The Second Amendment is fundamental to the roots of white settler violence in their genocide project against Native populations, as well as to control, and ultimately eliminate freed Black people in America.
With every new mass shooting in America, the resounding question of why this keeps happening gets louder but never resolved. People abroad cannot understand America’s fixation with guns, and people here in the USA attempt to explain it with a variety of Second Amendment rights interpretations. It is an individual right to bear arms; the Second Amendment is the right for militias to bear arms and is no longer applicable in today’s world; the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun lobby are solely responsible for gun culture at we find it now, and more.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded: The Disarming History of the Second Amendment dismantles all of these explanations and justifications into one chilling thesis: The Second Amendment is fundamental to the roots of white settler violence in their genocide project against Native populations, as well as to control and ultimately eliminate freed Black people in America. In a nutshell, the Second Amendment’s main origin and purpose is to protect and promote white supremacy in these United States.
The Second Amendment reads:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of the free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Dunbar-Ortiz analyses these words in the context of which they were originally written: As permission granted to the white settler-colonists to seize Native lands by whatever violence necessary, and including the murder, rape, and torture of non-combatants like women and children. She writes, “The Second Amendment’s language specifically gave individuals and families the right to form volunteer militias to attack Indians and take their land.” (p. 20)
“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. … Settler-militias and armed households were institutionalized for the destruction and control of Native peoples, communities, and nations.” (p. 30-31)
Further, these so-called “savage wars” are the historical basis of current military strategies like “special operations” and “low-intensity conflicts” that do not discriminate between civilians and military targets:
“The chief characteristic of irregular warfare is that of the extreme violence against civilians, in this case the tendency to pursue the utter annihilation of the Indigenous population.” (p. 48)
The so-called Indian Wars raged from 1607-1890, affecting millions of Indigenous peoples. But, as Dunbar-Ortiz points out again and again, most historians, military historians, sociologists, and other social scientists have been oddly hesitant to frame the Second Amendment with its foundational intent to veritably wipe out Indigenous Peoples from North America.
“As an incentive to recruit fighters, colonial authorities introduced a program of scalp hunting that became a permanent and long-lasting element of settler warfare against Indigenous nations.” (p. 46)
And because history is re-written by victors, scalping as a Native-founded practice was disseminated through stories and later racist visual media to portray the Indigenous populations as barbaric peoples who deserved elimination from their ancestral lands.
The white citizen militias protected by the Second Amendment did not stop with the terrorizing and murder of Native populations. Once these violent settler-colonists had cleared land of Natives, whether by herding them onto reservations or outright massacre, those lands were now ripe for slave labor. Let’s also keep in mind that without the millennia of work that the now dead or displaced Indigenous populations accomplished in terraforming America’s landscape, there would have been no cultivated lands or ecosystems for these white settlers to exploit with theirs or anyone else’s labor.
“Appropriated by European settlers, these lands would become economies based on enslaved African labor and increasingly on breeding enslaved people for profit, with the Indigenous farmers forced to the peripheries.” (p. 39)
In just a matter of decades, those same white settler-militias who tasked themselves with eradicating Native populations would soon be used as the basis for “slave patrols.” Slave patrols were first utilized to return escaped slaves to their owners, but after the Thirteenth Amendment ended chattel slavery freed Black people they no longer had monetary value to be taken alive. These militias began to outright kill Black freedmen for simply existing. And it is in this historical context that private white organized terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were founded and grew, with the help of many, many guns.
Dunbar-Ortiz writes: “The Klan, illegal as it was, operated like slave patrols in requiring Freedmen to have written permission to travel from the plantations where many continued to work.” (p. 69) The Klan’s slave patrols set curfews, burned homes, indiscriminate beatings, rape, and other modes of violence in order to maintain white supremacy and control over these appropriated lands and people.
Slave patrols, in essence, shape much of the modern language we use when talking about America’s police force, including phrases like “beat” to indicate a cop’s monitored turf and “stakeout” methods of surveillance. In this context it is also no surprise that America currently has an epidemic of unarmed Black men being murdered by cops who rarely serve any consequences other than negative media attention for these racially motivated crimes.
“While the ‘savage wars’ against 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.” (p. 71)
And these issues are only scratching the surface of the Second Amendment’s disturbing history and how it has shaped current discourse about guns, gun violence, and gun culture. Dunbar-Ortiz’s verbal precision in Loaded is stunning, and the book makes an indefensible case that the American right to bear arms is rooted in a white supremacy that often refuses to look itself in the mirror, and especially from a liberal and progressive gaze.
Dunbar-Ortiz’s subtle deconstructions of the various works which contributed to our misunderstandings of the Second Amendment’s roots are vitally required reading, especially in our current era of daily mass shootings and political inaction toward better gun control. The white supremacy that Dunbar-Ortiz exposes with surgical exactness is the true foundation of the America we know today.
“White nationalists are the irregular forces—the voluntary militias—of the actually existing political-economic order. They are provided for in the Second Amendment.” (p. 169)
Guns and gun violence are more American than baseball, apple pie, or any of the banal signifiers we pretend are our emblems. Guns are so entrenched in America’s blood-drenched history of violence against Native and Black peoples, there is no easy way to untangle them today until we have dismantled systemic white supremacy in this country from its roots and up to the highest levels of government.
Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment is available for pre-order from City Light Books and will be available in January 2018.