This was a surprising little moment for me in reading The Autobiography of Martin Luther King: King was a gun owner prior to and in the early days of his involvement with the Montgomery bus boycott! After a bomb exploded on his front porch, his friends and family urged him to keep an armed guard and/or carry a gun. He says that he went so far as to apply for a license to carry a gun in his car, but that this was refused (he doesn’t say why). He goes on to say,
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….
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.
It’s not really so surprising that any random home in 1950s Alabama would have a gun in it, and I suppose my surprise is a good example of my failure to apply Bayesian reasoning to the question of whether MLK would have owned a gun.
King never says whether self-defense was a motive for acquiring a gun in the first place (the fact that he doesn’t feel the need to explain it is probably further evidence that was commonplace), and if you read this passage carefully, he isn’t saying that he felt safer after he got rid of the gun. To my reading anyway, he’s simply saying that, probably in no small part because of his religious beliefs, he chose not to concern himself with his personal safety, which is certainly a theme that shows up elsewhere in King’s writing and speeches.