By Michael Drohan
Review of book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, City Lights Books, 2018.
This wonderful peoples’ history by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz follows her earlier book entitled An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. As with all peoples’ history books it provides an alternative to the conventional narrative of the origins of the US; one of a culture of violence and fetishization of guns.
Her narrative of the history of the 2nd Amendment begins with a brief account of the French and Indian War from 1754-63, which was the extension of the Seven Years’ War between Great Britain and France in Europe. The war had been preceded by settler invasions across the Allegheny Mountains, with the violent seizure of the lands of the Miami, Kickapoo, and Ottawa Nations, and the confederations associated with Chief Pontiac. At the end of the French and Indian War with the Treaty of Paris, 1763, George III issued a proclamation prohibiting British settlement west of the Allegheny Mountain chain and ordered those who had settled there to relinquish their claims and return to the 13 colonies. In order to pay for the enforcement of the Proclamation with military force, the British Parliament imposed a tax in 1765 on the colonists named the Stamp Act. The settlers [saw this as] the tyranny of taxation without representation and there ensued the war for independence from Britain. So much for the narrative of a noble struggle for freedom from tyranny.
In a very real sense, then, the road to independence of the 13 colonies was in great part a war to have the right to invade and take possession of the land of the indigenous Indian peoples. Guns, as Dunbar-Ortiz points out, were the indispensable means for this process of dispossession and genocide of the native peoples. The early settlers went armed into the fields, forming a kind of militia, and with the warning of a sentinel they fought off attacks of native people who opposed the robbery of their lands. All male settlers not only had the right to bear arms but were required to do so and so begins the long history of the 2nd Amendment. The gun was and remains the symbol of the conquest over the native Indian peoples.
With the introduction of slavery into the colonies, the settlers and planners faced another problem, which was the attempts by slaves to escape bondage and flee from slavery. Originally, the task of controlling enslaved Africans belonged to the overseers and slavers but eventually it was extended to all settlers and made a public responsibility. Any enslaved person outside the control of the slaver or overseer was required to carry a pass and the system was enforced by slave patrols. The gun was central to the slave patrol system, especially when the search for escaped slaves became rampant. Many laws were introduced in the colonies requiring militias to create slave patrols and imposing stiff fines on white people who refused to serve. These slave patrols later morphed into police forces as the militia system was universalized.
On the face of it, the 2nd Amendment would appear to be speaking of a “well regulated militia” and not about an individual right to bear arms. In fact, it was not an issue for much of US history. With the growth of right wing movements, however, beginning in the 1960s in response to the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement, the 2nd Amendment became an individual right question. The birth of the John Birch Society in 1958 by a scion of the Welsh candy family is a historical marker in this development. The threats to white supremacy that the civil rights and peace movements posed would seem to be the underlying foundation of the movement. The apogee of the movement was reached only in 2008 with the high court decision District of Columbia v Heller. The majority decision, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, found the 2nd Amendment to be an individual constitutional right.
Gun regulation activists for the most part identify the National Rifle Association (NRA) as the monster to conquer. Dunbar-Ortiz, however, disagrees. She points out that for most of its history, the NRA was not averse to gun regulations. It is only with the rise of white supremacist movements that the NRA became an avid opponent of any and every form of gun regulation. The problem is deeper than the NRA and has to be understood as the contemporary expression of conquest and white supremacy.
Dunbar-Ortiz’ book explores every nook and cranny of the fetish of guns in US society today and helps one to understand it in the historical context of genocide of native peoples, the enslavement of millions of African people and the ravaging of many countries around the globe in the quest for resources and markets. It is a must read.
Michael Drohan is a member of the Editorial Collective and the Board of the Merton Center.