When Virginia became one of the last two states to ratify the Constitution, in 1789, it was populated mostly by enslaved black people. Those captives were already being counted as three-fifths of a human being in America’s eyes, but white people in Virginia and in other slave states lived in fear of insurrection. So it is reasonable to surmise, as law professor Carl Bogus did last year in a New York Times op-ed, that the “well-regulated militia” language in the Second Amendment inserted by James Madison — who at the time was a candidate for Virginia governor — has its roots not merely in some benign effort to help these new Americans maintain the right to bear arms they had as colonists, but to help guard themselves against black people whom they considered their property.
Whether Madison intended this result or not, the Second Amendment became in part about institutionalizing the physical protection of white people. “Would we think differently about the amendment if we realized that its genesis was, at least in part, a concern with preserving a form of governmental tyranny?” Bogus asked.
Whenever a mass shooting occurs in the name of white supremacy in this country, it can feel like a jarring blow to the American reality. White nationalist violence is a worldwide scourge, with more than 175 people killed over the past eight years. But we should understand such violence here as more of a consequence of our system operating as designed than as an aberration from the norm.
Often, in the aftermath, we learn that the shooter saw his crime as a matter of self-preservation, that product of a mindset that sees a world getting increasingly browner and blacker and views such diversity as a physical encroachment. So he acts violently, because the goals of white supremacy cannot be achieved without it. They couldn’t even accomplish that peacefully in 1789.
With his nationalist rhetoric and policies, President Trump has become part of this continuum, giving license to millions to express their white grievance in new ways and refusing to condemn or prosecute their violence in any meaningful way. That includes his remarks Monday morning, which contained condemnation of white supremacy that was empty not merely because of his past, but because it lacked any scintilla of planning. The insincerity ran so deep that Trump even proposed a historically racist solution, the death penalty, as a remedy for hate crimes. (But as the Central Park Five can attest, calling for capital punishment is pretty much Trump’s default.)
His administration has also taken meaningful steps to discourage the prosecution of white extremists, the top domestic terror threat inside the United States. A former FBI supervisor told The Washington Post that “there’s some reluctance among agents to bring forth an investigation that targets what the president perceives as his base.” This has happened while he has undergirded his campaign and presidency with racial stereotypes and hatred, saying nothing after whipping up his rally mobs, providing a safe space to say things like “Send them back!” and “Shoot them!” The Trump administration and the Republican Party surely have blood on their doorstep today.
Two of the terrorists, one who killed three at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California the weekend prior and another who murdered 20 at an El Paso mall and Walmart on Saturday, had the same explicitly racist philosophies underlying their actions that Trump and Republicans have been willing to cater to in order to win votes. Though the motivations of the Dayton, Ohio, shooter who killed nine people early Sunday morning are unknown, he was reportedly suspended during high school for keeping both a “hit list” and a “rape list,” both with the obvious implications; considering the president is an accused sexual predator, how can the administration speak authoritatively?
Yet we still stick to the routine. The press often grants a dignity to the white mass shooter that the victim of color could only pray for, and they preserve their precious objectivity by going soft on a president known for his racism.
Seemingly before the last drop of blood hits the ground, Republicans have unleashed the red herrings. They blame video games, usually followed by the lack of prayer in schools or homosexuality. But racism and misogyny are not mental illnesses, as the president and his party’s instant psychiatrists would have us believe. They are ideologies. And they have been with us in America for as long as there have been white people settled on the land that is now America.
Democrats also have their role. Desperate to keep people believing government can work, they try appealing to Republicans with urgent pleas for action meant to make themselves look busy and to perhaps succeed — but only on the off chance the GOP has replaced the NRA with a conscience. Some Democrats talk, astonishingly, as if they hope Trump will actually sign “common-sense gun reforms.” And in recent years, the rote rejection of the politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” has been added to our muscle memory, as has the NRA’s gaslighting and legislative inertia. Second verse, same as the first.
