The Hidden History of Guns and the 2nd Amendment
The Unholy Alliance of Racism, Genocide, and Guns
If I had my life to live over, I would die fighting rather than be a slave again. I want no man’s yoke on my shoulders no more.
—Robert Falls, age 97, Knoxville, Tennessee1
In Isaiah 14:21, the Lord tells Isaiah, “Prepare for his sons a place of slaughter because of the iniquity of their fathers.” It’s a variation on the old story of karma and seems in a very real way to be playing out today in the United States.
America is facing an epidemic—public health officials use that word—of gun-related suicides, accidents, and even homicides and police killings. That epidemic has grown worse in the past decade, largely because the number of guns in America has increased—in large part because of the racial fears of white men who bought guns in record numbers for eight years during the time in office of America’s first black president.
A landmark 1999 study from researchers Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins showed that the main correlation—far surpassing mental illness, socioeconomic status, or race—that could be defined as causal in predicting the rates of gun deaths is a simple number: the number of guns distributed among society.
In the 30 years since that study, Zimring and Hawkins’s results have been replicated and re-analyzed dozens of times.2
As the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a release published in AAAS’s Science magazine, “New research shows dramatic differences in the number of children hospitalized and killed each year in the U.S. from firearm-related injuries based on their states’ gun legislation, even after adjusting for poverty, unemployment, and education rates. It found twice as many pediatric firearm deaths in states with the most lenient gun regulations compared with states where gun laws are strictest.”
They added that this is a critical issue for children, quoting Stephanie Chao, MD, the lead author of the abstract. “Firearm-related injuries are the second leading cause of death among children in the United States,” she wrote, “but we found a clear discrepancy in where those deaths happen that corresponds with the strength of states’ firearm legislation. In states with lenient laws, children die at alarmingly greater rates.”3
And, unsurprisingly, America not only has unusually lenient gun laws but also has more guns in civilian hands than any other country in the world. America has a bit more than 4 percent of the world’s population but holds almost 50 percent of all the guns in civilian hands worldwide—more than 390 million guns. And the more guns a society has, the more gun deaths it will experience.4
The NRA and their army of lobbyists have been quite successful in making this happen. During Obama’s presidency, there was a steady and hysterical drumbeat of articles, emails, and political proclamations by “pro-gun” politicians and think tanks suggesting that Obama was preparing to take away everybody’s guns at any minute.
There was even a subtext embraced by the hard right that he wasn’t going to stop there; after disarming white Americans, these folks said, Obama was going to intern them in otherwise-unused “FEMA camps.” Flipped-out gun owners were repeatedly arrested during the Obama years trying to break into retired or temporarily vacant military facilities and toxic waste sites, looking for evidence to prove that Obama was, in fact, preparing the modern-day version of the World War II–era Japanese internment camps.
White supremacy was the founding notion of this nation. White Europeans thought themselves so superior to the human beings they met here in 1492 that Columbus himself became the first major North American slaver, shipping Taino “Indians” back to Spain as slaves for the royal family.
“A slave is as good as gold,” Columbus wrote to the king and queen.
Europeans in the Americas then stepped up that game into a hemisphere-wide campaign of racial genocide, pulling off the largest multigenerational mass murder in the history of the world. In the midst of that effort, they also created the legal mechanisms necessary to define and legally regulate slavery, and even built those systems into America’s founding document, the Constitution.
America was birthed in slavery and genocide. And both needed guns.
It was the superior weaponry of guns that gave the European settlers a massive advantage over the bow-and-arrow-equipped Native Americans, and it was the raw power of widespread white ownership of guns in the South that propped up the institution of slavery for hundreds of years. Without guns, neither would have been possible, or at least neither would have been as easy as they were to pull off.
And now, after centuries of guns being used to kill off and keep down people of color in America, those same guns are creating a terrifying epidemic of gun-facilitated violence from public schools to private homes and public concerts.
It’s enough to make one think that Isaiah was on to something.
The Sanitized History of America
Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
—George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
The United States’ expansion and conquest in the late 18th century, through the 19th century, and into 20th century is a history written by white men, inked in the blood of Native Americans, and built on the broken and bloodied backs of enslaved people brought here from Africa.
From 1791, when the Bill of Rights went into effect, until the end of the Civil War, the Second Amendment protected the rights only of white men to own guns. This is simply because until the ratification of the 14th Amendment, states determined who was recognized as a “person” protected under the Constitution.
Initially, in most states, this meant that white men who owned land and paid taxes were the only people considered full citizens under the Constitution.
In the South, white men with guns formed slave patrols to control slaves and formed posses to hunt escaped slaves.
Individuals on the frontier organized to “protect” recently stolen land and to ensure that Native Americans continued to march westward at the point of a gun.
The early 19th century brought us the original Texas Rangers, who were well-armed, and though Hollywood now tells stories about the Texas Rangers as noble lawmen serving on a dangerous frontier, Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz describes a different reality in her book Loaded: “Like slave patrols in the Deep South, the Texas Rangers—formed primarily to kill Comanches, eliminate native communities, and control colonized Mexicans to take their land—also hunted down enslaved Africans escaping to freedom. They began to operate in the 1820s, even before . . . Texas had seceded from Mexico in 1836, when Mexico formally outlawed slavery.”1
What many schoolchildren learn about this period is sanitized. Worse yet, what many adults think they know about this period is not only sanitized but steeped in pop cultural references that glamorize the period while glossing over the utter brutality of American history.
Americans learn about the expansion of America, about the Louisiana Purchase, and about manifest destiny. The images of this period are of elite sharpshooters on the frontier: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and James “Jim” Bowie, to name a few.
