Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on the Roots of the NRA and the Second Amendment
FROM THE INTERCEPT PODCAST April 2018
JEREMY SKAHILL: There’s a new book that just came out that lays out a provocative argument for getting rid of the Second Amendment in its entirety, and the book asserts that the NRA has become a white nationalist organization. That book is titled “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment” and it was written by the radical historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Her book tells a very different tale about the so-called gun culture in the United States and about how the Second Amendment was, at its core, a solidifying of the rights of white people to bear arms to steal native land by force, to capture so-called runaway slaves and to prevent rebellions from oppressed people. It wasn’t about hunting. It wasn’t about protecting against the tyranny of government. It wasn’t about simply protecting your property from criminals and thieves. Sure, those arguments are made by Second Amendment enthusiasm. They’re certainly representative of a lot of people’s motives for possessing guns.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of many books, including “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States,” “Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico,” and “Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War.” Her latest book, again, is called, “Loaded.”
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz joins me now. Welcome to Intercepted.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: If the United States has a gun culture, what is that gun culture?
RDO: It’s a weapon of settler colonialism, all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, where settler colonialism was used. But in the United States, by putting it in the Constitution, that sacred document, as an individual right, it veered considerably from those other settler colonies.
From the very beginning, guns and ammunition were required in the colonies, in Virginia and then in Massachusetts Bay Colony and then in Virginia first, that every man, every household had to have firearm and a certain amount of gun powder and bullets. And if they couldn’t afford that, the colonial government would subsidize it.
So, what were they so afraid of? That they had to have all these guns because they were on land that they had stolen by burning people’s villages down, by killing, raping, maiming and driving Native people into the periphery where they fought back and tried to regain their land and also keep them from taking more.
So, U.S. settler colonialism was really required, the whole build-up of the United States, a white nationalist democracy: Every man a king with land. And, of course, then, institutionalized slavery took hold by the 1670s — out of these militias they carved slave patrols as well.
So that dual usage: you know, the right to own human bodies and land and to steal them, kidnap people, and kill people — really genocide — is just written into the very cellular structure of the United States: The Constitution, every institution.
And that, plus the militarism that lasted from before, during and after independence, and continued until 1890, more than 100 years of daily, moment-by-moment warfare against native people, at the same time invading other countries: The Barbary wars in 1806 and 1809, and then Mexico, 1846 to ’48, that just continued and continued and then jumped over the Pacific and into the Caribbean and then into the whole world. So, the militarism is the key component of it and only a third of the population even own a gun, and there’s a good portion of those who are combat vets.
JS: Hmm. The exact text, “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” — now, I’m not asking you about more recent interpretations by various courts, but at that time, in 1789, when they were referring to a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, what was the historical context, and what did they refer to when they were talking about well-regulated militia?
RDO: Well they certainly weren’t talking about state militias, because those were provided for in the Constitution itself, that’s the genealogy of the National Guard. But the Bill of Rights which was, came later [than] the amendments, these were individual rights, very specifically individual rights, so they could only have referred to the existing citizen’s militias.
But they came to be self-organized — they were very well organized for selfish interests, for their own purpose — the state, the government had no authority over them whatsoever. And this was how the whole continent was taken, was these settlers themselves organized, that every, every settler a soldier, they’re all armed, they say, out in their fields and everything and they’re, they’re all well-organized, so they could in minutes call up of a militia and they knew what to do. It was in their self-interest, so.
JS: Well, what were these militia doing?
RDO: Killing Indians! Taking their land. And, then the land was theirs. And the slave patrols were also self-organized. It was really every white man had an obligation to keep an eye out, even if they didn’t own slaves to keep an eye out and turn in any stray black person that didn’t have a permit on him, that he’s doing some errand for the owner, and if he didn’t have that then he was considered a renegade — you know, had to be captured and returned to the owner.
RDO: Slave patrols, several scholars have traced the genealogy of slave patrols into modern police forces so we still see the controlling of especially young black men by police forces. It’s not just history; it has led up to the exact kind of situation, both militaristic and institutionally violent society that we have now.
JS: When you listen and watch the current debate about guns in this country, what is your critique of the way that the Second Amendment is discussed by opponents of guns? Can you lay out your perspective on that?
RDO: You know, their arguments are “you don’t need an automatic weapon, you don’t need an assault rifle to kill a deer.” It is so stupid. It was never ever, ever about hunting. It’s never had anything to do with that. And of course for these gun nuts, you know, they think that is hilarious because they know what guns are for: guns are to kill people.
The other argument that liberals make is they create a bogeyman. It’s all about money and it’s advertising and sales and, you can say it’s capitalism. Well, of course everything is related to the evils of capitalism, but it’s not all about money. There is a populist basis, very large and it’s much larger. I consider the NRA the largest and most powerful hardcore white nationalist organization maybe in the world right now, except maybe for the U.S. government at this point. But they argue that either the gun industry or the NRA or both together in cahoots are the problem. It’s because they have so much money and they bribe congressman.
What they do is get these people unelected or elected or out of office through their base. They are a mass-based organization with chapters everywhere in the United States and they’re activists. That is what they live for. They are gun nuts, gun fetishes, and they’re one-third of the population, 80 percent of those are white, but 61 percent are white males.
That is the constituency. It’s like liberals, and even a lot of leftists, do not want to face the fact that there’s this much power. There’s been very little legislation ever, because as long as it was a nice, secure white republic up to World War II, with Jim Crow fully in charge, legal segregation, redlining and everything throughout the north, it was secure.
And then, then the civil rights movement which, of course, had always gone on — black resistance, native resistance — but it had a great success right after World War II, and that was the desegregation decision of the Supreme Court. That was the trigger, that was the earthquake, the tsunami that set off the new wave of white supremacy. It wasn’t really even needed. It always was there. But it wasn’t really needed in an organized way, as long as they controlled everything. I mean they were — they ran the whole government. Southern senators ran the Senate. They had nothing to worry about.
So, you see this tighten up with the founding of the LAPD, the new LAPD: It was an all-white, paramilitary, white nationalist police force. It’s never really lost that veneer or structure. It still has problems.
You know this is a rebellion. This is counter-revolution that started almost, I mean really at the time of the first victory, and built up and built up until it was taken over, the NRA was taken over by a gun nuttery group founded two years earlier, Harlon Carter, former vicious Border Patrol agent.
Harlon Carter: Thanks to you, the members and supporters of NRA, no national gun law has passed this year. We will stand together strong, dedicated, shoulder to shoulder for what is right.
RDO: And they infiltrated and got the vote and took over the NRA: That’s when it became a completely white supremacist organization and started emphasizing the Second Amendment.
HC: Any national gun law, no matter how innocent in appearance, presupposes a still further growth, in a centralized, computerized, gun-control bureaucracy in Washington D.C., a monstrous invasion of the rights to privacy of you law-abiding and decent people who have never committed a crime and concerning whom there is no evidence you ever will.
JS: You write: “By the time of its 1977 convention, the Second Amendment Foundation and its lobbying arm, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which was founded in Washington state in 1974, seized leadership of the NRA. And you state: “The Constitution is the sacred text of the civic religion that is U.S. nationalism, and that nationalism is inexorably tied to white supremacy.”
RDO: Yes. We are weird in the world and the United States with this sanctification of a constitution. They built into the Constitution almost an inability to change it. But again, the originalism arose with this counterrevolution against black freedom.
But it really is an individual right. It was meant to be an individual right from the very beginning. So, you know, it really needs to be abolished, that’s what it needs to be. But it’s not the vehicle that produces the violence; it’s the violence that leans on this phony, sacred object, the Second Amendment, to the point that even all of these liberal congress people, you hear them, over and over, preceding their efforts for gun control, but:
Senator Bernie Sanders: But we have millions of people who are gun owners in this country, 99.9 percent of those people obey the law. I want to see real serious debate and action on guns. But it is not going to take place if we simply have extreme positions on both sides.
