A King Among Men: Gun Ownership

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.

6 thoughts on “A King Among Men: Gun Ownership

  1. I read it as him deciding that using weapons in any manner, even self-defense, was incompatible with non-violent protest. It’s interesting that he seems to say forcing himself to come to the realization of the possibility/probability of death calmed his fears.

    • Yeah, I think so. It’s a much more instrumental/tactical adoption of nonviolence than I expected. There are times when he makes a more philosophical case for it as an end in itself, but especially when talking about Black Nationalism (which I’ll get to, it’s some of the best stuff in the book IMO) he really emphasizes that nonviolence is also the only practical option for a minority movement, citing Nat Turner, etc as examples of the failure of armed revolution.

  2. That has to be a dope feeling. Becoming so content with the reality of your death that you no longer fear it. That reminds me of what Tommy said about death on this podcast. I’m much closer to that point of contentment than I used to be. For me, it has come from living a fulfilling life. I wonder if the sense of purpose King felt every day helped him with that? Dying while doing what you’re supposed to be doing doesn’t seem that bad. Having an untouched bucket list is what makes it so scary.

    • Yeah I thought of that as well. It’s not the length of your life that gives it meaning – in the long run, the difference between 40 and 90 years is pretty damn insignificant. When you think about it, a lot of the country’s (world’s, I guess) problems stem from people’s fear of death: all of the hysteria about crime and terrorism, the insistence upon absolute security, the willingness to accept mass death, mass incarceration, and mass infringement of civil liberties in order to achieve a marginal increase in safety or even perception of safety.

      • Yeah, I’ve never thought about death on such large-scale terms, but you are right. Governments can and do use people’s general fear to hold them down rather than assisting/promoting people to actually living fulfilling lives. (i.e. we need to give up certain rights so that we can be safe).

  3. I’ve thought about this issue a lot, and I agree that it’s largely to do with facing te inevitability of death and deciding you’re not afraid of it.

    However, this does not apply equally to all persons living under your roof. While you alone might be OK to die, what about the duty a father has to protect his children, or a husband his wife?

    It’s a tough one. Here in the UK we’re not allowed to buy guns in the same way as US citizens, but we can have one locked in a cabinet provided we have a license.

    Dr. King was a fascinating man and it’s ironic that he died by the very violence he renounced.

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