Gun Control and the True Historic Purpose of the Second Amendment

Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment

by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz

City Lights (2018)

Book Review

According to Dunbar-Ortiz, the main function of the Second Amendment, is to enshrine the voluntary militias used by white settlers to dispossess Native Americans of their land and compulsory slave patrols to hunt down and capture runaway slaves.

She disagrees with gun control advocates on many fronts:

First she disagrees that the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms” relates only to their use in a “well-regulated militia.” She maintains that it clearly refers to an individual right, like the other guarantees in the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment is modeled on various state constitutions (which were already in effect) that guarantee gun possession as an individual right. Moreover the right to form state militias is already covered in Article 1 of the Constitution.

Second citing other countries like Switzerland and Canada (which rarely experience gun violence) with few or no gun control laws, she disagrees that more gun control laws will reduce gun violence in the US.

Third she disputes Democratic Party claims that blames opposition to gun control on NRA lobbying. Noting that American gun culture precedes the NRA by more than a century, she argues the organization spends far less on lobbying than Big Oil or Big Pharma.

Dunbar-Ortiz contends that US gun culture is deeply rooted in the racist, white nationalist, God-ordained nature of the virulent capitalism sanctified by the US Constitution. She reminds us of the real issue that triggered the Revolutionary War: namely the British ban on illegal settlement on unceded Indian land west of the Appalachians. George Washington and our other founding fathers derived most of their wealth from illegal surveying and speculation in Native land.

Thus when the US finally won independence in 1791, a massive escalation of “savage war” was unleashed against the indigenous nations that had civilized North America. “Savage war,” aka “irregular warfare,” refers to deliberate violence directed against women, children and the elderly, along with the infrastructure that supports their survival. Although the US government gives lip service to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits acts of war against civilians, their wars have always mercilessly targeted civilians. Prime examples are the 1846 Mexican-American War, the war against Cuba (1898-1900) and the Philippines (1898-1948) and numerous undeclared wars of the 20th century (the Korean War, Vietnam War, Central American War (1981-89), Afghan War, Iraq War, Libya War, Syria War, etc)

The most surprising part of the book is the introduction, in which Dunbar-Ortiz describes becoming a gun owner and joining the NRA when an activist group she belonged to was spied on and stalked by police and intelligence operatives.

A Voice of Sanity in the Gun Control Debate

In the following film, historian and Native activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz discusses her book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. The major premise of her most recent book is that the Second Amendment relates mainly to the right and obligation of white settlers to keep guns, which they used in voluntary militias to massacre Native Americans and (in many cases) compulsory slave patrols to hunt down runaway slaves.

She begins by reminding us of the real issue (not the one we we’re taught in school) that triggered the Revolutionary War – namely the British ban on white settlement on unceded Indian lands west of the Appalachians. The hated Stamp Act, which triggered the familiar cry of “taxation without representation,” was enacted to finance British troops to roust settlers who were illegally squatting on Native lands.

She also points out that George Washington and most of the other founding fathers acquired their substantial wealth by illegally surveying and speculating in unceded Native land.

She disagrees with gun control advocates that the Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms” only relates to their use in “well-regulated militias.” She insists that it refers to an individual right, like all the other amendments in the Bill of Rights. She argues the right to participate in voluntary militias is already covered in Article 1 of the Constitution. Moreover the Second Amendment was specially modeled on an individual right to gun ownership in various state constitutions.

I found the Q&A’s at the end the most interesting part of her talk. Dunbar-Ortiz doesn’t believe gun control laws would end mass shootings in the US – mainly because American gun violence is directly rooted in the historically racist and genocidal nature of US gun culture. She contrasts the US with Switzerland and Canada. Despite the absence of any gun control laws (the Swiss are required to keep weapons in their homes), there is no gun violence in Switzerland. Likewise Canada has much less gun violence despite fewer gun control laws.

In both cases, she attributes the absence of gun violence to the historical absence of slavery or rampant militarism.

Dunbar-Ortiz also disputes Democratic claims that opposition to gun control stems from NRA lobbying. Noting that the US gun culture precedes the NRA by more than a century, she adds that the NRA spends far less on lobbying than Big Oil and Big Pharma. The NRA mainly derives its strength by mobilizing thousands of volunteers at the state level, where most gun control laws originate. These volunteers track the voting records of every state and local politician to ensure that anti-gun legislators don’t get re-elected.

Gun Ownership and the Nonviolent Civil Rights Movement

this non violent stuff

Charles E Cobb is a long time African American journalist who participated in the southern freedom movement etween 1962 and 1966. His purpose in writing This Nonviolent Stuff Will Get You Killed is to correct the revisionist “white” view of the 1960s civil rights movement.

The version of the civil rights movement taught in schools and universities is written by white historians who, for the most part, lay out historical events and omit the thinking that led to them. Or even worse, instead of asking movement veterans what they were thinking, offer a retrospective analysis of what they must have been thinking.

It was a problem Frederick Douglass frequently faced in his dealings with white abolitionists. Afraid he would appear “too learned” to be convincing, they told him, “Just give us the facts – we’ll take care of the philosophy.”

One important fact often “whitewashed” out of history is the use of guns in the southern civil rights movement. Guns have always been fundamental to rural life, in both black and white communities. In the 1960s, they were essential for the survival of black farming families – for hunting food, killing varmints in the garden and protecting themselves against terrorist raids by Night Riders and the Ku Klux Klan.

White southerners made it pretty obvious that they were prepared to kill African Americans – and their families – if they registered to vote. Despite his highly publicized use of nonviolence as a tactic, Martin Luther King had bodyguards who carried pistols to protect him. and Fanny Lou Hamer used a shotgun to protect her house against white “crackers.” Armed African American World War II and Korean War veterans – in some areas formally organized as The Deacons for Defense and Justice – carried weapons to protect workers from CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Council).