RDO: But that’s ridiculous, you know? What are they supporting? You know, do they know what that supporting? And then other liberals like Nancy Pelosi, they argue that it’s out of date, and if you think through what that means, it means, well, we don’t have to kill Indians anymore.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: We all support the right, the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
RDO: She forgets we still have to kill black people, though, apparently, and Muslims and Mexicans. So, it’s really an ineffective argument because they just go round and round: “Well, if you really believe in the Second Amendment.”
But I’ve heard it before. They say, “Oh, these old guns back then.” And, you know: “If we had individual right to a musket and plenty of gunpowder, then that would be fine.”
But, you know, they killed a hell of a lot of Indians with those muskets, they were good with those things, you know, they had whole wars, people were killed in Europe with muskets. It’s not nothing.
JS: Well and you also write quite bluntly, “White nationalists are the irregular forces, the volunteer militias of the actually existing political economic order. They are provided for in the Second Amendment.”
RDO: Yeah. They are. If people want that, then they should continue supporting the Second Amendment, but if they want to find out what the Second Amendment is really about and that takes a historical contextualization, because it wasn’t even debated at the time. It was already in the colonists — when they broke away with the Declaration of Independence, they each formed sovereign states. And of course the Constitution, seven, eight years later was to bring them together in a federation. But in their constitutions, they had already put in the mandate for the continuation of these citizen’s militias and the right of carrying arms. And Thomas Jefferson wrote the one in the Virginia Constitution and imported it to the Bill of Rights.
So, there was no discussion, there was no argument, no one said, “Oh, should we do this? Is it an individual right?” There was no argument. Everyone knew what it was about. What else could it have been for? Since they had actual state militias and the Army and the Navy in the Constitution.
JS: You mentioned earlier, you were giving some of the statistics, 74 of gun owners in the United States are male, 82 percent of gun owners are white, meaning 61 percent of all adults who own guns are white men and that group is around 30 percent of the total U.S. population, and then, I’m quoting here: “The top reason U.S. Americans give for owning a gun is for protection. What are the majority of white men so afraid of? Does anyone believe that centuries of racial and economic domination of the United States by white men have left no traces in our culture, views or institutions?” What are you saying there?
RDO: White men have a problem. We have a problem with white men. It’s not the people I come from: the tenant farmers, the sharecroppers, the poor people — they have their own gun problems. It really is the powerful defense industry, the powerful agribusiness industry, more and more the tech industry, that I think is — we have to bring class into the — I tell you, most of the poor white men in this country can’t afford those — weapons are very expensive and the really nice ones are very expensive. The average gun owner owns eight.
And that means some people, like the Las Vegas shooter, he owned something like 45 high-powered weapons all bought legally, and he’s a very wealthy man, you know, so.
And then we get into ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps], Junior ROTC, in all the schools teaching little kids to shoot lethal weapons, many of them, of course, go into the actual army, but this kid in Florida was from age 11 in Junior ROTC and he was a fanatic. Everyone interviewed said all he would ever talk about was, “Guns, guns, guns, and ROTC.”
And yet in these funerals, you know, and all they’re honoring these JROTC kids who were killed and not at all putting any focus on these defense industry-funded programs in all of our public schools and even middle schools.
JS: And in the book, you make that connection. You’re talking about the way that we discuss so-called mass shootings in our society, and you write: “Just why these events, horrific as they are and tragic for the families and communities traumatized by senseless violence and loss, loom so large in the public mind is a mystery when during the entire period since the 1966 Whitman massacre, the United States has perpetrated massive amounts of violence around the world responsible for killing millions of people and families.”
What you’re talking about there is something that you, I don’t know if we’ve ever heard that kind of connection being made from politicians on Capitol Hill, the idea that all of these wars that the United States is engaged in around the world to this moment and all of that history of slaughtering indigenous people, the slave patrols, the lynchings, etc., that they are also connected to the violence that we see happening in our movie theaters, our churches and our schools.
