Gun rights in the U.S. are mainly White rights. It’s always been that way, sort of baked into the North American experience.
The “well regulated militia” to which the Second Amendment to the federal Constitution refers were a creation of colonial North America, as I explained back in July 2008:
Guns as compensation
Colonial America and the early U.S. was a very unequal place. All the good, cleared, level agricultural land with easy access to transport was owned by a very few, very wealthy White men.
Many poor Whites were brought over as indentured servants, but once they’d completed their periods of forced labor, allowing them to hang around the towns and cities landless and unemployed was dangerous to the social order. So they were given guns and credit, and sent inland to make their own fortunes by encroaching upon the orchards, farms and hunting grounds of Native Americans, who had little or no access to firearms.
The law, of course did not penalize White men who robbed, raped or killed Indians. At regular intervals, colonial governors and local U.S. officials would muster the free armed White men as militia, and dispatch them in murderous punitive raids to make the frontier safer for settlers and land speculators.
Slavery remained legal in New England, New York and the mid-Atlantic region till well into the 1800s, and the movements of free Blacks and Indians were severely restricted for decades afterward. So colonial and early American militia also prowled the roads and highways demanding the passes of all non-Whites, to ensure the enslaved were not escaping or aiding those who were, and that free Blacks were not plotting rebellion or traveling for unapproved reasons.
Historically then, the principal activities of the Founding Fathers’ “well regulated militia” were Indian killing, land stealing, slave patrolling and the enforcement of domestic apartheid, all of these, as the Constitutional language declares “being necessary to the security of a free state.” A free state whose fundamental building blocks were the genocide of Native Americans, and the enslavement of Africans.
That, my friends, is why the United States of America in 1791 needed a Second Amendment. It was about deputizing every available White man for what the Constitution called “the security of a free state.” Those were the original intentions of the nation’s founding fathers, baked into its body politic at birth.
With slavery gone and the genocide of Native Americans accomplished 80 or 90 years later, what we know as “gun culture” – along with a substantial arms industry – existed, serving a civilian mass market. They needed to find new reasons to exist. They did exactly that.
Advertisers and marketers have been hard at work the last 12 or 15 decades creating and expanding the market for civilian arms. They’ve been so successful that the National Rifle Association and allied organizations now get tens of millions each year from small donors, to match other tens or hundreds of millions in corporate and big donor largesse. Today’s corporate-sponsored NRA makes no bones about appealing to fearful White supremacy. It’s great for business.
Black gun control
The Kerner Commission, convened to address causes and cures for the series of Black urban insurrections of the late 1960s, recommended tough urban gun control laws. These were adopted in many Northern cities with large Black populations like Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
No cops or lawmakers though, would ever seriously imagine disarming White Americans. It’s pretty much unthinkable. But when two Chicago cops were shot from a Cabrini Green high-rise project in 1970, I recall seeing police seal off a quarter square mile and search more than 1,000 apartments without warrants, seizing every gun and some other goods they could find.
Reported gun ownership among Blacks is less than half that among Whites, 19 percent compared to 42 percent. The Pew Research Center breaks the U.S. into four regions with gun ownership lowest in the Northeast at 27 percent, 34 percent in the West, 35 percent in the Midwest and 38 percent in the South. About half of all African-Americans live in the South, so the reported gun ownership for Southern Whites is highest of all, around 50 percent.
Two obvious factors might impact the lower rate of reported gun ownership among African-Americans.
The first is that firearms and ammo are expensive and seldom-used items, luxuries less likely to be owned by people with lower incomes, and Blacks generally do have lower incomes.
The second is that after 40 years of vicious racially selective policing and mass incarceration, far higher proportions of Black families include one or more person convicted of a felony. In most states convicted felons are banned from owning guns for life unless they file special paperwork which must be accepted by state authorities.
It makes sense that fewer Black households would have guns, and that fewer of those that do would report it to pollsters. Again in practice, gun ownership is a White right.
The U.S. leads the planet in civilian and domestic gun violence, and gun suicides, and of course it’s the place where the phenomenon of the nonpolitical mass shooter first emerged, the place where this kind of thing still happens most often.
Disconnected from people
The Vegas killer was a high-stakes gambler and real estate investor with relatively few social and family connections. As Glen Ford points out this week, neoliberal capitalist America produces more than its share of dislocated, disaffected and disconnected people. Some of them are armed, and not just with privilege.
Hindsight is 20/20. Concert promoters in Las Vegas packed 21,000 paying customers into a stadium overlooked by multiple high-rise buildings. Helicopter drones with remote cameras are dirt cheap, starting around $300 retail. A couple drones in the air monitoring the sight lines between those vantage points and the stadium might well have spotted the shooter breaking out multiple windows in his 32rd floor hotel suite before the first shot was fired. That’s a mistake that cops and insurance companies likely will not make again.
But neoliberal capitalist America isn’t built on solidarity. America won’t stop, can’t stop producing dislocated, disaffected, disconnected people whose manhood, whose personhood is tied not to their class status but to fantasies of rugged individualism and to the gun. And we’re a long, long way from disarming White Americans.
Bruce Dixon is managing editor of BlackAgendaReport.com. Contact him at email@example.com.