What the History of Gun Rights in Appalachia Tells Us About the Current Gun Debate
Anyone who’s read the comments section on an article about gun control, or has engaged in conversations about gun control themselves, comes into contact with several common questions. Is the government coming to take our guns away? Hasn’t this happened before? Isn’t the Second Amendment important for self defense? From Mount St. James, these questions seem easy to write off. It can feel obvious that our rights are protected. But, at least historically speaking, is there any truth to the idea that the government has taken people’s guns away? Is the government willing to violate the Second Amendment?
To answer these questions, we’ll start in the seeming bastion of white, working-class conservatism: the small, isolated towns hidden deep in the hills of Appalachia. It is difficult to overstate the wide-ranging role that coal companies played in Appalachia during the twentieth century. Companies owned towns’ roads, paid their preachers, built their churches, donated their school buildings, rented out their houses, dispatched private police forces (which often had more effectual authority than the actual police), and operated (usually) the only stores in town. It is still common to see “Bethlehem Steel” or “Black Mt. Coal Co.” stamped on every third sidewalk square. Companies even issued their own currency, called scrip, which they used to pay their miners and could only be used in company stores or to pay company rent. Scrip forced miners to give their paychecks right back to the company, prevented them from saving for a better life or a move, was artificially inflated to circumvent minimum wage laws, and was also completely illegal. In the highly isolated foothills where these companies operated most often and with the most brutality, it is not inaccurate to refer to them, functionally, as the unelected town government— one which the inhabitants had almost no recourse. So when miners first began to unionize in the first half of the twentieth century, war broke out.
Governors in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania all declared, at different times, conditions of civil war within their states. Nearly every unionized town declared martial law at least once. The National Guard occupied towns for months, and sometimes even years, at a time. Appalachian counties leapfrogged each other year to year for the most murders per capita. Local police forces cooperated with private mine guards to secure the companies normally illegal military-grade weaponry, especially machine guns. One mine owner claimed this was necessary because “in ten minutes a man can get up in the mountains and the only way you can get any results [dead miners] is to spray the hillside.” Union leaders were regularly assassinated. Even worse—union leaders’ children were assassinated, some as young as fourteen years old. These were the Appalachian Mine Wars. They lasted throughout the foothills for nearly half a century, from 1890 to 1941.
In war, people stockpile weapons. So what did the Second Amendment mean to union miners? In effect, very little. During times of conflict, private company guards distributed photos and descriptions of miners to every accessible gun supplier, threatening the suppliers not to sell to the miners pictured. Regular raids took place where (sometimes private, paid) police illegally removed guns from private citizens’ homes with no warrant, no due process, and often no jurisdiction. These raids targeted black miners at consistently higher rates than white miners, a fact freely acknowledged by the union organizers and miners. The raids left all workers, but especially black workers and their families, deeply vulnerable and utterly defenseless. These raids also usually signified that the company was about to launch a major offensive against the union. Once, it was the burning down of a union food bank. Another time, it was the attempted assassination of Marshall Musick, a folk singer, organizer, and native of Harlan County, Kentucky. When it was discovered he was in hiding, a joint team of police and private mine guards killed his sixteen year old son instead. In a different town, mine guards dynamited a pro-union black church after a raid. For 50 years in the Appalachian coal fields, the Second Amendment was rendered effectually null and void, with deeply traumatic consequences for the community.
So are the Internet trolls right? Did the government really take guns away from the people? The short answer is kind of.
It’s worth noting that the government did not take guns away from all Appalachians. The state and local governments of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, or private mine guards with government protection, illegally removed and prevented the sale of guns specifically to radical communists, and especially black communists agitating for labor rights. Despite several congressional hearings on abuses within the Appalachian coalfields, the federal government chose not to intervene in any substantial way. However, when it came for example, to the highly armed Ku Klux Klan members operating in many Appalachian farming communities, the government did not take the same action. In fact, police and mine guards regularly invited and transported KKK members into mining communities to instigate racial divisions within the United Mine Workers union.
The history of gun rights in Appalachia is important not because it shows us that gun control is unnecessary or the work of “liberal elites.” This history is important because it shows how real, individual, marginalized and vulnerable people were targeted for the systemic removal of basic American rights in deeply traumatic ways. It is not true that the government has never taken guns away from its citizens; black and poor communities have found that their attempts to reform the system are often met with such measures. What this history teaches us is that the Second Amendment, like all of our rights, is valuable and worthy of protection. It also teaches us that, like all of our rights, the right to bear arms can and should be legally and equally regulated in a way that is careful and clear-eyed.
Books abound with stories of the Second Amendment being selectively forgotten, or at least circumvented, in poor and black communities. But does this mean there should be no gun control? Absolutely not. If anything, these stories show that fair, equally applied background checks are necessary to protect our rights. Checks are especially important in the case of hate group membership and domestic abuse, which seem to be the most common traits among the domestic terrorists who have murdered so many out of deep-seated hatred. Claims that historical infringements on the gun rights of targeted, marginalized union miners in Appalachia have any bearing on right-wing militia members or domestic abusers anywhere are ahistorical and incorrect. Appalachian miners needed guns to legitimately defend themselves from tyranny. Racist militias and abusive men need guns to enact tyranny. These domestic terrorists do not want to protect their homes and families. They are the danger to homes and families. The difference is crucial and it is clear.
(The overhead picture captures Johnstown, PA, a site of intermittent fighting from 1912-1929. Credit: Scott Goldsmith for Politico Magazine)