A front page story in the Washington Post struck me. “GOP field backs gun rights with both barrels,” read the title of the David A. Fahrenthold piece on March 29. As one would expect, the potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are jumping all over themselves to show how ‘pro-gun’ they are.
In the USA we have discussions about guns that pretend to be based on history, but actually miss certain key features. In so doing, the heart and soul of the gun debate is overlooked and the issue devolves into questions of morality and gun safety.
The gun issue in the USA is related to history but not particularly to the 2nd Amendment (the supposed right to bear arms). The debate precedes the 2nd Amendment by more than a century and it revolves around settlers and race.
The gun debate in the USA started in the 1600s and, while there were always matters of safety and hunting, the key question was actually one of who had the right and authority to possess weapons. The second question centered on why the centrality of weapon possession at all.
The settlement of North America, and specifically the original thirteen colonies, was not a non-violent act. It represented an invasion. There immediately arose the question of the protection of the invaders, i.e., the colonists. Thus, weapons, at all costs, had to be kept out of the hands of the indigenous population—the Native Americans or First Nations.
Severe penalties were created for any settler who sold or traded weapons to the Native Americans. This notoriety made its way into the popular media over the years with stories about so-called mavericks who supplied Native Americans with weaponry.
During much of the colonial era, and into the 19th century, by the way, this form of activity was frequently associated in the minds of much of the white public with Irish dissidents who were in opposition to the British colonization of Ireland.
Weaponry was also essential for handling an ‘internal’ problem within the emerging settler state: indentured servants and slaves.
The 1600s was a period of regular uprisings carried out by indentured servants and slaves. The indentured servant workforce was originally composed of Africans, Europeans and some Native Americans. It was the turmoil during this period that drove the colonial ruling elite to identify the need to splinter the workforce in order to retain power. In that context arose the modern usage of “race,” based largely upon the successful experience of the British in the occupation and suppression of the indigenous population in Ireland.
Over the course of the 1600s, indentured servitude evolved into indentured servitude for Europeans laborers and slavery-for-life for Africans. In order to guarantee that the Africans and Europeans did not conspire together, there were major penalties for any sort of ‘cross-racial’ cooperation among the laboring peoples. There was, additionally, the question of the gun.
One of the chief distinctions between the condition of the European and that of the African was that Africans could not own or possess weapons. Possessing weapons was a ‘privilege’ of whiteness and with this privilege came an awesome responsibility: serve in the mission to expand European settlements (and control) over North America; remove the Native Americans from their land; and ensure that Africans remained suppressed in slavery.
Thus, no matter how poor a European might have been and no matter how badly they might have been treated by the Euro-Americans (white) ruling elite, at the end of the day the white poor and laboring classes grew to understand that they would not be as bad off as the Native American and African. They also grew to understand that by putting on the racial uniform of “whiteness,” they could have a role in one of the most notorious expeditions in history, despite the fact that that uniform permanently imprisoned them in a humiliating and subordinate status.
Gun ownership in the USA, then, was a defining feature of whiteness. It, therefore, cannot be compared to gun ownership in most other parts of the world—with the exception of nation-states that started as settler colonies, e.g., South Africa. It was a trophy suggesting that the owner was part of a ruling establishment, separate and apart from the various barbarian races.
The settler origin of gun ownership and its relationship to the enslavement of Africans, helps one to understand the contradictory response among many whites to the possession of weapons by people of color. In fact, it demonstrates that the gun controversy is not and has never been about the 2nd Amendment.
The possession of weapons by people of color, whether Native Americans, Chicanos or African Americans, to name three groups, is not seen by many, if not most whites as a matter of “rights,” but instead as a source of fear.
When, in 1967, the Black Panther Party marched on the California state capital with unloaded shotguns, it sent shivers up the spines of many whites, perhaps bringing to mind the possible reemergence of Nat Turner.
Compare that with the armed actions by white, right-wing populists in defense of Nevadan Cliven Bundy in his dispute with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Bundy, charged by the BLM with violating grazing rights, was supported by armed volunteers in his confrontation with federal agents. There is little doubt that had Bundy been of color and the armed supporters been of color, that there would have been more of a reenactment of the MOVE confrontation in Philadelphia or the attack on the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee.
Yet, in the Bundy case, the appearance of armed, white, right-wing supporters was largely treated as a near legitimate exercise in both weapon’s possession and freedom of protest.
The embrace of gun ownership and display by the Republican candidates and potential candidates for the Presidency is certainly an example of typical Republican opportunism. But it is actually more than that. It is a symbolic linkage with the largely unspoken theme that is central to US history and has existed as a white, right-wing apparition during the Obama administration: the U.S. is—or at least should be—a white republic. The rest of us are guests; tolerated at best, despised at worst.
And the guns? Well, they are a reminder that a portion of the population has to be prepared to stand firm against the barbarians who are chipping away at the edifice.