When a person wants to score points in a political argument, they often quote someone who commands respect from those on both sides of the debate. Whether that person agrees with their position, took a position on their issue or even said what they claim sometimes doesn’t matter.
That seemed to be the case during a state Senate committee hearing last week on the latest round of gun control bills. Aoibheann Cline, the state director of the National Rifle Association, argued against a proposal to require a 10-day waiting period and mandatory safety training for gun purchases.
One does not need training or waiting periods for other constitutional rights, such as exercising free speech, choosing a church or voting, she said.
“To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ‘A right delayed is a right denied,’ ” Cline told the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
Except Cline probably wasn’t quoting King, on gun rights or any other rights.
The quote is attributed to King on various places on the internet, but as Abraham Lincoln once warned, “You can’t trust everything you read on the internet.” While King often talked about rights and fought against the Jim Crow laws that delayed or barred minorities from having them, none of the mentions of this quote cite a specific speech or writing.
Although he was an advocate of nonviolent resistance, King did have firearms to protect himself and his family after receiving death threats, according to a 2011 article by Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor. He once applied for a concealed carry permit, which was denied by local law enforcement at a time when police used any pretext to deny permits to Black applicants, Winkler wrote.
So to the extent that Jim Crow laws kept Black people from exercising the gun rights that white people had, he was probably opposed.
King did write, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Justice and rights are different, and in making that statement, however, he wasn’t claiming it as his own. He attributed it to “one of our distinguished jurists.”
Being in jail, King likely didn’t have access to a Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, so he can be forgiven for not attributing it directly to former British Prime Minister William Gladstone. It showed up in many American judicial rulings after that.
A search of American newspapers shows the earliest use of “A right delayed is a right denied” may have been in 1958 by Georgia State Sen. Peyton Hawes. He wasn’t talking about gun rights, free speech or voting rights. Rather, he was reacting to the failure of an effort by that state to improve its mental health system with improved medical facilities.
The California Eagle, a newspaper that served a Black readership in that state, used the phrase “a civil right delayed is a civil right denied” in a 1961 editorial. It wasn’t attributed to King, which the newspaper might logically have done if they were quoting him, as they quoted him extensively in the next editorial down the column.
The quote began showing up in columns and letters to the editor decrying the federal Brady Gun Control law. It was originally credited to various NRA spokespersons, although after 1993, it was generally attributed to King.
This was not the first instance of questionable quotes being used to support a position on gun rights in Washington. In 2016, as a possible counter to ongoing citizen efforts to restrict certain semi-automatic rifles, six of the state’s most conservative representatives introduced what they called the Washington Firearms Civil Rights Act. It extolled the virtues of gun ownership and its role in U.S. history while noting that citizens of tyrants in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China had no such rights to protect them against their government.
It also attributed quotes to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson that they never said, and smushed together two separate quotes from another Founding Father, George Mason, into a single quote to enhance the Second Amendment.
When those inaccuracies – which appear regularly in support of gun rights – were pointed out in news articles, a spokesperson for one of the sponsors said the bill could be amended if they proved wrong. The bill never got a hearing, so no one ever bothered to amend it, and it lives forever on the legislative website. If one looks up those quotes on Google, the bill could come up as a citation in some future argument about the support some of the Founding Fathers had for gun rights.
Gun control groups aren’t the only ones who attribute the “delayed rights” quote to King. It has been used by groups arguing for same-sex marriage rights, those pushing for more rights for the homeless and even people speaking on King’s legacy.
The problem with the quote, and its use, is that rights can sometimes be delayed and that’s not an automatic denial. The right to vote is nationally delayed until one is at least 18. Some states require a residency of a month or more, which means a person who moves to a state on Nov. 1 of a year divisible by four might not be allowed to vote for president that year. Or they may be required to cast a provisional ballot, the counting of which might be delayed until their residence can be confirmed or denied if it can’t be.
The right to peacefully protest can be conditioned on a permit, which can result in delays while the permit is processed.
Such delays don’t automatically deny those constitutional rights. The argument then becomes, what’s reasonable?
In the case of the delays for background checks and training, gun rights supports seem to be on stronger ground arguing – as some did – that the infrastructure to support those requirements aren’t in place so it’s not reasonable to condition sales on them until those systems are established.
But that would involve debating points on the merits, without the questionable support of an icon to bolster an argument that person may or may not agree with.
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