The Brutal Origins of Gun RightsRoundup
tags: Second Amendment, guns, gun control, Native Americans, gun rights, Gun Violence
We will never know for certain who was the first person shot dead in the Americas. Visitors to the Jamestown Settlement Museum in Virginia can see the skeleton of a young man, no older than 19; the pellets of lead that killed him are embedded in a shattered knee. Known only as JR102C, the man’s identity has been the subject of much debate. The strongest theory holds that he was a dashing young military officer named George Harrison, and that he was killed in a duel.
But this European settler was hardly the first human being in the “New World” killed by a gun. Forensic scientists excavating sites in Peru have found at least one gunshot fatality nearly a century older, an Inca man shot through the back of his skull by a conquistador. He appears to have been a noncombatant, possibly executed after a 1536 uprising, his body dumped in a mass grave alongside those of women and children. Many of their remains show signs of mutilation and abuse. No one can even pretend to guess at his name or theirs.
These early cases of gun violence belong to a history of settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing. As the writer and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues in her brilliant new book, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, America’s obsession with guns has roots in a long, bloody legacy of racist vigilantism, militarism, and white nationalism. This past, Dunbar-Ortiz persuasively argues, undergirds both the landscape of gun violence to this day and our partisan debates about guns. Her analysis, erudite and unrelenting, exposes blind spots not just among conservatives, but, crucially, among liberals as well.
These days, debates over the Second Amendment invariably turn on interpreting the connotation of “militia” in the stipulation that: “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.” Liberals will often argue that gun ownership was always intended to be tethered to participation in institutions like the early Colonial Army or today’s National Guard. Conservatives tend to retort, in so many words, that “the people” were always meant to have guns as such, since an armed citizenry functions as a putative check on tyrannical government over-reach. When polled, a majority of Americans say they believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms, regardless of participation in formal militias, whether “for hunting” or, as the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 District of Columbia vs. Heller, for lawful “self-defense.”
A distinguished scholar of Native American history, Dunbar-Ortiz dismisses these debates as a red herring. As she pointedly notes, at the time of the Second Amendment’s drafting, other lines elsewhere in America’s founding documents already provided for the existence of formal militias, and multiple early state constitutions had spelled out an individual right to bear arms besides. What the Second Amendment guarantees is instead something else: “the violent appropriation of Native land by white settlers … as an individual right.” ...
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