The state’s first major gun control law was signed in 1967 by Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Black Panthers at the California Capitol in 1967, an incident that sparked the gun control movement. CIR Online / Wikimedia Commons C.C. 2.0 License
The modern gun control movement started in California, which famously has more gun control laws than any other state in the nation. But the political movement for gun control was not born in the way people familiar with current debates over gun rights might suppose. The first major piece of legislation restricting the right to carry a gun was drafted by a conservative Republican, and signed into law in 1967 by Gov. Ronald Reagan.
The law, AB 1591—better known as the Mulford Act and named for its author, Alameda County Republican Assemblymember Don Mulford—banned the carrying of firearms in public, making it a felony to do so without a government-issued license.
Prior to Reagan’s giving the law the go-ahead, nothing in California law prevented anyone from carrying a loaded firearm in any public location, as long as the gun was not concealed, and the person carrying it did not point the weapon at another person.
Today, the National Rifle Association, the country’s leading gun-rights lobbying group, holds something close to an absolutist view of the right of the individual to own a gun. The group’s former president, the iconic movie star Charlton Heston, famously declared in the year 2000 that gun control advocates like then-Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore would never take away his gun unless they were to pry it from his “cold, dead hands.” (Heston died at age 84 in 2008.)
The NRA also strongly supports “right to carry” laws, and partly as a result, 21 states now permit people to carry concealed weapons without a permit. Another 30 allow guns to be carried openly without a permit.
In 1967, however, the NRA supported the Mulford Act and even contributed notes to guide Mulford in his drafting of the bill. It was a different era for the NRA, which to that point had supported most of the relatively mild gun control measures proposed at the federal and state level, starting with the 1934 National Firearms Act—a law that was designed to curb the rampant gangsterism of the era by heavily regulating machine guns, silencers, sawed-off shotguns and other weapons favored by the mobsters who ran wild during Prohibition (which had ended the previous year).
But what turned committed conservatives like Mulford and Reagan into pioneers of gun control legislation? The answer, it appears: Black people.
Mulford claimed that his gun control bill had “nothing to do with any racial incident.” But that was simply not true, according to UCLA law professor and gun rights historian Adam Winkler. In 1967, a new organization had suddenly appeared in California. Based in the East Bay, where Mulford’s district was located, it was known as the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, or Black Panthers for short. The group made gun ownership and—more alarmingly for white conservatives and the police—the public display of guns a central tenet of its platform.
Mulford freaked out. With the Panthers carrying their guns around Oakland, often following police cruisers, he quickly drafted his gun control bill. When Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton heard about it, he immediately saw the proposed legislation as a move to disarm the Panthers, and the Black community in general. Newton decided to press the issue. On May 2, he led a group of about 25 Panther members to the state Capitol in Sacramento—fully armed.
“The Black Panthers’ invasion of the California statehouse launched the modern gun-rights movement,” Winkler wrote.
Not content merely to demonstrate on the Capitol steps, the Panthers “invaded” (as contemporary news accounts put it) the Assembly chamber while the legislature was in session. Once the chamber was cleared of the armed Panthers, it took just four hours for the Assembly Criminal Procedure Committee to take up Mulford’s bill.
But Mulford, who declared himself “shocked beyond belief” at the “historical invasion,” asked for a slight delay while he amended the bill to make it even tougher, including a provision that made it a felony to carry a loaded firearm into the Capitol—which amazingly, it wasn’t before.
In announcing his support for the bill, Reagan said that the new gun restrictions “would work no hardship on the honest citizen.”
What did Reagan mean by that? According to Northern Arizona University Politics Professor Stephen Nuño-Pérez, writing for NBC.com in 2016, the future U.S. president was “implying that the defense of black communities against racist police officers had no legitimacy in the ‘honest’ world of white society.”
The Black Panthers, it is worth noting, did far more than push for gun rights. The group provided a range of services for the Black community in Oakland and other cities—perhaps most notably its “Breakfast for Schoolchildren” program, providing free, nutritious food for kids who may not otherwise have been fed breakfast at all. The Panthers also created free community medical clinics and even, in some areas, free ambulance services, among other public health programs for Black people in American cities.
Discussing his support of the Mulford Act in 1979, as he prepared to run for president the following year, Reagan appeared not to understand what the groundbreaking gun control law actually did.
“It is true that I did sign such a bill,” Reagan wrote in a letter to his longtime fans and frequent pen pals Lorraine and Elwood Wagner of Philadelphia, “but I hardly think it was gun control.”