America’s gun obsession is rooted in slavery

Bodies are piling up all over the second amendment as two of America’s pandemics converge. The “plague of gun violence” and the inability to mount an effective response, even in the wake of multiple mass shootings, is, unfortunately, rooted in the other pandemic gripping the United States: anti-Blackness and the sense that African Americans are a dangerous threat that can only be neutralized or stopped by a well-armed white citizenry.

For too long, the second amendment has been portrayed with a founding fathers aura swaddled in the stars and stripes.

Related: Everything about America’s gun debate is wrong – here’s why | Abené Clayton and Lois Beckett

But “a well-regulated militia” wasn’t, as the story goes, about how valiant and effective the militias were in repelling the British. George Washington was disgusted with their lack of fighting ability and the way the men would just cut and run from battling against a professional army. Nor was the militia reliable as a force to uphold the law. In Shays’ Rebellion, bands of armed white men, who were in the state’s militia, attacked the Massachusetts government because of foreclosures and debt seizures, demonstrating, again, how unreliable the militia were. Boston merchants had to hire mercenaries to put down the rebellion.

On the other hand, where the militia had been steadfast was in controlling the enslaved Black population. Access to guns for white people was essential for this function.

In 1788, at the constitutional ratification convention in Virginia, a major source of contention was that the draft constitution had placed the training and arming of the states’ militia under federal control. Virginians Patrick Henry and George Mason balked, and raised the specter of a massive slave revolt left unchecked because Congress could not be trusted to summon the forces to protect the plantation owners. Mason warned that if and when Virginia’s enslaved rose up (as they had before), whites would be left “defenseless”. Patrick Henry explained that white plantation owners would be abandoned because “the north detests slavery”. In short, Black people had to be subjugated and contained and state control of the militia was the way to do that.

The sheer brutality of human bondage, where plantation owners were notorious for “barbarities such as scalding, burning, castrating and extracting the tongues or eyes of slaves”, had created an overwhelming fear among whites of the enslaved’s capacity and desire for retribution. A series of revolts in the 1600s and 1700s terrified white residents and led to a slew of laws forbidding Black people from having any weapons, including guns. The militias’ all-important role was to quash those revolts, especially if the uprising was widespread, as in the 1740 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina.

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