The right to bear arms disarmed

July 24, 2018

In her book Loaded, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz goes back to colonialism to reveal the history behind the NRA’s hallowed Second Amendment, writes Jessie Muldoon.

PUBLISHED THIS past January, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment was definitely timely.

It came out soon after the Las Vegas massacre that killed 59 concertgoers, and which Dunbar-Ortiz discusses in her chapter on mass shootings. And it arrived on bookstore shelves just weeks before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The movement of young people that erupted out of that tragedy thrust the question of guns, shootings and the National Rifle Association (NRA) into the national spotlight, and Loaded is an important contribution to that debate.

After the Las Vegas shooting, Trump’s Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “Today is a day for consoling of survivors and mourning those we lost.” This has been the typical dodge of the right wing, and it has mostly worked until the Marjory Stoneman survivors challenged the “too soon to discuss legislation” narrative.

NRA supporters rally outside the Minnesota state Capitol against gun control legislation
NRA supporters rally outside the Minnesota state Capitol against gun control legislation (Fibonacci Blue | flickr)

Suddenly, the question of gun violence, the reality of the NRA’s chokehold on the Republican Party, and the demand for a real response couldn’t be avoided.

Still, while mass shootings thrust the gun control debate into the spotlight, focusing on them alone misses an important reality.

Guns kill more than 30,000 people a year in the U.S. on average, with about two-thirds of those deaths being suicides. Mass shootings may, rightly, draw attention to the horror of gun violence, but the reality is that gun deaths in the U.S. are a regular occurrence.

If Dunbar-Ortiz’s contention that gun ownership has grown into an almost religious phenomenon, then the prevalence of guns and preventable deaths should be no surprise. Her book is both timely, but also rooted in a very old history, reaching back to the colonial history of the United States.

Gun availability, gun fetishism and glorification in popular culture and root causes of violence beyond guns are all important pieces of the debate.

DUNBAR-ORTIZ starts her contribution by focusing on the political context of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution about the “right to bear arms.” She writes:

[I]nstead of dismissing the Second Amendment as antiquated and irrelevant, or as not actually meaning what it says, I argue that the purpose of the Second Amendment is key to understanding the gun culture of the United States, and possibly the key to a new consciousness about the lingering effects of settler-colonialism and white nationalism.

Dunbar-Ortiz also starts out with a reflection on her time as an activist in New Orleans in 1970, a time when state repression was a real threat to radicals. Out of fear and a real need for self-defense, members of the organization she was a part of armed themselves and took up target practice.

She notes that at the time of what she terms her “gun love,” approximately half of U.S. households had a gun, for a total of 112 million guns nationwide. Contrast that to today, when only about one-third of households own a gun, but that number of guns has risen to 300 million.

To explain the Second Amendment, Dunbar-Ortiz starts with the War for Independence and subsequent “Indian Wars” and the insatiable drive for westward expansion. Putting down an Indigenous resistance to this expansion led to the need for militias and a well-armed population willing and able to continue the settler fight. She writes:

Taking land by force was not an accidental or spontaneous project or the work of a few rogue characters. The violent appropriation of Native land by white settlers was seen as an individual right in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, second only to freedom of speech.

Later, she makes the point even more directly: “Settler-militias and armed households were institutionalized for the destruction and control of Native peoples, communities and nations.”

ALONGSIDE THE rise of militias to massacre and displace Native populations were the patrols to capture and police enslaved populations, and to repress slave uprisings. The spread of slave patrols was uneven at first, but became centralized, organized and much more numerous, especially after Independence, which led to a “rapid expansion of slavery into newly conquered Native territories,” she writes.

Dunbar-Ortiz also challenges the notion that the slave patrols were made up of poor whites. “Whether rich or poor,” she writes, “all Euro-Americans males were required to serve in militias and slave patrols, but the commanders of the patrols were property owners and slavers.”

She links the rise of the slave patrols to modern-day police forces, but also to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was illegal, but essentially above the law, which allowed it to operate without the constraints of being publicly accountable. But, Dunbar-Ortiz writes:

From the perspective of African Americans who survived the organized violence, there was no distinction between patrollers, Klan and white policemen, whether rural, in towns or in the cities. In 19th century criminal digests, arrests made by slave patrollers before the Civil War continued to be used as legal precedents in the 1880s.

The heart of Dunbar-Ortiz’s argument comes at the end of her chapter on slave patrols:

Armed slave patrols comprise half the story in the Second Amendment; the whole story implicates more than the slave states. While the “savage wars” against the Native Nations instituted brutal modes of violence for the U.S. military, and slave patrols seamlessly evolved into modern police forces, both have normalized racialized violence and affinity for firearms in U.S. society.

