The United States’s Sacred Gun Problem

The American fetish for firearms goes back to the nation’s genocidal roots, a new book argues.

By Mark TreckaFebruary 15, 2018

The United States’s Sacred Gun Problem

Loaded by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. City Lights Publishers. 248 pages.

LESS THAN TWO WEEKS after the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church shooting, Texas State Representative Jason Villalba went on NPR’s Morning Edition to talk about his plan to “bring together the smartest people in Texas” on the issue of gun control. Villalba said he thought it was high time to have a serious discussion about “the root causes of gun violence in America and in Texas [and] what kinds of solutions we might craft to address this situation.”

Among these solutions, Villalba said, was “the expansion of gun rights, perhaps.” He also said that “imbued in the DNA of every Texan is the right to keep and bear arms,” adding that he was armed at that very moment.

Gun ownership is not, of course, an intrinsic part of anyone’s genetics; such things are a matter of culture and context. But it is increasingly evident that there is something about Americans’ relationship to guns that sets them far apart from the rest of the world.

It is just this particular relationship that historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz explores in her latest book, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. Less a traditional history than a theory of American violence, Loaded examines the function and status of the Second Amendment, from colonization to modern mass shootings and the inclusion of the gun rights platform in conservative politics. Dunbar-Ortiz undercuts the more evident aspects of the United States’s relationship to guns, tracing an insidious and misrepresented history.

In Loaded’s first pages, Dunbar-Ortiz writes about her own experience with guns as a prolegomena to her exploration of foundational American violence. While living in New Orleans in her early 30s, she co-founded a radical left “women’s action-study group” which was infiltrated by at least one person who produced secret reports describing the group as “fanatic” and “potentially violent.” This was only a few years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, even fewer after Fred Hampton’s.

Dunbar-Ortiz explains that she and the others responded to this infiltration by arming themselves, “as a practical step, not a political act, something we needed for self-defense in order to continue working.” In retrospect, she says, “we were joining a trend occurring in movement groups across the country at that time, and once armed, our mindsets changed to match the new reality.”

Dunbar-Ortiz and her comrades acquired a veritable arsenal at a gun show where, she remembers, one could also purchase swastika pins and arm bands. She describes the subsequent hours of meticulous care that she and the other group members put into maintaining their various guns, the many hours spent at shooting ranges. “We had fallen under the spell of guns,” she writes. “Our relationship to them had become a kind of passion that was inappropriate to our political objectives, and it ended up distorting and determining them.” She soon disarmed.

The inclusion of this early 1970s personal experience feels significant, although its function is somewhat unclear. Dunbar-Ortiz seems to want to ensure a kind of insider’s credibility. But what it may ultimately illustrate is a point separate from that, and one that the author makes repeatedly throughout the book: gun love thrives in American nationalist and supremacy systems because it is a fundamental part of them. Gun love does not thrive outside of those systems, whether because, as in Dunbar-Ortiz’s case, it becomes unsustainable and languishes, or because, as in the case of the Black Panthers, disarmament or disbandment is forced by those very supremacy systems.

Over the next 60 or so pages, Dunbar-Ortiz constructs a vivid outline of the genocidal colonization of the United States. Much of this material will be familiar to anyone who has read her 2014 book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States or even 2016’s “All the Real Indians Died Off”. And while Loaded boasts neither the sweeping narrative mastery of the former nor the concision of the latter, her thesis here is certainly as compelling as — and perhaps even more shattering than — any she has proposed in previous works.

Dunbar-Ortiz dismantles an argument popular among gun-control advocates: that the Second Amendment isn’t about individual rights. This argument, based on historian Richard Hofstadter’s scholarship, insists that when the Second Amendment was written, it actually referred only to state militias (and therefore eventually the National Guard, rather than private citizens).

But this isn’t so. Dunbar-Ortiz describes at length the hyperviolent, irregular warfare tactics used to make way for settlement and commodification of the United States, and the official encouragement and essential deputization of private, rogue militias (nothing more than armed civilians) that waged this warfare. The group-sounding language, Dunbar-Ortiz says, “specifically gave individuals and families the right to form volunteer militias to attack Indians and take their land.” Morally repugnant, to be sure. But legally correct.

She drives home historian John Grenier’s theory, which, once again, readers of An Indigenous Peoples’ History will no doubt recognize: the violence fueled racism, rather than merely the other way around. This point is central, and it stands out among the many conversations about guns in the United States. In this view, one finds violence itself at the root. Violence is a means to acquire land and capital, and it predates racial prejudice. Violence is a means to culture. Quoting Grenier, she writes:

Successive generations of Americans, both soldiers and civilians, made the killing of Indian men, women, and children a defining element of their first military tradition and thereby part of a shared American identity. Indeed, only after seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Americans made the first way of war a key to being a white American could later generations of “Indian haters,” men like Andrew Jackson, turn the Indian wars into race wars.

