In November 2018 there will be a ballot initiative to have more gun regulations in Washington State.
Initiative 1639, if passed, would raise the age to buy a semi-automatic weapon to 21 and require enhanced background checks as well as training and waiting periods. It would also require gun owners to safely secure any firearms in their homes.
Opponents of gun regulation usually cite the Second Amendment to the US Constitution as a reason to put no restrictions on gun ownership. These arguments are almost always wrong.
In her book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment (City Lights, 2018), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz examines the creation of “gun culture” in America before the writing of the Constitution. She also explores the history of the time when the Second Amendment was written (1791) and its application in the modern era. (Much of the information in this article comes from this book.)
The Second Amendment itself is very precise and short and can easily be memorized by all who argue for or against its application to the present. It reads in full: “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.”
Gun culture never was about hunting
As reviewer Nick Estes, notes, Dunbar-Ortiz shows that “… gun culture has never been about hunting. From crushing slave rebellions to Indigenous resistance, arming individual white settler men has always been the strategy for maintaining racial and class rules and for taking indigenous land from the founding of the settler nation to the present.”
In the 17th and 18th centuries a main purpose of gun regulation was to require European men to own guns. This was to conquer, settle and defend territory occupied by British settlers over the Indigenous population, and to make sure that enslaved people could not run away or could be re-captured if they tried to escape.
Groups formed into settler militias that helped conquer the west — at that time covering the territory occupied today by Ohio and Kentucky.
By the time of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the writing and ratification of the Constitution (1787-1789) and the Second Amendment (1791), gun culture was becoming more formalized.
As Howard Zinn has noted, the country being formed as the US with its new Constitution established a society that was half free for whites (without total freedom for white workers) and half slave (Africans). Native people in this scenario were basically being eliminated.
“The US gun culture is like no other in the world, especially for a country that is not in a civil war nor experiencing organized armed conflict within its borders.”
From slave patrols to police culture and mass incarceration
The Second Amendment is one of the few places in the Constitution that has the exact reason for its existence written into it, i.e. “being necessary to the security of a free state.”
In his article, “The Second Amendment was ratified to Preserve Slavery”, Thom Hartmann argues that the “well regulated militia” referred to in the amendment was actually the slave patrols. Well-armed white men were needed as slave patrollers in the case of runaway slaves. The free state referred to in the amendment was actually a slave state that needed to protect its freely held property (i.e. African human beings).
Dunbar-Ortiz notes that by the late 1600s settler militias helped to set the “basis for US police culture after slaving people was illegalized,” i.e. after the Civil War.
This was readily apparent in the post-war period of 1865-1954 and the more modern era as explored in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation.
No other gun culture like our own
The US gun culture is like no other in the world, especially for a country that is not in a civil war nor experiencing organized armed conflict within its borders.
According to Dunbar-Ortiz, using a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, “Seventy-four percent of gun owners in the United States are male, and 82 percent of gun owners are white, which means that 61 percent of all adults who own guns are white men and this group accounts for 31 percent of the total US population.”
A 2018 report from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva found that Americans account for 40 percent of all guns owned in the world, yet the US has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. The Geneva study states that there are 393,000,000 civilian guns in the US or about 121 per 100 civilians. This includes all men, women, and children.
Yet, and this is important, while gun culture does exist, it does not directly involve the majority of Americans. World gun ownership is heavily concentrated in the US and it is heavily concentrated among a few Americans. A Washington Post report from September 2016 on a Harvard-Northwestern study notes that 78% of American adults do not own any guns and just 22% do. Of the owners, 19% of American adults own half of all the guns while a mere 3% owns the other half. The top 3% of gun owners own an average of 17 guns apiece.
The impact of guns in the US is well known. Mass shootings, usually defined as 4 or more persons shot, killed or injured at one time, happen on almost a daily basis—literally. The Guardian reported in February 2018 that in the previous three years there were 1,624 mass shootings in 1,870 days. Mass killings, especially those at schools, make the headlines on a regular basis, but the vast majority of those who die by guns are suicides and regular homicides.
The original purpose of the Second Amendment may appear to be no longer valid, but as Dunbar-Ortiz demonstrates, it helped to create the gun culture and the police culture that permeate our society, both well-described in the Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor book cited above.
Role of the NRA
One of the primary groups that has twisted the current interpretation of the Second Amendment is the National Rifle Association (NRA). In her book, Dunbar-Ortiz covers the history of the group and its evolution. Originally the NRA was a post-Civil War organization that provided education on how to shoot and handle a gun. It was not always against regulation of guns, but over the years and especially since the Reagan era, the NRA became an extreme right-wing organization that has worked against almost any restrictions on any aspect of gun use and ownership.
Dunbar-Ortiz also explains in detail the historical connection between the Second Amendment, US gun culture and US foreign policies and wars. A brief reminder of one such connection may be in order: The current president of the NRA is Oliver North, President Reagan’s right-hand man during the Contra war against the people of Nicaragua in the 1980s. In 1994, North ran for US senator from Virginia. His opponent, Senator Chuck Robb (D. Va.) concisely described North’s career up to that point:
“My opponent is a document-shredding, Constitution-trashing, commander-in-chief-bashing, Ayatollah-loving, arms-dealing, criminal-protecting, resume-enhancing, Noriega-coddling, Swiss-banking, law-breaking, letter-faking, self-serving, snake-oil salesman who can’t tell the difference between the truth and a lie.”
North narrowly lost the election, became a FOX News host and now continues his career at the NRA.
Dunbar-Ortiz notes that the NRA has written on its lobby wall in Fairfax, Virginia only this portion of the Second Amendment “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
In reality the original wording of the Second Amendment has neither been amended nor altered. A good place to begin our self-education about this amendment would be to read and examine Dunbar-Ortiz’s new book and educate others about adopting a modern version of the concept of “well regulated” when it comes to the subject of gun control.
Larry Mosqueda is Political Economy Faculty Emeritus at The Evergreen State College and has been active for decades in Olympia Movement for Peace & Justice, and other groups.