This historical backdrop was codified into law in the Second Amendment, but it also was the basis of what Dunbar-Ortiz refers to as a covenant, taking on a religious quality that she argues is unique to the U.S.:

In other modern constitutional states, constitutions come and go, and they are never considered sacred in the manner patriotic U.S. citizens venerate theirs. Great Britain has no written constitution. The Magna Carta is an important and inspiring historical document, but it does not reflect a covenant.

U.S. citizens did not inherit their cult-like adherence to the Constitution from the English. From the Pilgrims to the “founders” of the United States and continuing to the present, the cultural persistence of the covenant idea of exceptionalism, and thus the bedrock of U.S. patriotism, represents a deviation from the main course in the development of national identities.

DUNBAR-ORTIZ argues that this religious adherence to the Constitution made possible the transformation of the NRA in the early 1970s into the right-wing political powerhouse it is today. She writes:

Up to 1975, the NRA had not opposed gun regulations and had not made a fetish out of the Second Amendment...When the NRA opened a new headquarters in the late 1950s, its marquee advertised firearms safety education, marksmanship training and recreational shooting (hunting).

By the time of its 1975 convention, the Second Amendment Foundation and its lobbying arm, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, founded in Washington state in 1974, seized leadership of the NRA. It was then that the NRA centered the Second Amendment as its main concern.

This is, of course, the NRA that we know today, elevating the Second Amendment as an eternal and sacred right — neither of which is true, as we learn from Dunbar-Ortiz.

Dunbar-Ortiz tackles what she calls the “myth of the hunter” and debunks the idea that the Second Amendment was merely about individual gun ownership and protecting the nation against tyranny. Expansion and repression have always been at the core of the Second Amendment, in spite of the myths that have grown up to obscure this purpose.

Her book links the mythology of the Second Amendment to the rise of the Tea Party and right-wing white supremacists militias, and traces the very racist history of the Second Amendment to the racist politics that underpin these groups.

She also contrasts the way that guns in the hands of Black people are treated very differently than guns in white hands.

She writes about the way the Black Panther Party armed itself in self-defense against racist and sometimes murderous police departments. In response to an armed revolutionary force, the state of California began regulating gun ownership. These laws underpin many of the gun control laws we have today.

Dunbar-Ortiz contrasts the treatment of the Panthers to the murder of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, who claimed to have felt threatened by the teenager. Zimmerman was arrested, but found not guilty, due to a “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida.

THE QUESTION of what kind of changes that a movement against gun violence and the right wing might be able to achieve isn’t really answered in Dunbar-Ortiz’s book.

Gun culture and its racist roots are clearly woven into U.S. society. Dunbar-Ortiz points out that the almost religious reverence for the Second Amendment is a constant barrier to any form of gun control or restrictions.

But this isn’t inevitable to a country with a colonial-settler past. As Dunbar-Ortiz points out, Australia’s origins have parallels with the U.S., but it also has a history of well-known and successful gun buyback program and no constitutionally enshrined right to gun ownership.

By contrast, in the U.S., federal government obstruction of even the most common-sense measures relating to guns is legendary. Dunbar-Ortiz singles out the Dickey Amendment, proposed by Newt Gingrich and passed in 1996, which bars the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from doing studies of “injuries and fatalities relating to gun use.”

Thus, overturning the Second Amendment would be hard to imagine short of a significant transformation of U.S. politics.

However, there are measures to curb the power of the gun industry and the NRA which are more conceivable in today’s political climate. Ending the ban on CDC research and holding gun manufacturers accountable for their products are obvious examples.

The NRA’s political grip on Washington has been exposed like never before, and opposing politicians bought and sold by the gun lobby has become a rallying point for growing numbers of people. Others have responded by linking gun violence and school shootings to the school-to-prison pipeline, and calling for an end to armed security guards and the militarization of schools.

Because so many gun control laws and proposals are both rooted in racism and put forward by liberal Democrats who don’t want to do anything about the deeper causes of gun violence, the left has largely stayed out of this debate in the past.

But in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, the situation has changed. The survivors are demanding action and accountability, and it’s right to take up that call.

Dunbar-Ortiz’s book is helpful guide in that effort. It reminds us that gun violence doesn’t come from nowhere, and it makes a valuable contribution to the struggle against the ongoing effects of settler colonialism.

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