Two days before he took his copy of the New York Times to the firing range, conservative blogger Erick Erickson wrote an editorial about the tragedy in San Bernardino in which he clearly laid out the terms through which conservatives tend to read such events: “When shootings happen in America, conservatives immediately conclude it must be a mentally unstable person or an Islamic terrorist. For the American political left, they always conclude it was a white, Christian, Republican.”
For Erickson and the pro-gun right, a shooting carried out by an Islamic terrorist is the only kind that can be understood in political terms. The familiar script rehashed by such commentators following a mass shooting carried out by a “mentally unstable” (read: white) perpetrator is focused on the inefficiencies and dangers of government. “Good guys with guns” are presented as the force that will save us from the U.S. government’s inability to protect its own citizens during such events, but also from the U.S. government’s capability of turning against its own people.
As soon as the name Syed Farook was uttered on police scanners following the tragedy that unfolded in San Bernardino, this script changed. The wave of anti-Muslim bigotry that crescendoed (one may hope) with Donald Trump's fascistic comments began to build. Suddenly the pro-gun right was demanding more, not less, of the government. Conservatives were calling for massive military intervention abroad and the policing of a religious minority at home in order to prevent such a tragedy in the future.
The day after the shooting, "Fox & Friends’" resident psychologist Keith Ablow offered helpful tips about how to aid the government in this effort: “If somebody named Syed leaves your party and people say, 'Why is Syed leaving?' you know what? Call the cops. That's the point at which we're at in this country,” Ablow urged. Gun control, he insisted, was a sinister plot aimed at preventing citizens from aiding in the effort to protect real Americans from those with names like named Syed: “I think [if it] looks like a duck looks, acts like a duck, I think we've got to get ourselves out of denial. It's a duck, right? The president wants to talk about gun control while America's bleeding… Why would the president want America to disarm when we are under assault by radical Islam? Interesting. Why?”
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. carried Ablow’s logic to its inevitable conclusion when he told a cheering crowd of Liberty students that, “if more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.”
Comments like Falwell’s and Trump’s are an extension of GOP rhetoric that has been developing for some time. While Trump’s call to bar Muslims from entering the country seems to have distracted from the national conversation regarding the Second Amendment, the violent populism to which Trump’s “plan” appeals has everything to do with gun culture. Behind the calls for excluding Muslims or making them carry ID cards is a clear message: people with names like Syed are not capable of being the citizens that constitutional rights were meant to protect. They are the forces the constitutional right to bear arms was meant to protect against.
We have learned that Farook and his wife were in some way inspired by transnational terrorist groups. While this fact is significant, it is worth remembering that only six months ago (a depressingly distant memory in the litany of mass shootings we’ve faced this year), a white man influenced by violent extremists from Africa and intending to start a civil war walked into a church in South Carolina and killed nine parishioners. To my knowledge, no pundits have called for calling the cops when men with names like “Dylann” appear at your Bible study.
The discrepancy of reactions to the terrorism of Farook and Roof gives the lie to the conservative argument that the Second Amendment underwrites the constitutional rights of all Americans. This reaction is particularly egregious, however, given the concerted effort the pro-gun right has made in recent years to cast the Second Amendment as a vital protection for minority populations against the tyrannical U.S. state. Using a broad array of examples, including Japanese internment and Jim Crow, hundreds of articles, memes and blog posts produced in recent years argue that gun control and racial oppression go hand in hand.
The favorite example that the pro-gun right evokes in such arguments is, incredibly, the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, in which Federal troops slaughtered more than 200 Lakotas following the U.S. Army’s attempt to disarm Spotted Elk’s band on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In his 2013 keynote address to the National Rifle Association, Glenn Beck told the tale in the manner that many of his ilk have embraced:
[I]f the government had a monopoly of violence, tyranny would go undefeated. If you don’t believe me… ask the Japanese-Americans who spent the war in internment camps.
If you don’t think our government can do terrible things to its citizens? Explain this: The Lakota Indians were asleep by the river when the U.S. troops arrived on a freezing December morning. For everyone’s protection, the troops began to enter the tents of the sleeping Indians and confiscate their guns. One boy, a deaf boy, tried to hold onto his gun. Trying to explain that he had paid a lot for it. In the struggle to hang onto it, the gun discharged. The U.S. soldiers stepped back and unloaded on the group of around 300 men, women, and children. 150 were killed, another 51 wounded. Others tried to run to the creek, only to be caught and killed by the soldiers. Without any defense. The Creek was called “Wounded Knee.” The year was 1890.
It’s hard to know where to start on the pernicious fictions in Beck’s account. For one thing, the Lakota in 1890 were not citizens of the United States -- citizenship was not widely granted to American Indians until 1924. The Lakota had suffered under, and fought back against, the genocidal violence perpetrated by both the U.S. Army and armed white settlers for decades before the slaughter at Wounded Knee. Beck tells a story of a government massacre that threatened the popular sovereignty of American citizens. The historical record tells a story of the American government attempting to finish the genocidal work started by armed American settlers.
Beck defends the Second Amendment and exonerates his audience for their own racism by asking America’s paranoid and shrinking white majority to identify with the historical victims of its own conquest. The absurdities of this rhetorical strategy are compounded by the fact that such arguments exist alongside a much longer rhetorical tradition of justifying the right to bear arms by evoking white Americans’ inherent right to kill Indians.
One not need look as far back as the Declaration of Independence’s decrial of the “merciless Indian savages” to find examples of this rhetoric in action. In the 2008 Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court struck down Washington, D.C.,’s handgun ban. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who cast the decisive vote, was deeply critical of petitioners’ claims that the Second Amendment was not intended to protect a fundamental right to self-defense. He focused his line of questioning in oral arguments around the hypothetical case of the “remote settler,” asking if the founders did not intend to grant this frontiersman the right “to defend himself and his family against hostile Indian tribes and outlaws, wolves and bears and grizzlies and things like that?”
In 2008, many liberal commentators lampooned Kennedy’s equation of the eighteenth-century colonial frontier with the twenty-first century American city. But Kennedy’s argument — and Antonin Scalia’s opinion — contains a logic far more pernicious than that illustrated by this anachronism. The “remote settlers” Kennedy references were not engaged in self-defense; they were engaged in conquest. By suggesting that the right to self-defense protected by the Second Amendment is derived directly from the right of settler colonists to kill Indians for their land just as one might kill an animal, Kennedy reveals the true danger of the “good guys with guns” narrative that is the pro-gun right’s most familiar argument.
The founders drafted the Constitution at a moment when the citizens of the precarious republic they imagined would need to marshal violence in order to cast off the yoke of an imperial government, but also to protect themselves from their own slaves, and to conduct the conquest of indigenous territory upon which the expanding nation depended. White men with guns, acting independently of the government, played a vital part in conducting all three forms of violence in the name of the United States and the privileged few that the republic sought to represent.
Today, the United States is engaged in a war with an ill-defined enemy in the Islamic world. This war has, since its inception, been sold to the American people as an Indian War. As our national debates surrounding terrorism and the Second Amendment converge in the wake of the tragedy in San Bernardino, we should not be surprised to hear rhetoric like Trump’s and Falwell’s veer toward the genocidal. This is precisely the form of violence romanticized by our official understandings of both the War on Terror and the Second Amendment.
In their anti-Muslim/anti-Arab fervor, conservatives have revealed the true nature of the gun culture they defend in the name of liberty. The right has been remarkably successful selling the idea that their radical interpretation of the Second Amendment protects all Americans from the inefficiencies and abuses of government. Instead of persisting in the ineffectual argument that this idea is just an antiquated fantasy, the left must be strident in calling out the “good guys with guns” narrative for its origins in, and contemporary complicity with, racial violence. Vigilante justice in America was never meant to differentiate between Syed Farook and “somebody named Syed.”