The overwhelmingly violent settling of the United States may not in and of itself make for a broadly convincing explanation for America’s undying obsession with guns. We are not the only country with bloody origins. But Loaded does not stop at the colonies, nor at the “winning of the West.” Dunbar-Ortiz follows the imperial project of the United States as it marched into Mexico, the Philippines, Cuba, and Vietnam.

Perhaps even closer to the bone is Dunbar-Ortiz’s brief history of slave patrols, rifle clubs, and the KKK. “Southern settlers had long relied on ‘self-help’ measures to enforce slavery leading up to the formalized slave patrols,” she writes. These groups only thrived in the continued reinforcement of individual gun rights, along with the development of the arms industry in the years after abolition.

The author notes that in the decades after abolition, there would have been, for African Americans, very little distinction made between slave patrols, the KKK, and police. In some very painful and indeed deadly ways, Loaded argues, this lack of distinction more or less lives on today.

[T]he language of slave patrols is still employed in police work in the twenty-first century, “patrol” being the most obvious, but also “beat.” More disturbingly, techniques were folded into police practices, such as surveillance methods like the stakeout. And until the 1960s pushback, police had little supervision and routinely brutalized and confined suspects without consequences; even in the twenty-first century, when police torture or murder Black people, juries rarely find the involved officers guilty.

Even for gun control advocates and liberals leery of militarized police, the full depth of this idea that guns are fundamentally tools of racism may be uncomfortable to confront. But it is that depth and discomfort that sets Loaded apart from the near constant and often dead-ended discussions about gun violence in the United States. As is the case with much of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s work, Loaded demands of its readers that history be seen as a continuum to which the present belongs.

While both liberals and conservatives consider white supremacist mass shooters like Dylann Roof or vigilante racists like George Zimmerman to be aberrations or marginal actors, those men are

acting and speaking openly in support of the very roots of United States nationalism, which is embedded in the institutional structure of the country, from the Constitution itself, which includes the Second Amendment, to the “lost cause” of the Confederacy to save the institution of slavery and the continued colonization of Native lands.

Even though Loaded embraces the heart of the National Rifle Association’s argument that gun rights are embedded in individual rights, this book will find no fans among the NRA’s membership, as it also deals in that group’s racist and nationalist history and objectives. The author argues compellingly that with Manifest Destiny underpinning the very existence of the United States, the foundational texts of the US government are regarded intrinsically as something more than legal documents. “The Constitution is the sacred text of the civic religion that is U.S. nationalism, and that nationalism is inexorably tied to white supremacy.”

The sacred right to arm has always been bound up with the sacred right of white Europeans to take and keep control of North America. That right, therefore, can never really be granted to certain people. Gun love does not thrive outside of supremacy systems. After Black Panthers armed themselves for self-protection in Oakland in 1967, then-governor Ronald Reagan of California moved swiftly to ban the open carrying of long guns. In July 2016, Philando Castile was pulled over by police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, while he was armed legally and properly licensed. He announced this to Officer Jeronimo Yanez, who 13 seconds later shot Castile five times, killing him as the world watched on a Facebook live video taken by Castile’s girlfriend. Gun rights activists were notably silent in the wake of this unjustified execution, even as Officer Yanez was acquitted of all charges in June 2017.

Dunbar-Ortiz wants her readers to see these incidents not as events separated by five decades, but as two aspects of the same system; a system as powerful today as it was 50 years ago, as powerful 50 years ago as it was two hundred years ago.

It may be simply too uncomfortable for most people to consider Dylan Roof a foot soldier of the sacred covenant that is the Second Amendment; to think of extravagant violence not as a marginal part of American culture, but as one of its foundational principles. But perhaps now is the time for these considerations.

If Texas Republican representative Jason Villalba, or indeed anyone at all really wants to “get to the root causes of gun violence in America,” they will need to start by coming to terms with even a fraction of what Loaded proposes. That is to say, perhaps it isn’t as simple as asking about the root causes of gun violence in America. Perhaps it’s a matter of considering gun violence as one of the root causes of America.


Mark Trecka is a Chicago-born writer, artist, and performer. His writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, Beacon Press’s Broadside, Salon, The Creators Project, and elsewhere. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.

LARB Contributor

Mark Trecka is a Chicago-born writer, artist, and performer. His writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, Beacon Press’s Broadside blog, Salon, The Creators Project, and elsewhere. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.


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