I recently experienced a Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz saturation, hearing her twice on the radio and once in person in the week after I finished reading Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. Dunbar reveals and explicates the violent nature of America from the beginning to the present, and how that violence has been—and still is—used to seize the property and curtail the rights of people of color, specifically Native- and African-Americans.
An eminent historian, Dunbar-Ortiz traces the institutionalized violence of America from before it was America. By the time the constitution rolled around, guns were such a part of the culture that the 2nd Amendment was somewhat redundant. Virginia, for example, had for decades required all men to carry guns, including to church, and could help those who couldn’t afford one.
Guns were the tool to drive American greed, not only to seize land from the Natives, but to seize Africans as slaves to work that land. A prime cause of the revolution, according to Dunbar-Ortiz, was that the British had forbidden settlers to live west of the Ohio River, and George Washington and his fellow slave-owning land-developers wouldn’t stand for that.
The author follows the historical arc of gun violence through the westward expansion, the civil war and into current days. While thick with often-surprising details and connections, Loaded is also imbued with Dunbar-Ortiz’s personality. In the introduction, she talks about how in her 20s she and a cadre of fellow radicals in New Orleans bought guns as self-protection from police surveilling them, without breaking any laws. She had grown up poor in rural Oklahoma, her father and brothers hunted for meat, and in New Orleans she felt the attraction of guns herself
While America’s multi-century immersion in guns makes change seem impossible, Dunbar-Ortiz sees the 2nd Amendment as a linchpin that needs to be better understood, if not eliminated, for violence to decline. The Amendment was clearly meant to refer to the militias, to “we the people,” not individuals. Yet a recent survey showed that around 80% of Americans feel the 2nd Amendment gives every citizen the right to own a gun. However only a third of households own guns, the average gun owner has 8 of them, and 64% of American guns are owned by white males, who are around 37% of the population.
While the territory this book takes us through is dark, a lot can be learned, including about contemporary groups like the KKK and the NRA, as well as the militarization of the culture (from pioneers to commandos) and the repression of people of color and the poor. Dunbar-Ortiz gives this difficult, at times abhorrent history a crisp and light touch, including personal anecdotes and well-chosen cultural references.
And it’s more than history: Half of gun deaths in the US are suicides, a method with a higher success rate than drugs, razors or other methods. An abused spouse can usually recover from a beating, but not from most gun shots.
Loaded is powerful, depressing and enlightening. Through understanding how intrinsic violence and racism are to the American identity, we can get a clearer perspective on the larger and deeper issues of human and societal interactions that elicit this venom and other unjust consequences.
dan raphael is the author of Maps Menus Emanations (cyberwit, 2021), Moving with Every (Flowestone Press, 2020) and Manything (Unlikely Books, 2019.)