with people with guns. Which was evidenced by one of Dr. King's advisors describing his home as an “arsenal.”

Noir then posited that King supported gun ownership, stating, “based on Dr. King's own actions, I don't believe that Dr. King would ever advocate leaving a family or anyone for that matter defenseless in the face of violent life threatening danger.”

But Noir's history lesson on King only tells half of the story. In a compilation of King's writings gathered by King historian Clayborne Carson, King described how friends and family urged him to get a gun permit after his home was firebombed. King was denied the permit but later realized that owning a firearm was contrary to his nonviolent philosophy. King got rid of the gun he owned and would only allow his house to be protected by unarmed guards:

After the bombings, many of the officers of my church and other trusted friends urged me to hire a bodyguard and armed watchmen for my house. When my father came to town, he concurred with both of these suggestions. I tried to tell them that I had no fears now and consequently needed no weapons for protection. This they would not hear. They insisted that I protect the house and family, even if I didn't want to protect myself. In order to satisfy the wishes of these close friends and associates, I decided to consider the question of an armed guard. I went down to the sheriff's office and applied for a license to carry a gun in the car; but this was refused. 

Meanwhile I reconsidered. How could I serve as one of the leaders of a nonviolent movement and at the same time use weapons of violence for my personal protection? Coretta and I talked the matter over for several days and finally agreed that arms were no solution. We decided then to get rid of the one weapon we owned. We tried to satisfy our friends by having floodlights mounted around the house, and hiring unarmed watchmen around the clock. I also promised that I would not travel around the city alone. 

I was much more afraid in Montgomery when I had a gun in my house. When I decided that I couldn't keep a gun, I came face-to-face with the question of death and I dealt with it. From that point on, I no longer needed a gun nor have I been afraid. Had we become distracted by the question of my safety we would have lost the moral offensive and sunk to the level of our oppressors.

Noir's claims about King, which are contradicted by the civil rights hero's own writings, were promoted by conservative website The Daily Caller and echo a common attempt by gun activists to rewrite King's legacy. Conservative radio host Glenn Beck even dedicated his 2013 falsehood-filled book about guns to King, writing, “King owned several guns but was subjected to the worst kind of gun control - and deprived of his basic right to defend himself and his family - when police in Alabama denied him a concealed carry permit in 1956.”

In a similar vein, Rush Limbaugh has suggested that gun ownership by African-Americans would have obviated the need for a civil rights movement:

LIMBAUGH:  If a lot of African-Americans back in the '60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma? I don't know, I'm just asking. If [civil rights leader] John Lewis, who says he was beat upside the head, if John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?

Rep. John Lewis later responded to Limbaugh's claims, noting that members of the Civil Rights Movement “made a conscious decision not to” arm themselves:

“Our goal in the Civil Rights Movement was not to injure or destroy but to build a sense of community, to reconcile people to the true oneness of all humanity,” said Rep. John Lewis.  "African Americans in the 60s could have chosen to arm themselves, but we made a conscious decision not to.  We were convinced that peace could not be achieved through violence.  Violence begets violence, and we believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means.  We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense.