The Gun and the Libel II
Whenever I write about politics, someone I know — often it’s a well-meaning friend of largely the same liberal temperament as myself — will scold me about being an idealist. We are, after all, discussing “the art of the possible”, and it does no good to refuse to face up to practical considerations, even if it means admitting that some of my pet causes are simply of no interest to the electorate. Believe me, I am well aware of this weakness on my part. As much as I would like to believe that if I just shout loud enough, the unions will stage a comeback and the working classes will shed two centuries of false consciousness, I know it’s not going to happen. There is too much history against me; times have changed and powerful forces have been brought to bear against my vision of the world, and a new WPA is not imminent. My entire political life, ever since I was a teenage communist, has been a struggle to balance my ideological vision with the practical realities of government, to translate my strongest ethical beliefs into reasonable ideas.
There is nothing in American politics — no, not even abortion — that is argued over with less reason than the issue of guns. The liberal and conservative extremes are more extreme over gun control than any subject, and there is never a time in which more extremist nonsense is propagated than in the wake of a senseless act of brutality like yesterday’s mass killing at an Aurora movie theater by a deranged gunman. I’ve heard more outrageous statements today by people on the right and the left than I have in years, on any topic, and, as part of what I suspect will be a lifelong project of figuring out exactly where I stand in this world, I wanted to write about certain aspects of the argument over guns, if for no other reason than to make them clearer in my own mind.
NOTE: I don’t pretend that I alone am being rational about the subject while the rest of the world talks nonsense. I also don’t think I’m going to come to any practical conclusions, nor do I think my viewpoints are definitive or even coherent. The post will be long, contentious, and probably self-contradictory. All I’m trying to do is organize my thoughts around a problem which, I greatly fear, has no solution.
THIS MACHINE KILLS ANYONE
A gun, as people who think they are making a profound observation are fond of saying, is a machine designed to kill people. The revelation no doubt sends shockwaves throughout history going back to the first proto-man hunched over a newly sharpened rock, but its banality doesn’t make it false. A gun is meant to kill someone, which purpose makes it both wonderful and terrifying.
Defenders of guns love to point out its history as a weapon against tyranny, and this, too, is true as far as it goes; the United States as we know it would not exist without guns in the hands of private citizens. It is hard to think of anything other than the printing press that so democratized the world; the development of firearms destroyed the concept of the military as a trained elite — of the sort that could only be organized and maintained by a wealthy and unanswerable ruling class — and made it possible for common people, for the first time in history, to stand a chance of mounting a legitimate resistance to their governments. The power to kill quickly, easily, and from a distance is what made modern society possible against a history of brutality and oppression.
But guns have also been used by those same oppressors to kill their people in the hundreds, the thousands, the millions. They are a tool of resistance as well as of oppression. More to the point, the defenders of gun culture in America who cite the utility of firearms against an interfering state are deluded at best and prevaricating at worst. The fact that we are the most well-armed society on Earth cuts both ways; certainly there are more guns in the hands of private citizens than the mind can comfortably conceive, but, too, they are as toys to the number of bombs, tanks, drones, and well-trained soldiers with high-tech engines of destruction controlled by the government. This is not 1776; if we were to fall overnight into the hands of a homegrown Mussolini, all our collected guns would be little more than an inconvenience.
The shooter in last night’s horror used a modified military rifle to do his killing. This always leads to the cry that there is no reason that anyone outside of the military to have such a weapon. This is also true without being especially relevant; if recent history has taught us anything, it is that spree killers are just as effective with simple handguns as they are with fearsome commando-grade assault hardware. The mass slaughters at Virginia Tech, Killeen, Camden and Fort Hood, and many others, were carried out by individual men with simple, unmodified handguns; banning assault rifles and other military weapons would have done nothing to prevent them. This is because mass killings do not depend on technology. They depend on surprise. They succeed because ordinary people doing ordinary things do not expect a maniac to start shooting them in the middle of their ordinary business, and the number of rounds being fired per second isn’t really much of a factor. Banning assault weapons is a good idea just on general principles, but will it stop any madmen from killing innocent people? Unlikely.
Unquestionably the most tone-deaf, absurd, and utterly un-empathetic reaction to a spree killing is one that comes exclusively from the right, and specifically from the fake tough-guy gun fetishists. This is the suggestion that, were we to be a more armed society — and specifically, if people at the site of the massacre in question had themselves been armed — someone could have just stepped up to the plate, taken careful aim at the evildoer, and saved the day with one well-placed shot. This is complete nonsense, and nonsense that you never hear from anyone who’s actually been in a gunfight. The prime offender this time around was the asinine Texas senator Louie Gohmert, who wondered why no one in Aurora had a gun with which they could have Quick Draw McGrawed the perpetrator out of his body count. This is particularly absurd both practically (the shooter was wearing body armor, firing into a packed crowd of people, in a darkened theater, at night, after having thrown a gas bomb that blinded half the audience; anyone returning fire would have been vastly more likely to have killed another innocent bystander than the shooter) and historically (Gohmert should know better; Texas is likely the most heavily-armed state in the union, but the biggest body count of any gun massacre in American history took place at a cafeteria in Killeen, and the nearby Fort Hood massacre took place on a military base, with thousands of armed and trained soldiers within walking distance).
