Power  /  Book Review

Bang for the Buck

Three new books paint a more nuanced portrait of the American militias whose gun rights have been protected since the founding.
MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Guns were essential tools in our early history, but as the frontier disappeared, a mystique about them grew only stronger. Charles quotes Sports Afield from 1912: “Perfect freedom from annoyance by petty lawbreakers is found in a country where every man carries his own sheriff, judge and executioner swung on his hip.” Last year, someone who would dearly love to wield such powers against his enemies became the first sitting president to address the NRA in more than three decades. “The eight-year assault on your Second Amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end,” Donald Trump told the organization’s annual convention. “You have a true friend and champion in the White House.”

For more than a century, the NRA and its opponents have argued over the meaning of that amendment: “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.” Gun enthusiasts claim that this protects almost anyone who wants to carry a rifle down the street or a pistol to church, and therefore that gun control violates the Constitution. Liberals, on the other hand, maintain fervently that the rights granted by the Second Amendment refer only to a “well regulated Militia,” such as that which fought the redcoats at Lexington and Concord or that makes up the National Guard today.

Charles takes the second position, which he argues at ponderous length, firing salvos at rival scholars and tracing the amendment’s ancestry back to Britain’s Militia Acts of 1661 and 1662. Yet something feels sterile about this dispute over what the Founding Fathers had in mind. It is tragic that we should still have to battle over the intentions of that assembly of men in frock coats and powdered wigs when, all around us, the carnage from gun violence continues.

And so it was with little appetite that I picked up yet another book that takes the history of guns back to colonial times, but Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded is like a blast of fresh air. She is no fan of guns or of our absurdly permissive laws surrounding them. But she does not merely take the liberal side of the familiar debate. “Neither party,” she writes of that long squabble, “seems to have any idea what the Second Amendment was originally about.” Of course the amendment was written with militias in mind, she says, but, during and after the colonial era, just what were those militias? They were not merely upstanding citizens protecting themselves against foreign tyrants like King George III. They also searched for runaway slaves and seized land from Native Americans, often by slaughter.

Loaded quotes former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson: “Without guns, there would be no West.”

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