No white people were ever killed by these guards: it was sufficient to convey the message that blacks were willing to defend themselves.

As Cobb points us, no white person is willing to die for white supremacy.

Cobb is a great story teller and sheds important insights about the curious relationship between outside organizers and rural African American farmers as they set about building their trust.

It was my intention to embed Cobb’s 90 minute C-SPAN presentation about his book, but YouTube has censored the video by taking it down. So you have to click on the following link:

Charles E Cobb

Progressives Who Oppose Gun Control

2nd amendment

I’ve always been curious how American progressives got on the anti-civil liberties side of gun control. It strikes me as a grave strategic error. I have written elsewhere about the extreme difficulty liberals and progressives face in engaging the working class. I have also been highly critical of their tendency to get sucked into “lifestyle” campaigns (anti-smoking, anti-obesity, vegeterianism, etc.), owing to the strong class antagonism this engenders in blue collar voters.

Contrary to the stereotypes portrayed in the corporate media, class differences – and class hatred – are alive and well in the US. From the perspective of a blue collar worker, the progressive movement is the middle class. They’re the teachers, social workers, psychologists, doctors, lawyers and religious leaders who make the rules for the rest of this. Thus when they tell us not to smoke, eat big Macs, or buy guns, we don’t see this as political reform. We see it as an extension of their (privileged) class role.

Here in New Zealand, young upwardly mobile professionals manifest the same zeal as their American counterparts for anti-smoking and healthy eating campaigns. However there’s no gun control lobby here. It would be unthinkable in a country where one third of the population lives in cities. Gun ownership and proficiency are fundamental to the Kiwi way of life, especially in rural provincial areas.

The History of Progressive Opposition to Gun Control

For a progressive to take a stand against gun control is a pretty lonely place. However I’m not utterly alone. There’s a 1979 book edited by Don Kates entitled Restricting Handguns: The Liberal Skeptics Speak Out. There’s also an organization called the Liberal Gun Club, whose mission is to “provide a voice for gun-owing liberals and moderates in the national conversation on gun rights, gun legalization, firearms safety, and shooting sports.”

Then there’s Sam Smith’s excellent article in the Preogressive Review: “Why Progressives Should Stop Pushing for More Gun Control Laws.” Among Smith’s numerous arguments, three leap out at me: the exacerbation of “cultural conflict” between rural and urban and wealthy and not so well off, the tendency for gun restrictions and prohibition to be intersect with a drive to restrict other civil liberties, and the need for progressives to stop treating average Americans as though they were “alien creatures.” He seems to share my view that progressives lose elections as much because of their condescending attitudes as their issues.

In January  2011 (following Representative Gifford’s shooting and renewed calls for gun control), Dan Baum wrote in the Huffington Post that progressives have wasted a generation of progress on health care, women’s rights, immigration reform, income fairness and climate change because “we keep messing with people’s guns.” He likens gun control as to marijuana prohibition – all it does is turn otherwise law-abiding people into criminals and create divisiveness and resentment.

How Progressives Came to Oppose the 2nd Amendment

None of this explains how progressives got on the wrong side of this issue. US gun manufacturers wrote the first gun control legislation in 1958, in an effort to restrict Americans’ access to cheap imports. However, owing to civil liberties implications, the bill encountered stiff Congressional opposition. Finally in 1968 President Lyndon Johnson played the race card and used the inner city riots to pass a watered down version of the industry’s original gun control bill. It required gun dealers to register guns and ammunition, banned the mail order and interstate sale of guns, and instituted a lifelong ban on felons (even on non-violent convictions) owning guns.

Progressive research into gun control generally makes two equally salient points: 1) the aim of gun control legislation is to control people (mainly disenfranchised minorities and the poor), not guns and 2) in countries with strict gun control laws, the use of deadly force is restricted to the police and army, as ordinary citizens aren’t trusted to play any role (including self-defense) in maintaining law and order.

Using Gun Control to Control African Americans

America’s extreme preoccupation with gun control appears directly related to their 200 year history of slavery and oppressive Jim Crow laws that followed emancipation. As Steve Ekwall writes in the Racist Origins of US Gun Control,and Clayton Cramer in Racist Roots of Gun Control, the targeting of blacks with early gun control laws is extremely blatant.

In the south, pre-civil war “Slave Codes” prohibited slaves from owing guns. Following emancipation, many southern states still prohibited blacks from owning guns under “Black Codes.” This was on the basis that they weren’t citizens and not entitled to Second Amendment rights. After the 1878 adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which formally acknowledged blacks as citizens, southern states imposed high taxes or banned inexpensive guns, so as to price blacks and poor whites out of the market.

Ekwall also quotes gun control advocate Robert Sherrill, author of The Saturday Night Special and Other Guns (1972). Sherill states unequivocally that “The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed, not to control guns, but to control blacks.”

Ekwall goes on to describe the unprecedented 1965-68 race riots in 125 American cities, in which the violence was graphically magnified by extensive TV coverage. The paranoia this engendered in the corporate and political elite was greatly heightened by Stokely Carmichael and other Black Panthers openly advocating violent revolution and the well-publicized protests (and police riot) at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

The Last Pro-Gun Democrat

As Joe Bageant writes in Deer Hunting with Jesus, the 1968 pro-war Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey uttered the last breath of Democratic sanity over the gun control issue. It’s really sad how radical he sounds in 2014:

“The right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against the tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.”

photo credit: Whiskeygonebad via photopin cc