Guns, Race, and Political Anomie

America’s chronic affliction of mass shootings – last week’s atrocity at Umpqua Community College being the 994th mass shooting in the US this year alone – has become so accepted even post mortem articles lamenting the nation’s policy paralysis in the face of a predictable cycle have, themselves, become entirely predictable.

Indeed “predictable” is too mild a word for a recurring phenomenon that feels scripted at this point. Explosions of outrage follow on the tragedy, and gun control groups like Everytown for Gun Safety crank up their PR machines and Constant Contact accounts. Shortly thereafter come the blame-gamey ripostes. The underlying driver of gun violence isn’t lack of gun control, but rather deficient public mental care. Or a culture of violence with its shooter-style video games. Or America’s “Wild West mythology,” which continues to whitewash the institutionalized genocide that accompanied the country’s territorial expansion via the reassuring notion of divine providence.

Each of these has points in its favor (I’m particularly sympathetic to the latter); but none of them point a clear way toward meaningful policy reform. The sense that we are powerless to prevent these incidents was crystalized in the response of populist presidential candidate and intellectually acrophobic blowhard Donald Trump to the Umpqua massacre: “You’re going to have these things happen and it’s a horrible thing to behold, horrible.” (Jeb Bush also offered the unhelpful observation that “stuff happens.”) The problem of enacting policy reform on this issue is of course complex, but has a lot to do with a toxic intersection between the erosion of democratic institutions and racism. Fashioning a coherent and rational US policy on guns is a long-term project that will need to go hand in hand with the strengthening of democratic institutions like voting rights for all.

In Which Politics Figures

The classic leftist rebuttal to assertions like Trump’s – namely, that boatloads of empirical evidence suggests plenty of policies that have been adopted in other industrialized nations, and could be adopted here, to prevent mass atrocities – misses the point. The point is we don’t adopt those policies. Thus the sentiment of mounting despair epitomized in Dan Hodges’ viral tweet: “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”

The refusal to subject gun ownership to the same cost-benefit calculations as other aspects of public policy is not fundamentally a function of a spurious quasi-religious belief in an inalienable, God-given right to own a gun. And it even goes beyond the profits of gun manufacturers represented by the NRA lobbyists (though that’s a huge piece of the puzzle). Industry interests cannot be successfully translated into policy without at least some popular support.

Many on the ultraright see gun ownership as necessary to defend freedom against the tyranny of an over-reaching, socialist-leaning, unconstitutional state. Ben Carson recently commented that he never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” Less offensive is the quotation often trotted out by pro-gun activists and perhaps dubiously attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government” (sometimes quoted as: “The best defense against tyranny is a well-armed populace”). Facile cracks about the futility of countering the full military might of the United States with an AR-15 notwithstanding, this sentiment begs a big question: Why does the pro-gun movement consider arms the first, best defense against tyranny? Why not our own democratic institutions?

Well, sadly, because our own democratic institutions are failing us. Donald Trump’s summation of the situation as a hopeless status quo is apposite, not just because of its representativeness of a conservative Zeitgeist, but because he himself personifies contextual uncertainty of whether the US is a democracy in reality, or rather a pluto-oligarchy. Donald Trump’s personal wealth both endears him to, and separates him from, his constituency. His ostensibly meritocratic success is lauded by a white lower-middle class for whom family incomes and political influence that those entail have been declining since 2000. As economist Mancur Olson suggested and social science now confirms, economic elites and organized groups representing them greatly influence US policy; democratic opinion does not.

But does political disaffection really bear on the right to bear? My and my colleagues’ own research detecting and quantifying the traffic of arms across the US-Mexico border required that we first control for the determinants of domestic demand. Interestingly, we found that while the percentage of a county’s population that votes Democratic is indeed negatively correlated to firearms demand, the percentage of a county’s population that did not vote for either major party exhibits stronger positive relationship to gun sales than even Republican voting.

The NRA, one of the three most powerful lobbies in Washington (the others being the AARP and AIPAC), is Janus-faced by nature – it finds itself at the intersection of what economists call a “two-sided market,” between suppliers of and demanders for firearms. On the demand side, the organization purports to defend Second Amendment rights of its members and constituency. On the supply side, punching far above its weight in terms of the size if the industry it represents, the NRA successfully drafts and pushes policies outside democratic forums in the interest of gun manufacturers.