RDO: Every U.S. war, if you exclude the two shortest wars, World War I, World War II, where the U.S. came in at the end and took the spoils in both, there’s never been a moment in U.S. history that it’s not at war somewhere. Most people don’t even know about all these wars, the endless ones in Central America and the Caribbean all through the 19th century and 20th century, sort of ingrained, you know?
But now they’re more in the open and they were actually covertly with CIA counterinsurgencies during the ’50s, because people were tired of war. And after Vietnam, they had to go convert back into Central America and Afghanistan, those were covert CIA-run wars.
But with the Gulf War, H.W. Bush said, “Well finally, we got rid of the Vietnam syndrome and we can be proud of invading a country.”
President George H. W. Bush: Should military action be required, this will not be another Vietnam. This will not be a protracted, drawn-out war.
RDO: The school shootings, and especially workplace shootings did not start just then. They started with the Vietnam veteran who shot from the Texas towers. He was never in Vietnam by he was trained as a sniper.
Reporter: This is a KLRN news bulletin. A sniper with a high-powered rifle has taken up a position on the observation deck on back of the tower on the campus of the University of Texas. He is firing at persons within his range. All Austin-area residents —
RDO: And then you have the workplace shootings, the postal workers, as they begin to shrink the post office and government institutions, you know, in the late ’70s, and “Going Postal” became the phrase.
Reporter: Good evening. Here’s what’s happening: Someone in the post office had killed 14 people inside, then taken his own life. That somebody was 44 year-old Pat Sherrill. He shot everybody in sight.
RDO: Other kinds of shootings: Charleston, South Carolina.
Reporter: Witnesses say he announces that he is there to shoot black people and he does, opening fire, killing nine people: six women and three men.
JS: You’re talking about Dylann Roof and something about that case that I had never heard before that you pointed out was that he carried out that massacre on the 193rd anniversary of the Vesey-led revolt. Denmark Vesey who was born into slavery, then won the lottery, purchased his own freedom was unable to purchase the freedom of his wife and his sons.
Then this potential opportunity arises when the Missouri Constitution is being discussed in 1820 and he thinks, maybe it will go in his direction and he could actually facilitate freedom for his wife and his children. It doesn’t go that way. He, and again, there, you know, you’re saying that you’re citing your own historical research on this, but you believe that he felt extremely disappointed and felt like there was no hope of getting them freed through the law and he began to, inspired by the Haitian revolution, organize other free Africans to engage in an uprising in Charleston. And before that uprising could kick into effect, white militia and slavers descend on him and his cohort and they very brutally murder them.
RDO: He’s a very charismatic preacher, and he had an open public church. Slaves on their Sunday, you know, on their off-time could come to the church, they could see his family there, even. They started plotting and you know these slave patrols, they had ears everywhere, so they were able to prevent it from happening and then they hung and desecrated the bodies.
And that church, you know, still is a sacred place to all descendants of enslaved Africans and that Dylann Roof chose this place and came into a prayer meeting where he was welcomed, there were only 8 or 9 people at that prayer meeting, I, you know, I grew up in the Southern Baptist church and I know those Wednesday night prayer meetings, and he sat there through the whole prayer meeting, and then killed almost all of them. He actually left one alive to tell what happened.
Well, you know, very quickly they found out that Dylann, he had been in delving into the white nationalist websites. Dylann Roof was completely unrepentant, was very proud of what he did, obviously in no way mentally disturbed.
This mental disturbance thing, you know I would think Barack Obama could be considered mentally disturbed, if you ask who’s killing people every day, isn’t that crazy? But, you know, in fact it’s normalized. So certain things were in the boundaries of being normalized, and Dylann Roof was, I didn’t hear anyone calling him mentally ill and he was, they didn’t even make that argument at trial, he refused it.
But I don’t think it’s just marginal, I think it’s almost like, in a nutshell, symbolic of what I said of it being a counter-revolution, this whole Second Amendment, it’s rise again and importance and the sacredness of it. We’ve just got to stop giving that to them, and that means soul-searching about the gun fetish, and gun culture.
JS: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us on Intercepted.
RDO: Thank you, Jeremy.
JS: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is author of the new book “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment”