Historian Uncovers The Racist Roots Of The 2nd Amendment

Do Black people have full Second Amendment rights?

That’s the question historian Carol Anderson set out to answer after Minnesota police killed Philando Castile, a Black man with a license to carry a gun, during a 2016 traffic stop.

“Here was a Black man who was pulled over by the police, and the police officer asked to see his identification. Philando Castile, using the NRA guidelines, alerts to the officer that he has a licensed weapon with him,” she says. “[And] the police officer began shooting.”

In the 1990s, after the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, the National Rifle Association condemned federal authorities as “jackbooted government thugs.” But Anderson says the organization “went virtually silent” when it came to Castile’s case, issuing a tepid statement that did not mention Castile by name.

In her new book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, Anderson traces racial distinctions in Americans’ treatment of gun ownership back to the founding of the country and the Second Amendment, which states:

“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.”

The language of the amendment, Anderson says, was crafted to ensure that slave owners could quickly crush any rebellion or resistance from those whom they’d enslaved. And she says the right to bear arms, presumably guaranteed to all citizens, has been repeatedly denied to Black people.

“One of the things that I argue throughout this book is that it is just being Black that is the threat. And so when you mix that being Black as the threat with bearing arms, it’s an exponential fear,” she says. “This isn’t an anti-gun or a pro-gun book. This is a book about African Americans’ rights.”


Interview Highlights

The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, by Carol Anderson

Bloomsbury Publishing

On the crafting of the Second Amendment at the Constitutional Convention

It was in response to the concerns coming out of the Virginia ratification convention for the Constitution, led by Patrick Henry and George Mason, that a militia that was controlled solely by the federal government would not be there to protect the slave owners from an enslaved uprising. And … James Madison crafted that language in order to mollify the concerns coming out of Virginia and the anti-Federalists, that they would still have full control over their state militias — and those militias were used in order to quell slave revolts. … The Second Amendment really provided the cover, the assurances that Patrick Henry and George Mason needed, that the militias would not be controlled by the federal government, but that they would be controlled by the states and at the beck and call of the states to be able to put down these uprisings.

On Black people’s access to arms after the American Revolution

You saw incredible restrictions being put in place about limiting access to arms. And this is across the board for free Blacks and, particularly, for the enslaved. And with each uprising, the laws became even more strict, even more definitive, about who could and who could not bear arms. And so free Blacks were particularly proscribed. And so we see this, for instance, in Georgia, where Georgia had a law that restricted the carrying of guns.

On the Founding Fathers’ fear of a slave revolt, which was stoked by the Haitian Revolution

When Haiti began to overthrow the French colonial masters and were seizing that country for themselves, when Blacks were seizing that country for themselves, the violence of the Haitian Revolution, the existence of the Haitian Revolution, just sent basically an earthquake of fear throughout the United States. You had George Washington lamenting the violence. You had Thomas Jefferson talking about [how] he was fearful that those ideas over there, if they get here, it’s going to be fire. You had James Madison worried. …

Whites … were fleeing Haiti and were bringing their enslaved populations with them, their enslaved people with them. … [There was a fear that] the ideas that these Black Haitians would have, that somehow those ideas of revolution, those ideas of racial justice, those ideas of freedom and democracy would just metastasize throughout Virginia’s Black enslaved population and cause a revolt. You had that same fear coming out of Baltimore that then began to open up the public armory to whites, saying, “You are justified in being armed because they’re bringing too many of these Black Haitians, these enslaved Haitians, up here who have these ideas that Black people can be free.”

On how the Black Panthers responded to restrictions on Black people’s ability to bear arms in the 1960s

What the Black Panthers were dealing with was massive police brutality. Just beating on Black people, killing Black people at will with impunity. And the Panthers decided that they would police the police. Huey P. Newton, who was the co-founder of the Black Panthers along with Bobby Seale, … knew the law, and he knew what the law said about being able to open-carry weapons and the types of weapons you were able to openly carry and how far you had to stand away from the police arresting somebody or interrogating somebody. … And the police did not like having these aggressive Black men and women doing that work of policing the police. And the response was a thing called the Mulford Act, and the Mulford Act set out to ban open carrying of weapons. And it was drafted by a conservative assemblyman in California with the support and help of an NRA representative and eagerly signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan as a way to make illegal what the Panthers were legally doing.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Matt Gaetz: We have a right to ARMED REBELLION against the GOVERNMENT

Talking about the second amendment during a rally, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz said that people have a right to an armed rebellion against the government.

