In March 2018, hundreds of thousands marched against the proliferation of guns in the USA[i], following outrage against yet another school shooting, this time in Florida. It is clear the debate about guns is reaching a critical level where some kind of change – either some form of gun control, or entrenchment of existing practice, is inevitable. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s new book could not be timelier.
The United States is alone in liberal democracies in having a Constitution that encourages gun ownership. The costs are fatal:
“Total gun deaths in the United States average around 37,000 a year, with two-thirds of those deaths being suicides, leaving approximately 12,000 homicides, a thousand of those at the hands of the police. Mass shootings – ones that leave four or more people wounded or dead – now occur in the United States, on average, at the pace of one or more per day. Disturbing as that fact is, mass shootings currently account for only 2 percent of gun killings annually.”[ii]
Of the 300 million guns in the USA, the majority are owned by under 25% of the population who tend to each have around eight guns in their households. The colossal scale of human tragedy was also echoed by commentator Mark Shields who said that since 1968, “more Americans have died from [domestic] gunfire than died in … all the wars of this country’s history,”[iii] a claim that has been fact-checked by Politifact.
The justification for widespread gun ownership is absent in philosophical liberalism. John Stuart Mill, arguably liberalism’s greatest theorist on the subject of liberty, would not approve of widespread gun ownership because the likelihood of harm to others is too great, as all the blogs on the subject of Mill’s attitude to gun control attest[iv]. In its modern incarnation of ‘individual right,’ moral justification for gun ownership is attributable more to the anarcho-capitalism of Robert Nozick who thought the good society is only secured by having the most minimal state possible. However, it seems the good society is far from here yet, with an absence of gun control in the USA; indeed, with President Trump’s proposal to arm teachers in the wake of the Florida school shooting, an atmosphere of paranoia seems to be descending that can only harm liberty overall.
Nevertheless, Dunbar-Ortiz criticises gun control proponents as well, at least to the extent they only want legislation rather than a wider reform of gun culture. Previous attempts to regulate guns have only led to police harassment of minority communities. For example, in 1967, Bobby Seale read a statement from a police station after more than twenty Black Panther men and women had been arrested and disarmed that Dunbar-Ortiz quotes:
“The Black Panther party for self-defense calls upon the American people in general and the black people in particular to take careful note of the racist California Legislature which is considering legislation aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless at the very same time that racist police agencies throughout the country are intensifying the terror, brutality, murder and repression of black people.”[v]
So, if the police and white vigilantes are armed, the argument put forward is that so should blacks be in order to defend themselves. Gun control, therefore, is just as bad as gun proliferation. It is clear from this that gun control alone is insufficient – what is needed is to square up to the facts about a society in which racism remains a powerful force. Nevertheless, in 2010, 55% of gun-related homicides in the US were African-Americans, who comprised 13% of the population, suggesting guns may not be a magic bullet in terms of self-protection. Furthermore, although not an advocate of the legal route in isolation, Dunbar-Ortiz clearly believes a substantial pillar of the racist culture is indeed the Second Amendment itself. Loaded thus traces the history of the Second Amendment in practice to show what an irrational Constitutional statement it is.
The Second Amendment, although widely believed to be about individual rights, historically was not about that, but about conquest and plunder. It codifies the entitlement of violent militias to kill Native Americans (Red Indians), and steal their land. It is there from the outset in its wording: “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” states the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment concerned the fledgling USA’s ability to continue to plunder Native American territory by attempting to wipe out the population via the barrel of a gun, and practically obliged the colonial settlers to arm themselves and form militias to this end. Prior to the writing down of the Second Amendment, “Virginia, the first colony, forbade any man to travel unless he was ‘well armed.’ A few years later, another law required men to take arms with them to work and to attend church or be fined. In 1658, the colony ordered every settler home to have a functioning firearm, and later even provided government loans for those who could not afford to buy a weapon.”[vi] The first President, George Washington, was leader of the Virginia militia.
The Second Amendment, far from being a proper ‘right of man,’ simply tied together existing policies concerning the crushing of Indian resistance and the seizure of their land.
“Several of the colonies that declared independence in 1776 – Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Virginia – had already adopted individual gun-rights measures into their state constitutions before the Second Amendment was passed at the federal level…Settler-militias and armed households were institutionalized for the destruction and control of Native peoples, communities, and nations.”[vii]
The Second Amendment was no boon for the liberation of humanity, therefore, but was
conceived of as a piece of racist legislation from the outset to enforce white supremacy. Thus, it is no surprise that the logic of the Second Amendment compelled the “savage war” between 1607-1890 that usurped more and more territory (the subject of Chapter Two), and the formation of “slave patrols” (the subject of Chapter Three), that harassed the slaves that had been drawn into this “Empire of Liberty” (Thomas Jefferson’s words). Dunbar-Ortiz makes a convincing case that the modern US police force was historically drawn from these slave patrols, and generally prolonged its raison d’etre in terms of oppressing the black population.
The consequences of the Second Amendment – white people eliminating Indigenous communities – have been felt in cultural products since its inception, from the books of the nineteenth century through to the Hollywood of the 20th and 21st centuries that romanticises gun culture where often the heroes get mixed up in the mind with Confederate outlaws. Furthermore, the “myth of the hunter” romanticises the purpose of guns and turns the settler-colonialists into racial superiors.