All of this needs to stop, to be honest. It’s all so futile, and it doesn’t save any lives. The nation’s rote nature in moments like these can be attributed to perpetual shock, understandable as the rate of mass shootings accelerates to a terrifying pace. However, the Parkland survivors showed the nation that breaking the mold of reaction to mass shootings is possible, and they were actually inside the damned thing. Why we spend so much time debating about legislation that we know a white-nationalist president who sucks at the teat of the gun lobby will not sign is beyond me.
Yes, Trump said on Monday that he wants “strong background checks,” but he said pretty much the same thing after Parkland and soon reversed himself. Plus, this time, Trump has already stated that he wants to tie the checks to immigration reforms. Given his track record, there is no reason to expect that this president would sign anything having to do with immigration that didn’t explicitly disadvantage immigrants of color, specifically those who are Muslim and those coming from south of the United States border.
To paraphrase Elizabeth Warren from last week’s debate, why talk about what we can’t do? More to the point, why talk about things that this isn’t about? If a guy drives about nine hours from Dallas to El Paso to murder 20 people, and then we lay blame for that on immigration, we buy into his framing. No, the root causes of these actions are almost always threefold: easy access to guns, adherence to white-supremacist ideology, and a history of misogyny and associated violence. We already see all three threads running through the Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton shootings, to varying degrees — and that is before much investigation has taken place.
American culture, not our laws, bears a particular responsibility. Murder being illegal didn’t stop any of these men from committing it. Neither is easy access to guns a unique problem just for those who are misogynist or people who are attracted to the white-supremacist ideology. That shouldn’t imply that mass shootings are a permanent fact of American life; neither do I presume the permanence of gun violence in cities like Chicago, which saw seven killed and 46 wounded just last weekend. But it is important to understand precisely where we are and how we got here.
The gun issue has been tied, since the nation’s inception, to white people’s problems with race. So when we see a white supremacist take arms against Americans or foreign nationals because they aren’t white, we have to treat it as a systemic problem rather than a shocking and surprising aberration. Domestic assault and sexism have been a consistent predictor of who is likely to become a mass murderer. Yet the issue is all but ignored at moments like these in favor of stigmatizing the mentally ill. Plus, thanks to our rape culture, too many men go unprosecuted before they go on to kill.
We have these consistent, systemic issues that result in the deaths of thousands, yet we see our most powerful do little to nothing because they are so invested in the charades of grief, riding out their political performances until the Americans who didn’t just have a hole ripped into their lives inevitably move on.
It is a relief to see some diversions from the norm this time around. Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, a presidential candidate and El Paso native, returned home and was one of the few who defecated on the entire tired routine. Having already noted the rise in hate crimes every year since Trump has been in office, a reporter asked what Trump can do “to make this any better.”
O’Rourke snapped back, “What do you think? You know the shit he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the fuck?” In his frustration and anger, O’Rourke helped tear a hole in the notion that the reaction to these shootings should follow the same script. Something needs to change, and it isn’t the kinds of bills lawmakers file, or even how soon they get back to Washington.
I would suggest repealing and replacing the Second Amendment, born in and for slavery and desperately in need of an update. But that won’t happen. Neither will a lot of what the Democrats suggest. This president won’t do anything. The Republicans won’t do anything. I don’t say that to be pessimistic. The laws would help. I just don’t think they’ll happen anytime soon. So let’s stop pretending as though it’s possible, particularly with this president and this Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell.
We do need a president who will prosecute domestic terrorists properly, so there is the business of that. But the primary fix to this problem must be cultural, and it will take longer than any legislation. That is not to say that Democrats shouldn’t try to pass bills for the time being to signify to voters where they stand. But they should stop even hinting that Trump will work with them, and get their constituents focused on solutions that will arise from more difficult — and less politically rewarding — sources than anything that a campaigning politician can sell to voters in a convenient, commercial-ready soundbite.