Matt forgot the word ‘peaceably’ when he was talking about our First Amendment.

2nd amendment means you can bring your AR to a drone fight. Best of luck with that.

“We are the elites”? I thought Republicans hated elitism. They always use the word to defame liberals. The GOP sure has more than its share of crazies.

Victim hood , it’s been used since the beginning of time . Freedom is free it’s in the word . It’s not feedom .

Matt Gaetz: proof that turds can be polished.

The armed rebellion has happened! This is truly wicked! The Lord himself hates those who sow discord, has a lying to tongue 😛, it’s a matter of time! The fall is sure!

This would not have been tolerated back in the 80s. I remember when Republicans had some class and dignity, now I’m ashamed when people find out I’m Republican.

When it comes to the Second Amendment, Matt Gaetz has no clue

Watch the Florida congressman in action at a recent rally:

Actually… no.

Here is Saul Cornell, our best historian of the Second Amendment, writing in 2012:

The founders had a word for a bunch of farmers marching with guns without government sanction: a mob. One of the reasons we have a Constitution is the founders were worried about the danger posed by individuals acting like a militia without legal authority. This was precisely what happened during Shays’ Rebellion, an insurrection in western Massachusetts that persuaded many Americans that we needed a stronger central government to avert anarchy.

Many people think that we have the Second Amendment so that we can take up arms against the government if it overreaches its authority. If that interpretation were correct, it would mean that the Second Amendment had repealed the Constitution’s treason clause, which defines this crime as taking up arms against the government. In reality, in the first decade after the Constitution, the government put down several rebellions similar to Shays – and nobody claimed that they were merely asserting their Second Amendment rights.

Read Cornell’s entire piece at The New York Daily News.

American historian Joanne Freeman also chimes in:

Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment

“Dunbar-Ortiz demonstrates that the violence sanctioned by the Second Amendment was a key factor in transforming America into a ‘militaristic-capitalist’ powerhouse. . . . Dunbar-Ortiz’s unhealthy relationship with guns ended after about two years. America’s has lasted a lot longer, but in the wake of Stoneman Douglas, there might be reason, at last, for some very cautious optimism.”–Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle

“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.”–Jeremy Scahill, The Intercept

“Dunbar-Ortiz’s subtle deconstructions of the various works which contributed to our misunderstandings of the Second Amendment’s roots are vitally required reading, especially in our current era of daily mass shootings and political inaction toward better gun control. The white supremacy that Dunbar-Ortiz exposes with surgical exactness is the true foundation of the America we know today.”—Sezin Koehler, Wear Your Voice Magazine

Loaded recognizes the central truth about our ‘gun culture’: that the privileged place of guns in American law and society is the by-product of the racial and class violence that has marked our history from its beginnings.”—Richard Slotkin, author of Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America

“From an eminent scholar comes this timely and urgent intervention on U.S. gun culture. Loaded is a high-impact assault on the idea that Second Amendment rights were ever intended for all Americans. A timely antidote to our national amnesia about the white supremacist and settler colonialist roots of the Second Amendment.”—Caroline Light, author of Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense

Loaded unleashes a sweeping and unsettling history of gun laws in the United States, beginning with anti-Native militias and anti-Black slave patrols. From the roots of white men armed to forge the settler state, the Second Amendment evolved as a tool for protecting white, male property owners. It’s a must read for anyone who wants to uncover the long fetch of contemporary Second Amendment battles.”—Kelly Lytle Hernandez, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965

“Now, in Loaded, she widens her lens to propose that the addiction to violence characteristic of American domestic institutions also derives from the frontiersman’s belief in solving problems by killing. Whether expressed in individual cruelty like the collection of scalps or group barbarism by settler colonialists calling themselves ‘militias,’ violence has become an ever-widening theme of life in the United States.”—Staughton Lynd, author of Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution

“For anyone who believes we need more than ‘thoughts and prayers’ to address our national gun crisis, Loaded is required reading. Beyond the Second Amendment, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz presents essential arguments missing from public debate. She forces readers to confront hard truths about the history of gun ownership, linking it to ongoing structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and racial capitalism. These are the open secrets of North American history. It is our anxious denial as much as our public policies that perpetrate violence. Only by coming to peace with our history can we ever be at peace with ourselves. This, for me, is the great lesson of Loaded.”—Christina Heatherton, co-editor of Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter

“Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz’s Loaded argues U.S. history is quintessential gun history, and gun history is a history of racial terror and genocide. In other words, 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 rule and for taking Indigenous land from the founding of the settler nation to the present. With clarity and urgency, Dunbar-Ortiz asks us not to think of our current moment as an exceptional era of mass-shootings. Instead, the very essence of the Second Amendment and the very project of U.S. ‘settler democracy’ has required immense violence that began with Indigenous genocide and has expanded to endless war-making across the globe. This is a must read for any student of U.S. history.”—Nick Estes, author of the forthcoming book Our History is the Future: Mni Wiconi and Native Liberation

“With her usual unassailable rigor for detail and deep perspective, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has potentially changed the debate about gun control in the United States. She meticulously and convincingly argues that U.S. gun culture—and the domestic and global massacres that have flowed from it—must be linked to an understanding of the ideological, historical, and practical role of guns in seizing Native American lands, black enslavement, and global imperialism. This is an essential work for policy-makers, street activists, and educators who are concerned with Second Amendment debates, #blacklivematters campaigns, global peace, and community-based security.”—Clarence Lusane, Chairman and Professor of Political Science at Howard University and author of The Black History of the White House

“Just what did the founding fathers intend the Second Amendment to do? Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s answer to that question will unsettle liberal gun control advocates and open-carry aficionados alike. She follows the bloodstains of today’s mass shootings back to the slave patrols and Indian Wars. There are no easy answers here, just the tough reckoning with history needed to navigate ourselves away from a future filled with more tragedies.James Tracy, co-author of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times

“Gun violence, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz compellingly shows, is as U.S. American as apple pie. This important book peels back the painful and bloody layers of gun culture in the United States, and exposes their deep roots in the killing and dispossession of Native peoples, slavery and its aftermath, and U.S. empire-making. They are roots with which all who are concerned with matters of justice, basic decency, and the enduring tragedy of the U.S. love affair with guns must grapple.”—Joseph Nevins, author of Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid

Loaded is a masterful synthesis of the historical origins of violence and militarism in the US. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reminds us of what we’ve chosen to forget at our own peril: that from mass shootings to the routine deployment of violence against civilians by the US military, American violence flows from the normalization of racialized violence in our country’s founding history.”—Johanna Fernández, Assistant Professor of History at Baruch College of the City University, and author of the forthcoming book, When the World Was Their Stage: A History of the Young Lords Party, 1968–1976

“More than a history of the Second Amendment, this is a powerful history of the forging of white nationalism and empire through racist and naked violence. Explosively, it also shows how even liberal—and some leftist—pop culture icons have been complicit in the myth-making that has shrouded this potent historical truth.”—Gerarld Horne, author of The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the USA

“Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has done an outstanding job of resituating the so-called gun debate into the context of race and settler colonialism. The result is that the discussion about individual gun ownership is no longer viewed as an abstract moral question and instead understood as standing at the very foundation of U.S. capitalism. My attention was captured from the first page.”—Bill Fletcher, Jr., former president of TransAfrica Forum and syndicated writer

“Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz provides a brilliant decolonization of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. She describes how

  • the ‘savage wars’ against Indigenous Peoples,
  • slave patrols (which policing in the U.S. originates from),
  • today’s mass shootings, and
  • the rise in white Nationalism

are connected to the Second Amendment. This is a critically important work for all social science disciplines.”—Michael Yellow Bird, professor and director of Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Studies at North Dakota State University

“This explosive, ground-breaking book dispels the confusion and shatters the sanctimony that surrounds the Second Amendment, revealing the colonial, racist core of the right to bear arms. You simply cannot understand the United States and its disastrous gun-mania without the brilliant Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz as a guide.”—Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

“There is no more interesting historian of the United States than Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. And with Loaded she has done it again, taking a topic about which so much has already been written, distilling it down, turning it inside out, and allowing us to see American history anew.”—Walter Johnson, author of River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Mississippi Valley’s Cotton Kingdom

“Loaded is a compelling antidote to historical amnesia about the brutal origins of the United States’ unique ‘gun culture.’ Dunbar-Ortiz draws on decades of historical scholarship to illuminate the practice of Native genocide while framing the Second Amendment as the grounds for a violence-based nationalism.”—Caroline E. Light, “Public Books”

About the Author

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of many books, including her acclaimed An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. She is the recipient of the Cultural Freedom Prize for Lifetime Achievement by the Lannan Foundation, and she lives in San Francisco, CA.

Making Sense of the New American Right

Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.

I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s

  • gun rights,
  • pro-life,
  • taxpayer,
  • right to work

— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.