Public discussion of Nikolas Cruz, the white male mass murderer who shot up Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, describes him as "troubled," "depressed" and "a gun enthusiast." Commentators note his fixation on guns and his proclivity for killing animals. This portrait fits the script used to describe most mass murderers.
Accounts of Cruz's psychological state suggest he suffers from mental illness. Intentionally or not, these stories seem designed to elicit sympathy. These accounts leave out important information about Cruz's state of mind. And in doing so, they help mystify and distort the debate over gun violence. Such stories also evade the elephant-sized fact that mentally ill people are responsible for only 4 percent of the country's rampant violence.
What's left out is Cruz's political perspective and social beliefs, his attitudes on race, women, Muslims and LGBQT people. His social views appear more significant in motivating his crime than does his mental health.
Cruz is a racist. He etched swastikas on his ammunition magazines. He was a member of a racist private Instagram chat group where he expressed his hatred for "Jews, ni**ers and immigrants." Cruz's tirades were so extreme that another participant observed that "he too hated blacks," but "not to a point that I wanna kill the (sic) like nick."
Cruz is a white supremacist. By ignoring or minimizing the white supremacist views of mass shooters like Nikolas Cruz, commentators narrow, confuse and twist discussion of the country's fascination with guns. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz terms the U.S. gun culture, its attraction to arms, "gun love."
Dunbar-Ortiz and other scholars are responding to the surge in mass shootings over the past two decades. In doing so, she and others are rewriting the history of the country's permissive gun laws, especially the Second Amendment. Her "Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment" is one of the best historical analyses of U.S. "gun love."
White American mythology roots the country's gun addiction in a fictitious self-serving history. This myth claims society's worship of individual gun ownership is grounded in its anticolonial struggle. Thus, U.S. gun polices are presented as embodiments of the country's commitment to liberty.
Dunbar-Ortiz cuts through these lies. The truth is U.S. gun laws originated for two reasons.
First, they manifested a seminal white supremacist principle: White people should be armed to maintain social control over indigenous and African peoples; and conversely, indigenous and African peoples should be disarmed so they do not pose a threat to white people.
Second, they reinforced the control of the 18th-century elite white classes.
The new U.S. government incorporated racial exclusions from the colonial era into its gun laws, such as the 1792 Uniform Militia Act. Slave states like Virginia had enacted laws banning blacks and Indians from bearing arms. One 1640 Virginia law prohibits "Negroes, slave and free, from carrying weapons including clubs." Another states "all such free Mulattos, Negroes and Indians ... shall appear without arms."
Meanwhile, the Uniform Militia Act of 1792, which operationalized the Second Amendment (1791), restricted militia membership to "free, able-bodied white male citizen between the ages of eighteen and forty-five." Thus, Indians and blacks were excluded from the rights embodied in the Second Amendment.
Despite myths linking the Second Amendment to democratic doctrines of freedom, its actual origin lies in an antidemocratic strategy. In addition to the maintenance of slavery and the dispossession of indigenous peoples, the historical context for the operationalization of the Second Amendment was white working-class citizens' resistance to new taxes imposed by the ruling capitalist class.
Specifically, the Second Amendment was white elites' scheme to curtail events such as Shay's Rebellion (1787-88) and the Whiskey Insurrection (1791-94). Its purpose was to create militias to suppress revolts, whether by working-class whites or African-Americans, and to repress native peoples' resistance to settler colonialism.
Dunbar-Ortiz highlights its relationship to white nationalism and racial oppression through violent social control. She powerfully sums up the purpose of the Second Amendment as forged to take the "lands and lives" of indigenous people and African Americans.
The Second Amendment is essential to the U.S.'s history of racial violence. It's hard to imagine the construction of slave patrols and raiding parties without it.
In his masterpiece, "The Militant South," pre-eminent African American historian John Hope Franklin describes the South as "an armed camp." You can't fathom the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the overthrow of Reconstruction or the epidemic of lynching and racial pogroms that shaped the nadir (1877-1920s) without the Second Amendment.
The U.S.' dangerous gun culture was both created by and helped produce and maintain settler colonialism and racial oppression. This is the dirty little secret underlying the Second Amendment.
While much has changed in the U.S. since the ratification of the Constitution, regarding the foundational white supremacist principle, arm whites, disarm African-Americans and native peoples, very little has.
In 1967, when the Black Panther Party attempted to exercise its members' constitutional right to publicly bear arms, Republican California Gov. Ronald Reagan decided they'd rather take away white Californians' "sacred" right rather than see blacks exercise theirs. During Barack Obama's two-term presidency, gun sales soared an amazing 158 percent.
Nikolas Cruz is a product of the white response to Obama's presidency. As students prepare to walk out of schools across the U.S. on April 20, let's not just focus on Columbine, but also meditate on the relationship between guns and white supremacy.
Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.