This approach is triply repugnant. Its worst offense is that it blames the victims for being murdered by a lunatic, as if it is every innocent person’s job to save themselves from being unexpectedly shot every minute of the day. (I own guns, but I don’t take them with me everywhere I go, nor does any other reasonable person. Again, the key to the success of these mass killings is that they are, by their very nature, unexpected. A cop takes a gun when he goes out on a call to a bank robbery, but not when taking his kids to pre-school; is it then his fault if some loon picks that day to shoot up the playground?) It’s also completely ignorant of the realities of small arms combat, a ludicrous action-movie fantasy brewed up by people who have never been shot at in their lives. There is a word for a situation in which a bunch of people are shooting at each other with the intent to kill; that word is “warfare”, and if it were as simple as the good guys aiming better than the bad guys and taking them out before they get a chance to do any damage, World War II would have come out a bit differently.
THE LIMITS OF CONTROL
Other proposals put forth by gun control advocates at times like this are criminal background checks, mental health history checks, waiting periods, and felony disqualifications. These are all, again, good ideas in general; that is why most states, even gun-crazy Texas, already have them on the books. The problem with them is that they only keep guns out of the hands of criminals. (Most gun laws, in fact, were created to give cops a weapon against criminals they were otherwise unable to make a case against.) This, again, is a fine thing; there’s nothing wrong with trying to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. It’s a fine idea that will always get the support of any sane person. But again, it has little to nothing to do with these sorts of mass killings. The Aurora shooter had no criminal record, he had no history of mental illness that anyone knew about, he had never perpetrated an act of violence, and he’d never done anything to indicate that would indicate he should be prohibited from owning a gun. The same is true for dozens of other spree killers. The only way to keep them from owning guns would be to ban guns altogether, which, in addition to its vast impracticality, is something that most gun control advocates insist they don’t want to do. So why keep mentioning it every time something like this happens?
NATIONAL REACTIONARY ASSOCIATION
Let’s just get this right out of the way: fuck the National Rifle Association. As a proud gun owner, I wouldn’t join their shit-heap outfit if you paid me to do it. They are nothing but a self-perpetuating front organization that exists to back the worst aspects of American politics, and they use racism, paranoia and xenophobia to enrich themselves at the expense of the people they claim to defend. Their knee-jerk reactions to the very idea of gun control leads them to throw heaps of bribe money at their bought-out politicians, who in turn use their clout to shut down discussion of even the most reasonable, sane firearms regulations. They conjure imaginary fears and tell outright lies to manipulate voters and fatten their own coffers, and their intractability and outright refusal to even consider the fact that easy access to guns could ever be problematic has done nothing but harm to society. They’re one of the most destructive organizations in the public sphere, and nothing I say here or anywhere else should be taken as a defense of them.
LIES, DAMN LIES…
Americans, a technophilic bunch if ever there was one, have always been fond of statistics. Unfortunately, they are not equally fond of rigorous thought, and often present statistics as if they alone can serve to prove a point. An example from today’s hysteria: comedian Patton Oswalt tweeted that “less people died by gun in an entire year in Japan than in one movie theater today in Colorado.” He means “fewer”, but let it drift: what he seems to mean is that Japan is a safe and sane society, untroubled by the violence that lives in the American blood like a werewolf’s curse. Well, here’s another statistic: Honduras, where there was a massive seizure of privately held guns in 2009, has the highest homicide rate on the planet — vastly higher than that of the United States, and four times that of Mexico, where beheading dozens of people and dumping them in a supermarket parking lot is a thing.
Does this prove that gun control leads to a high murder rate? Certainly not, no more so than Oswalt’s statistic proves that gun control leads to a low murder rate. It’s fun to cite statistics, but it’s not helpful to cite statistics that tell you absolutely nothing out of context. Neither of these statistics tell you anything about the histories of the two countries, the social and political factors exerted on their citizens, the crime rates in general and what drives them — they lack the crucial aspect of context that would allow you to form a conclusion any more sophisticated than “I’m right and you’re wrong”. There is also a curiously inverted sort of American exceptionalism to this line of thought: since Americans have more gun violence, we must be the only country that has to cope with it (news to dozens of other countries that have faced, and continue to face, their own struggles with gun violence and gun control). Why, for example, does Canada have a higher percentage of private gun ownership but a much smaller amount of firearm-related homicide? The numbers can tell you very little; it is the search for context that is difficult and frustrating, and that is likely why it is so rarely attempted.
