Gun violence is rooted in white supremacy. We can’t solve the first without understanding its connection to the second.
Discussions of gun “rights” in the United States usually revolve around debated interpretations of the Second Amendment. But if we truly want to understand the influence of guns in our society, we need to center the debate in a much earlier period, one before the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
In Colonial America, gun ownership equaled power. More specifically, it meant the power to control the means of violence and use those means to suppress the voices of the disenfranchised. Throughout the 17th century, almost all the English colonies along the Eastern Seaboard passed legislation prohibiting women and slaves from owning guns and forbidding the sale of guns to native peoples. By the 18th century, gun ownership had become a defining feature of white masculinity in the English colonies and guns played an integral role in Colonial men’s public displays of that masculinity.
The public training exercises Colonial men participated in as part of their militia service were central to such displays and offered opportunities for them to participate in competitions to demonstrate their martial prowess. In many cases, guns were not only central to these demonstrations but were the prize for victory. The commander of the militia in Henrico County, Va., William Byrd, noted in his diary that he made a practice of awarding pistols to the men who won the competitions that took place on militia days. Such guns thus acted as material manifestations of a Colonial man’s physical domination of his peers, augmenting his reputation in terms of property ownership and bodily prowess.
But the main purpose of militias — North and South — during this period was to suppress slave rebellions, a constant fear of slaveholders throughout the institution’s existence. Militias’ sole responsibility in peacetime was to patrol local slave quarters for possible signs of subversion. When slave rebellions did occur, as in the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, Colonial officials increased militia patrols for months and even years after the rebellions had been quelled.
They also usually expanded the caches of guns held in Colonial capitals. In Colonial minds, those guns were key to preventing any future slave rebellions. In fact, for many of the men who became leaders of the Colonial independence movement, the final straw that pushed them toward independence was the British military’s decision to confiscate Colonial militia stores and use them to arm refugee slaves who fled their rebel owners.
It was this culmination of their worst nightmares that the Founders had in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment. Their “right to bear arms” was the right of white men to exercise authority over black men and women by violent means if necessary, and their right to a “well regulated Militia” was the right to do so in large groups.
Many of the individual laws that restricted the right to bear arms along racial lines remained on the books in various forms throughout the antebellum period. Even after the Civil War, when slavery ended and the 14th Amendment guaranteed equal protection under the law to African Americans, white men did their utmost to ensure that gun ownership remained their prerogative. The Ku Klux Klan was notorious for, among many other things, confiscating weapons owned by newly minted black U.S. citizens, and prohibiting black gun ownership became a pillar of Jim Crow legislation.
Even with the advances of the civil rights movement in the 20th century and the end of Jim Crow, the prohibition on black gun ownership remains a de facto feature of modern-day law enforcement practice. When Black Panther Party members in California armed themselves in the 1960s to patrol communities abandoned by local law enforcement, the State Assembly passed legislation repealing an earlier law that allowed the open carry of firearms (a move the National Rifle Association supported). The 2015 police shooting of Philando Castile, who was killed in Minnesota as he followed proper protocol by announcing he had a legal handgun in his vehicle, is but the most notable example in recent years of the criminalization of legal black gun ownership. The fact that the NRA, an organization eager to join the fray at the slightest hint that gun rights might be infringed upon, did nothing in response to his death reveals its assumption that gun ownership is a white domain.
In a statistical sense, it is not far off. White men make up the largest percentage of gun owners (and are ahead of people of color and women by double digits). In the NRA, the breakdown is even more stark, with white men accounting for twice the proportion they do in the general population. They also account for the largest percentage of arrests involving gun violence. This is the case because our society has incentivized white male violence from the beginning and has identified guns as the most effective means of exercising that violence.
This lengthy history means that when white men feel disempowered, they are primed to resort to gun violence to reassert their sense of authority. It’s no coincidence that the rate of gun violence, and mass shootings in particular, has risen in tandem with the expansion of rights and representation for people of color and women in recent decades.
Mass shooters have routinely expressed white-supremacist views or motivations. The first mass shooter in U.S. history, Howard Unruh, was known to leave racist notes for his black maid and identified a Jewish pharmacist as his main target, because he claimed the man had overcharged him. The Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, reportedly made racist remarks as they killed a black student. William Atchison, who shot two other students and then himself at a New Mexico high school last year, posted racist comments online for years before his death.
Most recently, the suspected shooter in the Parkland, Fla. school massacre, Nikolas Cruz, was reportedly photographed with a “Make America Great Again” hat. The hat was new. The worldview that put that hat on his head and an AR-15 in his hands is not.