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How Settler Colonialism Influenced the Gun Debate

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold made American history when they murdered 13 people at Columbine High School. With a devastating amalgam of toxic masculinity, white terrorism, and gun freedoms, the Columbine High School massacre sparked a nationwide debate on what to do about guns.

Yet, as the empirical record of the progressive impulse normatively suggests, a failure to address the root causes at hand — white supremacy, patriarchy, and their intersections — meant that the issue of school shooters could never be solved within the logic of government. As we continue to count our losses in 2018 with an unprecedented trend of school shootings, the liberal analysis continues to prove its failure in contesting the overarching paradigm.

Laws are not our problem. Rather, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are the latest byproducts of America’s infatuation with firearms. The source of this violent epidemic does not stem from private sale loopholes; not even the military-industrial complex. We need to look deeper, and explore the ways in which our country was founded on a mountain of bullets.

On nearly every vessel that set sail for the Americas after Christopher Columbus’ initial voyage to Hispaniola, many sailors and conquerors carried a firearm alongside. Facing a New World meant new challenges for these colonizers; here, we saw the earliest iteration of gun violence as the means to safeguard the self from the other.

To the grave, they took guns with them. As historians unearth and analyze shipwrecks from the colonial era, we found matchlocks — a classic — juxtaposed with what remains of their owners. While these historians recount the facts of the matter and immortalize the histories and legacies of these colonizers postmortem, the significance of these guns on the power dynamics bred within the fabric of the colonial Americas must be recounted as well.

The matchlock — Europe’s most advanced firearms technology at the time — was pivotal to the practicality of hand cannons. Whereas users previously had to manually light gunpowder, matchlocks implemented a lever system that dropped matches into the flash pan and cleared the remains afterwards. This was progress for Columbus and many of those who followed his initiative, and what better testing grounds to demonstrate the matchlock’s efficacy than the New World?

Much like how armed teachers and school resource officers would serve as deterrents against any credible threat, conquerors among Columbus used firearms to drive fear within the Indigenous populations they encountered. A demonstration requiring nothing more than one pull of the trigger was enough to showcase classical European ballistics.

As the colonial era progressed and colonizers found themselves wanting more from the Indigenous folk of the Americas, they saw no better option than to change strategy. Whereas Columbus manipulated and assimilated Indigenous populations, the firearms-bearing colonizers that set foot upon the Americas opted for a new method: coercion.

It’s no surprise that anthropology points to several remains riddled with pellets, with conclusive evidence showing the origins of such bodies being colored and murdered at the start of the colonial era. For the colonizers, the “uncivilized” Indigenous bodies and the “profitable” American soil beneath their feet meant an “all means necessary” approach towards enriching the motherland.

And so, colonies were built upon pellet-ridden bodies. Here, the pre-United States demonstrated its willingness to build and sustain empire on a mountain of bullets covering a bedrock of Indigenous blood, setting a precedent for future leaders to draw upon as their positions put the mercy of colored folks worldwide at their feet. From the very beginning — before America even became America — gun violence became essential, and thus, cultural to the orderings of colonial society.

After invoking the furies of civilizations around America as a result of relentless massacre, one would assume that a well-regulated militia would be a good idea. As Indigenous folks retaliated against the colonial settlements that stole their land and murdered their brethren, guns proved useful in the case of self-defense, not just for the self but for the whole.

National School Walkout protest in Des Moines, Iowa. (Phil Roeder)

Here, two narratives were established that would be crucial to the maintenance of modern gun freedoms. First, the usage of guns as self-defense naturalizes gun violence as a solution to societal problems, eventually becoming an exploitable naturalization in which millions upon millions in revenue would be generated for today’s gun manufacturers. Second, the usage of guns as national security naturalizes gun violence as a means of securitization, eventually leading to a militarized law enforcement apparatus and the world’s largest defense budget that actively institutes war within communities of color both domestically and abroad.

These colonial societies cherished guns so much to the point where they were passed from white settlers over to Indigenous folk. Whereas standardized history courses would teach you that this exchange seemed unconditional and germane to the progression of the colonial era, true history revealed the destabilizing effect of such exchange.

