By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Mass shootings, and particularly school shootings like the one at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, are horrific tragedies for the families and communities traumatized by senseless violence and loss, and for the nation as a whole. And yet, what has resulted from each of these terrible events is not a turning away from guns, but just the opposite: an immediate spike in gun sales, and often the passage of more pro-gun legislation making it easier to purchase and own guns. As of this writing, one of President Trump’s responses to the Florida tragedy is to propose giving “a bit of a bonus” to teachers who go to school armed.
The national soul-searching that ensues after these massacres seeks answers to the question Why is this happening?, and Why only in the United States? But some very basic, painful truths are consistently left out of these discussions, and it may be exactly in what is not being talked about that the key to an understanding, if not an actual solution, can be found. The phenomena of mass shootings, of gun hoarding, and the commercial popularity of military-style firearms in the U.S. can neither be comprehended nor dealt with in the absence of an understanding of the true origins of the Second Amendment, and the role that guns have played in the forming of the national identity.
Gun-control advocates maintain that the Second Amendment is about states having their own militias — emphasizing the language of “well regulated.” However, the respective state militias were already authorized by the Constitution when the Amendments were drawn up later as specifically individual rights. The Constitution had not only recognized the existing colonial militias, formed before and during the War for Independence, it had mandated vital roles for them to play: “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasion” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 15). The President of the United States was designated as commander-in-chief of the state militias “when called into the actual Service of the United States” (Article II, Section 2).
So why was the Second Amendment added in 1791? The answer is simple: it was a way for the U.S. government to enlist civilians in the project of domination and control over Indigenous Nations and the new country’s growing population of enslaved people.
Territorial expansion of the United States was not an accidental or spontaneous project. The violent appropriation of Native land by white settlers was seen as an individual right, second only to free speech. Long before independence, male settlers had formed militias for the purpose of razing Indigenous communities and seizing their lands and resources, and the Native communities fought back. Virginia, the first British North American colony, forbade any man to travel unless he was “well armed.” In 1658, the colony ordered every settler home to have a functioning firearm, and later even provided government loans for those who could not afford to buy a weapon. Similarly, New England colonial governments made laws such as the 1632 requirement that each person have a functioning firearm plus two pounds of gunpowder and ten pounds of bullets. Householders were fined for missing or defective arms and ammunition.
As plantation agribusiness became a path to riches for the colonists, so did the lucrative trade in enslaved Africans. During the 1670s, British slavers with plantations in Barbados founded the colony of South Carolina and brought with them slave patrols, an institution that spread quickly to the other colonies, where they adapted citizens’ militias for slave patrol duty.
The slave patrols and the raids to appropriate Indigenous Lands continued after the colonials won their Independence; and the Second Amendment was added to the Constitution of the United States as a federal mandate for white men to continue to arm themselves in order to participate in what was considered both a right and a duty: to kill Indians and take their lands by force, and to control the country’s black population.
In the 20th century, with Native Americans either confined to reservations or scattered in relocation schemes., the gun became a symbol — a kind of war trophy — and with slavery ended but with Jim Crow segregation solidly in place, it was now employed to suppress any attempt by African Americans for social equality. There was little juridical or political attention paid to the Second Amendment, until the 1970s, when the resurgence of white nationalist organizations — which had begun in response to the 1954 Supreme Court decision for school desegregation — reached a critical mass, coalescing in reaction to the gains and momentum of the Civil Rights movement. And it was in 1977 that the National Rifle Association was transformed from a hunting and marksmanship club into the N.R.A we know today, when the right-wing Second Amendment Foundation and its lobbying arm, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, seized control of the organization and made the Second Amendment into its focus.
Since then, the proliferation of guns and gun culture and the number of white nationalist groups have mushroomed. There are more — and more lethal — weapons in the hands of civilians each year, with civilian gun owners possessing an average of eight firearms each.
In the United States today, seventy-four percent of gun owners are men, and 82 percent of all gun owners are white, which means that 61 percent of all adults who own guns are white men (while this demographic accounts for only 31 percent of the total United States population). The main reason gun owners give for owning a gun is protection. What is it that these white men are so afraid of? Can any of us believe that centuries of racial and economic domination by violent force have left no traces in our culture, views, or institutions?
Understanding the origins of the Second Amendment is a necessary first step in defusing the time bombs silently ticking in communities all around the country. A reckoning with history is the basis for facing the truths of our present, and envisioning a better future.
Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz is the author of many books, including Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, just published by City Lights Books.