(Whenever I hear this sort of bafflegab, I am reminded of a well-meant but utterly loopy statement by George Carlin. Attempting to diffuse the notion that pornography is responsible for violent sexual assault, he pointed out that the Japanese have available to them brands of smut far more vile and bizarre than we’ve managed to think up here in America, but Japanese women are far less likely to be raped than American women. His conclusion? “Japanese people are decent, civilized and intelligent.” He might have wanted to check in with a few of the citizens of Nanking before putting that one down on paper.)
DETERRENT TO WHAT?
Are guns a deterrent to crime? Of course they are. You would be a fool to think otherwise. The very existence of an armed police force is evidence of the effective deterrence value of firearms; there’s a reason people don’t often commit crimes in full view of a cop, and it’s not because they’re afraid they’ll get a ticket. Everything from military strategy to neighborhood policing is predicated on the idea that the presence of a superior force of armed and trained gunmen acts as a deterrent.
The problem is, the pro-gun advocates of firearms as a deterrent go about the argument the wrong way. It’s not even the essential difference between a trained police force (or, to get downright Constitutional about it, a “well-regulated militia”) and some chucklehead who just bought a .357 at the pawn shop; contrary to what we’ve learned from movies and TV, the Old West wasn’t a charnel-house of constant bloodshed. In fact, crime rates were relatively low, largely because almost everyone was armed, and a single jackass with a Colt couldn’t run roughshod over an entire town. But the malignant efforts of the NRA, as well as misguided legislation on every level and the modern fetishization of the concealed handgun has led to an absurd situation where, in the most heavily armed parts of the country, guns are toted in secret and invisible, perverting the entire principle of deterrence. As a leading scientist once said, the whole point of a deterrent is lost if you keep it a secret.
More to the point, though, and here I promise that soon all these pointless peregrinations will soon come to an end, the deterrent effect is only useful against crime, against a sane opponent who calculates factors like risk and reward. What we are dealing with in situations like Aurora, and what makes otherwise sensible solutions so hollow, is not crime, but madness.
The worst thing you can do in a situation like this is pull the ol’ “HOW CAN YOU COMPLAIN ABOUT (TERRIBLE THING X) WHEN (TERRIBLE THING Y) IS HAPPENING IN (TERRIBLE PLACE Z)” routine. Humans are capable of dealing with all sorts of terrible things on their own merits, and our ability to compartmentalize to preserve our sanity should not be considered evidence of cold-heartedness. But occasionally, we have to ask: why does this thing alarm us so much more than this thing?
Certainly it is an unthinkable tragedy when a public killing like this occurs. I have been shot at twice, and both times, the terror I felt was pant-soilingly deep. My father, a decorated Korean War veteran who saw unimaginable things during his service, also witnessed a workplace shooting that killed one of his friends, and I’ve never seen him so upset about anything in his life. But why do we privilege them over other homicides, of which they constitute a minuscule percentage? Our inner cities are often free-fire zones (another argument that a well-armed group is not a safe group); in my beloved Chicago, a dozen people died in a week this month. Why doesn’t this trigger arguments over gun control instead of drug policy? It’s still the guns killing people, not the drugs. Serial killers take more lives every year than spree killers, preying on innocents in the lonely dark for years at a time; why don’t they upset us the way spree killers do? Is it because we think ourselves immune to their predation? Or is it because their use of poison, knives and strangulation renders them less sexy than an explosion of gunfire? Recently, it has become public knowledge that the suicide rate amongst military servicemen and women has reached a frequency of one per day. This absolutely stunning statistic has been met with shrugs by almost everyone; liberals don’t seem to care because of their own standoffish relationship with the military, and conservatives avoid it because it would require them to face up the the disgraceful way the armed forces treat the people they’re forever trumpeting as unappreciated heroes. Why does this hugely alarming statistic inspire indifference, while everyone seems like their heads will fall off if they don’t express an outraged blanket statement about the meaning of 12 people killed by a madman?
For good or for ill, there is no chance of banning guns in America. That ship sailed 200 years ago. There is evidence that reasonable gun control works; recent innovative programs in both small towns and urban areas have led to a situation in the last few years where gun deaths are at a record low, finally being outpaced by automotive fatalities. It is axiomatic that more guns will mean more gun deaths, just as more cars on the road will inevitably lead to more car crash casualties; this is so self-evident that only the most delusional NRA nuts bother to deny it. But even with these encouraging statistics, we seem no closer to having a rational conversation about sensible gun control. Both sides, especially when something like Aurora happens, retreat into an ideological shell and bellow meaningless statistics, hiding behind the totemic power they seem to believe handguns possess. Long ago, as a society, we made the decision that, despite the fact that we knew they would cause tens of thousands of deaths every year, automobiles were part of our culture and would remain that way. Since then, despite the huge body count they’ve racked up over the years, we have gone about regulating them in sensible ways, without any entrenched lobby of right-wing lunatics combating the very idea of air bags, or hysterical liberals treating the whole notion of cars like death machines imported from Jupiter. We have taken a similar sensible approach towards alcohol since the repeal of Prohibition; the road has not always been smooth, but as a rule, we can talk about, legislate, and regulate automobiles and alcohol without sounding like a gaggle of mental patients. This is something we cannot seem to do with drugs, and especially with guns. But guns and drugs are no more moral actors than cars or bottles of tequila. Why can’t we make sense of them?
