American Civil War Weapons, circa 1948.
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The Brutal Origins of Gun Rights

A new history argues that the Second Amendment was intended to perpetuate white settlers' violence toward Native Americans.
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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.”

Our national mythology encourages Americans to see the Second Amendment as a result of the Revolutionary War—to think of it as a matter of arming Minutemen against Redcoats. But, Dunbar-Ortiz argues, it actually enshrines practices and priorities that long preceded that conflict. For centuries before 1776, the individual white settler was understood to have not just a right to bear arms, but a responsibility to do so—and not narrowly in the service of tightly regulated militias, but broadly, so as to participate in near-constant ad-hoc, self-organized violence against Native Americans. “Settler-militias and armed households were institutionalized for the destruction and control of Native peoples, communities, and nations,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes. “Extreme violence, particularly against unarmed families and communities, was an aspect inherent in European colonialism, always with genocidal possibilities, and often with genocidal results.”
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