My Turn: The racist roots of the Second Amendment
|Published: 04-21-2019 12:20 AM
Mass shootings have become institutionalized as an almost normal part of American life, as have the responses to such shootings. After each massacre, victims, their families and gun-control advocates bemoan the latest atrocity and call for background checks and a ban on assault weapons. Gun rights advocates oppose such reforms and stand behind the Second Amendment.
The same scenario plays out, over and over, with the Second Amendment a powerful impediment, blocking any gun-control measures.
The Second Amendment, adopted in 1791, states: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The author, James Madison, wanted to empower state militias, which today are considered the National Guard.
Much of public discussion about the Second Amendment has focused on the militia clause and whether that was intended to limit the scope of the amendment. Whatever one thinks about it, the U.S. Supreme Court settled that question in its 2008 Heller decision, holding that the Second Amendment guarantees the right for every individual, with some limited exceptions, to bear arms.
However, what is not discussed is why the Second Amendment was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. For all that has been written about it, there has been relatively little discussion about the reasons for the inclusion of that amendment. The conventional view has been that the Second Amendment was there so that people have a right to defend themselves against tyranny. Many colonists had come to America to escape oppressive regimes and absolute monarchies in mainland Europe.
The Native American historian and writer Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has articulated a provocative and different perspective on why there was a Second Amendment placed so prominently in the Bill of Rights. In her book Loaded, she argues that the Second Amendment enshrined an individual gun right to allow settlers to form volunteer militias to attack Indians and take their land.
The settlers needed guns for the western expansion of the United States, a massively popular enterprise. The land west of the original 13 colonies was not an empty wilderness, devoid of population. Many tribes had developed their own nations where they had lived for generations.
The colonial settlers formed militias for the purpose of raiding and razing indigenous communities and seizing their land and resources. The colonists needed the Second Amendment to carry out and legitimate their mission.
This was a project against which Native Americans fought back. Dunbar-Ortiz cites the resistance of such leaders as Buckongahelas of the Delaware, Little Turtle and Blue Jacket of the Miami Shawnee alliance, Joseph Brant of the Mohawk, Complanter of the Seneca, as well as the great Tecumseh and the Shawnee-led Confederation of the Ohio Valley.
The eastern half of the continent was ethnically cleansed of Native Americans by 1850, which forced their relocation to “Indian Country” west of the Mississippi River. Looking at the genocide committed against Native Americans, the Second Amendment can be placed in historical perspective. It needs to be seen in the context of westward expansion and the Indian wars.
Those who like to put a halo on the Constitution and the Second Amendment are not looking at it historically. Whatever its merits and wisdom, there is a very dark side.
Both our revolutionary army and the squatter-settlers used extreme violence against Native Americans, both combatants and non-combatants, with the goal of total domination. Ironically, the settlers justified their violence on the racist basis that they were fighting “savages.”
We have a blind spot in looking at American history. People feel badly about the outcome of what happened to Native Americans, but we expunge the vigilante violence that was a big part of the genocide. It is a form of historical amnesia where dark truths are disappeared. Gun rights were inextricably entwined with stealing Indian land and forcibly removing and relocating tribes.
Dunbar-Ortiz also argues that the Second Amendment provided slavers with the means to enforce slavery. She cites slave patrols that were part of the policing of African Americans. In the slave colonies, if slaves attempted to escape, until the end of the Civil War, individuals could claim a reward for capture of the escapee. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan replaced the slave patrols. Gun rights were central to the Klan mission.
Many gun rights supporters will strongly reassert that we need the Second Amendment to protect against tyrannical government now. They will also justify their personal arsenals on the basis of that right. However, that argument makes no sense when you consider the Second Amendment’s origins.
In America’s early years, once independence was assured, the colonists faced no domestic threat of an out-of-control central government. The colonists were far more focused on westward expansion and confronting the Indians. The British Monarch, King George III, had earlier unsuccessfully tried to stop the American expansion.
Manifest Destiny was the agenda of the colonists. The armed American militias of the 19th century were about conquest of Native land and about the subjugation of African Americans. Our gun culture is steeped in this history of racism.
Reverence for the Second Amendment is part of our problem around guns. When reasonable gun control reforms are suggested, there is an unjustified reaction, asserting the Second Amendment as some type of almost religious icon. History shows it is anything but that. Laws, even constitutional amendments, need to be seen and understood within the context of when they were created.
A historical appreciation of the Second Amendment should lead to an end to its deification and more support for gun control reforms. If we saw the racist and militarist reasons for the Second Amendment, there would be much less sanctimony around its discussion. That alone would move the debate forward and make gun control reform a more viable option.
(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)