A GUN PROBLEM…OR A HUMAN PROBLEM?
The most terrifying answer to the question of why spree killings inspire such virulent back-and-forth over the gun issue may be because their terror has very little to do with guns, and we know it, but are too frightened to admit it.
The average person, here or anywhere else, is far more likely to be die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, be murdered by a relative or a loved one, or be shot during the commission of an ordinary crime than they are to be killed by a random maniac. These crimes can at least theoretically be mitigated by various applications of gun control; barring the complete removal of guns from society, the crimes of a spree killer cannot. No one likes to hear this one, because obviously guns are the easy path of the murderous madman determined to go out in a blaze of bloodshed, but guns are not necessary for the equation. We like to tell ourselves, because of the strange form of exceptionalist tunnel vision that infects Americans, that “spree killer” and “crazed gunman” are synonymous, but they are not. The worst spree killer in African history committed the majority of his murders with an axe. The bloodiest school killing in American history took place in 1927, and the perpetrator used a homemade bomb. Europe’s greatest mass killer set a fire; Venezuela’s used a hatchet; and South Korea’s — who until recently held the highest body count on record — used mostly stolen hand grenades. In just the last few years, America has seen crazed killers do their bloody business with knives, poisons, and even cars. Do guns make spree killings easier, and more tempting? Of course they do. Would they still exist in a world without guns? Hundreds of dead innocents will tell you they would.
What is so terrifying about spree killings is their irrationality. Gun laws can only stop the activities of the rational, the sane, the calculatingly malevolent; they can do nothing against the broken, damaged people in our midst who one day just snap and decide to take down as many people as they can. As a few level heads have noted during all the incendiary dialogue in the wake of the Aurora massacre, you always hear renewed calls for gun control in the wake of such horrors, but you rarely hear pleas that something be done about the woeful shape of mental health care in America. There are many factors that lead to such senseless and violent outbursts: the stigma and isolation of mental illness and our reluctance to address them; our violent social attitudes, and a cultural tendency to believe that violence is the easiest solution to a wide range of problems; a frayed sense of community that allows people to fester in loneliness, growing more malignant and resentful with no one there to know or care that they’re getting worse every day; the prevalent sense of ‘rugged individualism’ that tells you that it’s up to you to fix all your problems, and that you have no business interfering with someone’s private behavior, even if it seems to be that of a madman; a sensationalistic media that, by reveling in every microscopic detail of a spree killing, trains the next madman on what rewards he will receive when his time finally comes; a sociopolitical culture that doesn’t much believe that average people have much to offer society, or that it’s everyone’s responsibility to make a difference in someone’s life. Those are all very difficult things, and they’re all hard to build an action plan around. Easy access to guns is on that list of factors, but it’s way, way down; it’s just the one that requires the least thought and the least action, so it’s the one most people choose to wave around.
Art may be a mirror, but it’s a cracked and dirty one. We don’t often learn many lessons from art, at least about things that count, and when we do, it’s not always the lesson we want to learn. In the wake of the Columbine massacre, Gus Van Sant made a breathtaking film called Elephant in which he followed the perpetrators of a similar massacre through their final day, forever dropping tantalizing hints about why they did it. But Van Sant wasn’t trying to tell us why they, or anyone else like them, did it; he was trying to teach us a lesson about the folly of looking for reasons, for causes, for explanations, for signs in something that entirely lacked all of them. Why do these things happen? They happen because one day, a ruined mind, spoiled by any number of factors and growing more decrepit by the day, finally falls apart, and in an access of helpless rage, it ruins everything else around. Because it cannot be anticipated — because it is so irrational, so unpredictable, so beyond any form of prevention we have yet to come up with — it frightens and appalls us more than anything.
Gun control has its place, and I am fully supportive of what it means and what it can do. Nothing but admiration should be shown to effective regulations that can prevent fatal accidents, keep guns out of the hands of crooks and thugs, train people to be safe and sane, and rein in the worst excesses of our gun culture. But I remain highly skeptical that it can prevent spree killings, and while the NRA and its fellow travelers use such moments to scream hollow defiance over pools of innocent blood, I fear that those who use them to unleash vituperation at the gun culture are just as surely whistling in the dark.