Arms races pitted Indigenous civilizations against one another, a precursor to the war zones created in urban communities as a result of informal sponsorships among major firearms manufacturers. Here, gun violence is no longer white-over-Indigenous, but a new relation of Indigenous-over-Indigenous that absolved white folks of the blame and work involved in genocide.

Much like Indigenous-on-Indigenous gun violence, black-on-black gun violence has been largely out of the discussion. Liberals assert that the latter is a problematic frame of analysis on gun violence, yet the truth is that such relationships of violence do occur. Where the truth emerges is in how white settlers — now firearms manufacturers, law enforcement, and military service — have played a necessary role in structuring that relationship.

And so, a crucial part of America’s settler colonial history in gun violence is papered over as historians, history teachers, and history students confidently infer and affirm the incivility of the Indigenous when they witness divide-and-conquer moments in their research, lesson plans, and textbooks. Here, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” becomes not just profitable, but necessary to the collective erasure of society’s memory as we focus on the skin of those doing the killing, rather than those who provided the means.

Not only did colonizers lead war against Indigenous civilizations in their manifest destiny, but also a war on American ecosystems. With the usage of firearms, the vast populations of bison across the Plains dwindled to near extinction as man once again asserted its dominance over nature. Many local Indigenous folk relied on buffalo to survive and found nothing but famine within the devastation of the Plains; here, gun violence enacted immediate death upon one population and slow genocide upon another.

Resting atop a mountain of bison skulls, America-before-America demonstrated its willingness to upset the balance of other ecosystems — and political landscapes, if we’re using more modern contexts — for self-gain. Richard Nixon enacted slow genocide through a war on drugs, which further criminalized people of color and infiltrated their communities in the name of “public safety.” Decades later, George W. Bush took slow genocide abroad by destabilizing the Middle East with military force in his righteous search for “terrorists.”

Finally, the desire for the colonies to break away from the motherland and assert their own sovereignty sought out another usage of guns: violent revolution. Whereas the Indigenous were murdered and ridiculed for doing the same against foreign threats on the colonies, America internalized the spirit of rebellion and fought a war that led to their triumph and secession.

Here, America reveals a devastating fundamental contradiction. The militancy among radical self-governing whites became intrinsic to what it meant to be American, yet the taking up of arms among communities of color — notably the Black Panthers — against their racist government invoked such a fear as to create bipartisan support for gun control legislation. We can comfortably assume that the Second Amendment was never about liberty, but rather a conduit for violence against colored peoples that instantly becomes null for black radicals.

With a colonial history of gun violence in mind — Indigenous genocide, self-defense against other, colonial/national security, arms races, interventionism, and revolution — it’s easy to see why the Founding Fathers of the Constitution enlisted the most powerful legal tool in our country to safeguard the usage of firearms for the unforeseeable future.

In the creation and maintenance of the colonies and the destruction and neglect of the Indigenous, gun violence became a foundational value that was necessary to the production of America. Without guns, genocide would’ve been reduced, Native Americans would fight back and triumph over colonies, intertribal relations would not be disturbed by divisive smuggling practices, and the balance of the buffalo would remain in place.

Guns have held an intergenerational effect in asserting its efficacy in the building of a nation. By the time the United States Bill of Rights came into effect, the importance of guns had just peaked with the American Revolution. If guns were such a useful implement to secure the freedoms that colonizers enjoyed at the Constitutional Convention, creating an amendment was the only way to ensure America’s longevity.

These are the values that reach, inform, and structure our modern-day society today. As the resuscitated forces of capitalism go hand-in-hand with the firearms manufacturers feasting on the blood of mass and everyday shooting victims, America has continued to not only refuse to bat an eye at gun violence, but maintain complicity with the very structures that make it so.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are byproducts of every historical moment that led up to 1999. The usages and attitudes surrounding gun violence as a result of settler colonial practices inculcated a mentality that positioned guns as the only way out for these two young men who walked into Columbine High School that April 20th day.

Here, they’re trapped in the past as they learned from their predecessors, but they’ve also shifted America into a future of rampant gun violence, one that neither the Founding Fathers nor we could have foreseen at our respective times.

With over 18 mass shootings so far in 2018, this is America.