The roots of gun violence in the United States


A Disarming History of the Second Amendment

In the wake of the wave of student protests over school massacres, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded could not be more timely. By unmasking the secret history of the Second Amendment, Dunbar-Ortiz delivers a powerful contribution to this movement as she explores gun culture in the United States, revealing its origins in the wars against Indigenous people, the policing of slaves, and colonialism.  Dunbar-Ortiz moves the discussion beyond the liberal–conservative debate that limits the discussion to the precise meaning of the Second Amendment and overlooks the bloody history behind it.

The United States, she writes, “was founded on conquered land, with capital in the form of slaves, hence the term chattel slavery. This was exceptional in the world and has remained exceptional. The capitalist firearms industry was among the first successful modern corporations. Gun proliferation and gun violence today are among its legacies.” Dunbar-Ortiz connects this history to today’s emboldened right-wing and white nationalist movements. She argues that “understanding the purpose of the Second Amendment is key to understanding the gun culture of the United States” today.

Dunbar-Ortiz rejects the typical narrative that the United States was born in opposition to tyranny. The Americans were fighting the British (who were certainly tyrants), but much of the cause was related to the British ban on moving the colonies further west, past the Appalachian Mountains. Some of the richest American colonists, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, had investments in the Northwest (modern day Ohio) and wanted independence from Britain in order to expand into the Indigenous nations to the west.

After independence, the newly formed United States established the individual right to bear arms so that independent militias and settlers could do the dirty work of invading Indigenous nations to establish a new Anglo-American country. “Taking land by force,” she writes, “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 US Constitution, second only to freedom of speech. Male colonial settlers had long formed militias for the purpose of raiding and razing Indigenous communities and seizing their lands and resources, and the Native communities fought back.

With the introduction of slavery into the colonies in the 1600s and the expansion of plantation agriculture, armed settler militias that had been used to conquer Native lands were repurposed to police slaves. As Dunbar-Ortiz writes:

By 1704, the South Carolina colonial government had codified slave patrols and embedded them within the already existing volunteer militias, whose principal role was to repel Native Americans whose land they had appropriated. Members of slave patrols were drawn from militia rolls in every locale. The South Carolina structure of slave patrols was adopted in other colonies by the mid-eighteenth century and would remain relatively unchanged until the Civil War.

One of the myths dispelled by the author is the argument that the “right to bear arms” has to do with protecting the right to hunt. The Second Amendment had absolutely nothing to do with hunting, argues Dunbar-Ortiz, although the myth of the hunter and of the “frontier spirit”—celebrated in stories of men like Daniel Boone, presented as a resourceful trekker/hunter but actually an “icon of US settler colonialism” who blazed a path for conquest of the Ohio Valley—is part of the popular ideology that supports US gun culture. Why, if hunting were the explanation for such high rates of gun ownership, would the National Rifle Association defend the right to own military-assault-style weapons such as the AR-15, which are built to kill people?

The gun industry has avidly peddled its product and supported ideologies that promote gun culture. There is value in studies like Pamela Haag’s The Gunning of America, which shows the ways in which aggressive marketing strategies helped create America’s gun culture. However, as Dunbar-Ortiz shows, gun culture has far deeper historical roots and cannot be reduced to the machinations of the gun industry. There is a seamless connection between the history of US continental conquest; its establishment as a colonial power, and later, as the leading world military power; its status as the world’s leading buyer and exporter of military weaponry; the enormous power of the “gun lobby” in the United States that keeps the weapons industry in high profits; and the ideology of “gun rights” and gun possession that supports it.

The phenomenon of mass shootings cannot be divorced from the fact that this country was founded on armed settler-colonialism. Massacres were at the core of the settler-colonial project. Dunbar-Ortiz quotes Lakota Joan Redfern discussing the media’s claim that the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech that left thirty-two people dead was the worst in history: “To say the Virginia shooting is the worst in all of US history is to pour salt on old wounds. It means forgetting all of our ancestors who were killed in the past.” She notes the hypocrisy of Democrats like Barack Obama who gave an impassioned speech about gun control after the Sandy Hook shooting while supporting the extensive production and use of bombers and drones overseas. Violence has afflicted our society from the very beginning and continues today with unlimited imperial wars abroad and the militarization of the police at home.

In her conclusion, Dunbar-Ortiz discusses American exceptionalism from a different point of view.

It is the case that for rural settlers in the North American British colonies, and for US American settlers after Independence, a firearm was regarded as a necessary utensil for the settler’s task—as with a hoe, an ax, a team of oxen or horses—a point made by some gun-control advocates as evidence that guns were meaningless. However, it’s illogical to assume that the gun’s utilitarian role outweighed the immediate sense of power and domination that firearms offer. The land that the hoe, the ox, and the slave’s body were used to cultivate was taken by armed force and repression. . . . That is the way of settler-colonialism, and that is the way of the gun—to kill off enemies and, in the case of the North American colonies and the independent United States, to control African Americans. Violence perpetrated by armed settlers, even genocide, were not absent in the other territories where the British erected settler-colonies—Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, but the people of these polities never declared the gun a God-given right; only the founding fathers of the United States did that. And the people of the other Anglo settler-colonies did not have economies, governments, and social orders based on the enslavement of other human beings. The United States is indeed “exceptional,” just not in the way usually intoned by politicians and patriots.

She leaves her readers asking themselves, “How should we go about regulating guns?” In response, she quotes rapper Ice-T talking about gun control: “Well, that’s not going to change anything in the United States, no. United States is based on guns. Like KRS says, you’ll never have justice on stolen land.”

In order to end gun violence in the United States, Dunbar-Ortiz concludes, we need to fight more broadly against injustices, both past and present, and shed ourselves of American myths. In recent interviews she has said that we should repeal the Second Amendment because of this history, while also stating that eliminating this amendment won’t stop the violence until we have a movement against militarism and the violence of capitalism. The students from Parkland have started a movement and the debate on gun violence is intensifying. Loaded is an important contribution to the discussion.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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