It is silly to cite the Second Amendment as a protection for hunting rights given that most countries already permit regulated hunting without requiring a Second Amendment. In a post-Second Amendment America, guns could still be used on the shooting range, and for regulated hunting, it is just they would not be to oppress other people. Just as one should be unhindered in seeing performing animals at a zoo, theme park, or circus, you don’t need the ability for a quarter of the population to keep eight lions at home as the ‘fullest expression’ of that right.
Dunbar-Ortiz regards the present period as one in which the gun debate has been reignited following the US defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s. This event shook the meaning of the Second Amendment, if correctly understood not as a right to own guns but as means of colonial expansionism. The Vietnamese were frequently described as if they were the new Indians the Americans had to vanquish. Thus, military defeat here inevitably called into question the validity and scope of the Second Amendment. In response, liberals from this period onwards became more vociferous in calling for some form of gun control. This made right-wing gun owners more paranoid, and it is from this point onwards that mass shootings multiply in frequency. School shootings begin to occur and gradually become more common because the school is where liberal values are transmitted to the next generation. Mass shooters, although invariably suffering from forms of mental illness, are often reacting against liberals who they fear are about to take away their guns. Under the Barack Obama administration (2008-2016), gun purchase was at a very high level because the President kept promising to regulate them. People bought guns to beat the closing opportunity. Ironically under the subsequent Trump administration where white supremacy has a more solidified powerbase, the rate of gun acquisition has slightly lowered as people feel their fetish is not about to be immediately taken away. Nevertheless, this does not affect the rate of mass shootings and other atrocities because the perpetrators have always only been acting out the fantastic drama of a race war or gender war.
Bearing in mind all these points, it is not immediately clear how the future should evolve. If both gun ownership and gun control can similarly provoke horrendous acts in society, then how should we proceed? Dunbar-Ortiz thinks that highly militarized foreign policy can partly explain the domestic attachment to guns, so that could be a locus for intellectual and practical combat, as could the Second Amendment itself. The main strength of the book is in demystifying what the Second Amendment is really about. Certainly, if everyone was aware of the history as presented by Dunbar-Ortiz, it could partly affect a cultural shift against guns, as no doubt the continuing protests against mass shootings will, in the realm of practice. But ultimately the much-needed cultural shift can only receive a boost from a more profound structural change. Dunbar-Ortiz is completely correct when she says:
“The militaristic-capitalist powerhouse that the United States became by 1840 derived from real estate (which included enslaved Africans, as well as appropriated land). The United States was founded as a capitalist state and an empire on conquered land, with capital in the form of slaves, hence the term chattel slavery; this was exceptional in the world and has remained exceptional. The capitalist firearms industry was among the first successful modern corporations. Gun proliferation and gun violence today are among its legacies.”[viii]
Here, Dunbar-Ortiz is rightly pointing the finger at capitalism itself. But more conceptual analysis of capitalism is required to elucidate the truth she has identified. Why is it that capitalism only expands aggressively and at a great cost to human life, of which guns are a reinforcing symptom, but not the cause? Compared to previous social systems that only expanded in terms of the odd raid here and there but weren’t completely genocidal, and compared to a future society in which something like ‘universal human wealth’ expands peacefully and democratically, why is it that capitalism, particularly US capitalism, has such a dire track record that requires the abhorrent Second Amendment as a Constitutional claim?
The answer is that capital-ism, i.e. the logic of capital-in-general, is distinct from the simple desire to produce for one’s needs. Capital-in-general only exists concretely in the form of many-capitals. These privately owned mini-capitals are all in competition with one another. To survive, the owner of a particular capital has to compete aggressively and attempt to expand. Therefore, all the many-capitals are competing with one another and expanding. So, capital-in-general calls forth a state army to cement itself as a social system that is viable. The logic of the particular individual capital as a thing that is privately owned and in competition with enemies, extends upwards to a social system whereby capital-in-general becomes this horrible entity hell-bent on the extermination of anything that stands in its way. It can only be in the tackling of capitalism as a totality that the USA can come to its senses over guns. Dunbar-Ortiz’ marvellous book allows us to make these preliminary observations and is a must-read for anyone interested in the gun debate or indeed the world at large.
[i] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2018/mar/24/march-for-our-lives-protest-gun-violence-washington – viewed on April 10, 2018
[ii] Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2018) “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment” (San Francisco: City Lights Books), p. 20
[iv] See for example https://lifeexaminations.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/mill-on-gun-control/ – viewed on April 10, 2018 or https://sites.dwrl.utexas.edu/liberrimus/2017/10/25/mill-on-gun-control/ – viewed on April 10, 2018 or https://bpr.berkeley.edu/2013/08/05/political-philosophy-and-the-gun-control-debatewhat-would-bentham-mills-and-nozick-have-to-say/ – viewed on April 10, 2018
[v] Dunbar-Ortiz, p. 167
[vi] Ibid., p. 35
[vii] Ibid., p.36
[viii] Ibid., p.39