The interests of the suppliers don’t always correspond to those of gun owners and buyers. The NRA and the Republican leaders they influence take more extreme positions on firearms than most registered Republicans – for example, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, who helped push the NRA’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida’s legislature in 2005. Given that three-quarters of gun owners lean Republican, this suggests either that the NRA represents the interests of arms manufacturers better than gun owners, or the NRA includes many politically disaffected in its ranks – or both. It is obvious that stoking distrust of government among the NRA’s members generates huge profits of the arms manufacturers represented by the NRA, as it has done in each year preceding an election involving Barack Obama as a candidate for US president.

This political anomie among gun supporters is suggestive: those on the right who do not feel represented in the US political system, or who have been so frustrated as to drop out of participation within it, are likely the ones who are most keenly paranoid about government overreach.

In Which Race Figures

Given a long historical intercalation of white conservative and NRA interests, as well as the nation’s growing populations of color (non-Hispanic whites are now “majority minorities” in California, New Mexico, and Texas), non-democratic policy formulation is just what many gun supporters are in favor of. The paradoxical result seems to be that pro-gun activists quote the founding documents and fathers of the one of the world’s oldest democracies to defend themselves against majority rule.

Max Weber famously postulated that state sovereignty was predicated upon a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within its nominal territory. Democracies purport to draw their existential justification from their ability to represent the will of the people. And of course, we can’t talk about the intersection of representational democracy and the “legitimate use of violence” in the US without bringing up race.

From early in American history, various levels of government were involved in carrying out, sanctioning, or simply turning a blind eye to armed and other violence against minorities – especially around denying or undermining voting rights and other forms of participation in self-governance to minorities. Through armed violence, whites in the South could have their cake and eat it, too: slaves counted toward their congressional representation (or at least three-fifths of each slave did), but slave interests were represented in no way. (Stating the obvious now, the States’ Rights movement was, and is, often just a cover for permitting local, more racist governments to continue discriminatory practices without oversight or accountability.) Thomas Jefferson may (or may not) have actually said that the best defense against tyranny was a well-armed populace, but he definitely and famously described slavery as a wolf the nation held by the ear: “…we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” And the restriction of guns to white hands were the principal means of holding that ear. In colonial and post-Revolutionary America, most gun laws were aimed at prohibiting their sale to Native Americans and, in Southern states like Tennessee and Virginia, banning their ownership by free blacks.

A spate of recent events – from the neighborhood watch member gunning down black teen Trayvon Martin, to a South Carolina police officer shooting Walter Scott in the back, to the mass murder at a black South Carolina church by a white supremacist shooter that finally brought down the Confederate flag from the State Capitol – only confirm the fact that the continued use of armed violence to impose the will of a privileged minority imbrues this country’s politics and society. To the extent that middle and lower class whites feel their government can no longer be counted on to carry out or sanction minority-directed violence on their behalf (heck, they can’t even count on Southern Republican senators to defend the Confederate flag!) they will insist on their ability to take matters – and guns – into their own hands.

This dynamic defines the unholy union between racist politics and the gun lobby in the US – despite the NRA’s rather weak attempts to build its African American membership of late. Indeed, during the Civil Rights Era, the NRA lobbied for gun control laws like the Gun Control Act of 1968, largely as a means to keep guns out of the hands of angry Black Panthers and other African American activists in the wake of that decade’s race riots. A leadership coup staged within the NRA in 1977 swept Harlon Carter into power – a man responsible in his youth for the vigilante killing of a Mexican teenager he believed had stolen his family’s car, in a story that parallels that of George Zimmerman – and a new mandate for the organization to fight all gun control measures.

Minority representation in government is a threat to continued white political dominance. In effect, when we ask why rational gun control measures cannot be adopted in this country, the answer has much more to do with the recent and perhaps pending attacks on representational democracy – from the Supreme Court’s 2013 partial repeal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, its decision in Citizens United giving corporations the ability to donate unlimited funds to political campaigns, to state-level attempts to curb minority voting – than it does with some uniquely American cultural obsession with violence. Enfranchisement would mean greater consultation of those who most often find themselves looking down the barrel of a white man’s gun.


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