And as when there is a mass shooting today, most Americans remember the man who shouldered the rifle more than the person who stared down the barrel. Americans, particularly white Americans, simply ignore the most brutal aspects of the massive slave economy that this country was built on.
American culture and education have hidden the brutality of American history and slavery so effectively that Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy wondered in 2014 whether black Americans were “better off as slaves.”2 More recently, former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore told an audience that “[America] was great at the time when families were united—even though we had slavery—they cared for one another.”3
Likewise, when contemplating the Louisiana Purchase, history talks of Napoleon selling French territory to Thomas Jefferson. The truth is that the Native American population dramatically outnumbered the French population in the Louisiana Territory at that time.
As well-armed Americans poured across the newly purchased territory, Native Americans had three options: continue to flee westward; submit to American conquest and assimilate; or fight back against the rifle-toting American frontiersmen, which would only give more justification for Americans to respond with more force.
Even during this period of slavery and genocide, white Americans didn’t necessarily see themselves as murderers and plunderers. The 19th century in America was a period of intense religious revival. On the one hand, the abolition movement rooted itself in Christianity. On the other hand, slave owners pointed to Bible verses showing that slavery had been legitimized in the Old Testament and that black people were heathens who had fallen from God’s grace, so slave owners were in fact helping their slaves along the road to salvation.
Native Americans were similarly called heathens and beasts, justifying the murder of those who wouldn’t convert and then the taking of their land. It was, after all, God’s will and manifest destiny that Americans continue to settle westward. Thus, the American frontiersman set out with his rifle, seeking his God-promised homestead and willing to kill any heathen that stood in his way.
For much of American history, most guns were owned by slaveholders and frontiersmen; urban Americans had little use for guns.
Guns were tools used to hunt animals for food, to keep slaves in line, and to force Native Americans to submit to American conquest, not symbols of manhood or cultural identity. The gun-manufacturing industry wasn’t yet selling guns on the mythology of the Minuteman.
But through the 19th century, private gun ownership still wasn’t particularly common. Historian Michael Bellesiles told the Economist in 1999, “It would appear that at no time prior to 1850 did more than a tenth of the people own guns.”4
In the years following the Civil War, though, private gun ownership exploded. The explosion of guns in private hands was in part because of the rise of private rifle clubs and paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and in part because of savvy marketing by Oliver Winchester, founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
To understand the roots of the Second Amendment and the roots of American gun culture today, it’s vital to examine America’s brutal history of gun violence.
It is comfortable to tell a history of America that glamorizes the Old South by ignoring the brutality of slavery. It is easy to turn the frontiersman into a folk hero by breezing over the racism and guerrilla violence that marked the frontlines of America’s expansion westward.
But such comfortable histories of America do a disservice and prevent a true understanding of the cultural depths of America’s gun-violence epidemic, which, in turn, prevents a clear-eyed assessment of ways to address the problem at its roots.
The Roots of American Gun Culture in the “Discovery” of America
The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.
—Orders of George Washington to Major General John Sullivan, May 31, 17791
Without America’s history of slavery and Native American genocide, today’s “American gun culture” wouldn’t exist. The fact that America is today soaked in gun-splattered blood should be no surprise; this nation’s story is one of the most genocidal in the modern history of the world.
How bad was it?
In 1992, historian David Stannard set out to determine how many Native Americans were killed, both directly at the barrel of a gun and indirectly by disease and loss of land/food, by European invaders to the Americas.2 His best estimate puts Hitler to shame: white people killed more than 100 million Native Americans between 1492 and today . . . and the killing continues, in subtler ways than previous generations could have imagined.
One gray, rainy winter day in 2016, Louise and I made our way through the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The gift shop sells a map of North America, circa 1491—the year before Columbus blundered onto our shores. On the map, in meticulous detail, are identified the names and lands of the hundreds of native tribes that filled our continent.
There was virtually no empty space at all, except in places like the desert Southwest, but even in the most uninhabitable places there were still people, albeit with population densities as low as a few dozen people per square mile.
Haiti is a great (or terrible) example of what happened when Europeans invaded the Americas and kicked off an orgy of killing of natives, in this case in the Caribbean, by white invaders—a blood frenzy that lasted several centuries, as I described in my book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight.3
When Columbus ﬁrst landed on Hispaniola (the Caribbean island comprising modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1492, almost the entire island was covered by lush forest. The Taino “Indians” who lived there had an idyllic life prior to Columbus, according to the reports left to us by literate members of Columbus’s crew, such as Miguel Cuneo.
It’s unclear exactly how well armed Columbus and his crew were when they set out to find a sea route to India. In a 2013 NPR article titled “The First Gun in America,” reporter Linton Weeks spoke with Jim Supica, director of the NRA National Firearms Museum in Virginia. Supica told Weeks that for tax purposes, Spanish explorations only listed the cannons aboard a vessel, not personal firearms.4
In the same NPR article, underwater archaeologist Donald Keith explained that Columbus’s crew had a designated “artilleryman,” and in at least one instance, Columbus fired his cannons to strike fear into the hearts of the Taino.
Keith told NPR that “when [Columbus] sailed away from Haiti he ordered a shot to be fired through the shipwrecked hulk of the Santa Maria to impress on the Native Americans the power of European firearms. The weapon he used would have been a breech-loading wrought-iron cannon. If he had such a weapon he would also have had smaller shoulder arms, such as arquebuses.”
Christopher Columbus was armed not only to find gold, but also to dominate and enslave anyone who stood between him and his pursuit of riches.
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