The tragedy that occurred in Orlando in the early morning hours of June 12 did not begin a year ago, or a decade ago. Its historical roots go back almost 200 years, to the tragedies that occurred in the swamps of Florida, when the U.S. Army forcibly removed the Indigenous Peoples from the area.
Today, America is indisputably a nation of civilian gun owners, and a major reason for that is those very Seminole Wars. The NRA estimates there are 300 million guns in the hands of everyday citizens, and the argument that often justifies that extraordinary number is the “right to bear arms” contained in the Bill of Rights.
Pamela Haag, author of The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture disputes that. She writes, “We became a gun culture not because the gun was symbolically intrinsic to Americans or special to our identity, or because the gun was something exceptional in our culture, but precisely because it was not… It was like a buckle or a pin, an unexceptional object of commerce.”
In 1837, during the very early days of the transition from the art of gunsmithing to the mass production of firearms, Samuel Colt advertised his “Patent Repeating Rifle” in the New York Courier and Enquirer, with little result. The average citizen did not need multi-firing arms and was not willing to pay extra for them, according to a gun expert quoted by Haag.
Then Colt decided to hawk the repeaters to the U.S. military. Having failed to gain the support of the head of the Army’s Ordinance Department, he took his product directly to field officers. Specifically, to officers engaged in the Seminole Wars in the Florida Everglades.
One Col. William S. Harney, sent by President Andrew Jackson to Florida to wrest control of the land from the Seminoles, was losing, in part because the Seminoles had observed that the soldiers were defenseless when they were reloading their single-shot weapons. In 1835, the Seminoles defeated the U.S. Army in what was one of the military’s biggest defeats in the Indian Wars. The Dade Battle left more than 100 Army troops on the battlefield; reportedly only three of the force survived.
Colt himself delivered 500 rifles and a few pistols to Harney in St. Augustine in 1838. Harney defeated the Seminoles, writing later, “I honestly believe that but for these arms, the Indians would now be luxuriating in the everglades of Florida,” instead of having been forced marched to Oklahoma.
The Second Seminole War was fought near what are now the cities of Tampa, Ocala and Bushnell in Central Florida. Ocala and Bushnell are just north of Orlando.
Colt’s new invention – the repeating rifle – won Andrew Jackson’s bloody war against the Indians in Florida.
Today Colt manufactures military-style assault rifles – semi-automatic repeating rifles -- modeled on the M-16. It is one manufacturer of the AR-15. According to the National Rifle Association, the AR-15, an assault weapon marketed to civilians, is one of the most popular rifles sold in the U.S., says Haag.
It is the type of rifle used by Adam Lanza to kill 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. And at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, also in 2012. And at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, in 2105. And at the campus of the Umpqua Community College in Oregon that same year.
The rifle used by Omar Mateen early Sunday morning at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando to kill 49 and wound 53 more was at first identified as an AR-15 type rifle, but later found to be a Sig Sauer MCX. However, as the Washington Post states, “That doesn’t change much.” Even though they use different firing systems, both are lightweight, portable semi-automatic repeating rifles that can kill a lot of people in a very short time. According to the NRA, Americans bought 5 million new semi-automatic weapons in 2012, adding to the 60 million already in the possession of private individuals.
That means several million people have paid from $400 to $2,500 to own a kind of rifle – a repeater rifle – that has been linked to tragedy for almost 200 years in U.S. history.