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Institutional Redundancy, Regime Change, and Timothy Snyder’s SZ Interview


So I’ve seen this posted around a bit and really enjoyed reading it (if that’s the right word for being simultaneously fascinated and horrified). I had read Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands, and, while far from being an historian, found quite compelling the argument that most of the killings of noncombatants in Eastern Europe by the Nazi regime and Stalinist forces (but especially the former) were committed outside of camps, for instance by the Schutzstaffel’s einsatzgruppen, as a function of a larger inter-imperial expansionist struggle.

I agree with one of the main contentions in this interview, namely that American exceptionalism allows Americans to ignore regime change when it is happening right under their very noses. Somehow, the patterns of German political dynamics during the 1920s and 30s are seen as being fundamentally inapplicable here in the States, and that’s a danger. And while Snyder doesn’t get into the specifics of government structure in the interview per se, it’s probably fair to say that the evolution of the German Nazi party from one party in a parliamentary government to being *the* government involved a lot of the same “layering” of parallel institutions that we see performed today in the US.

For instance, the SS itself (originally the Schutzkommando) evolved from a volunteer protection force for the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) of just 290 volunteers, which was grown into a million-person paramilitary force that included the Gestapo, Reichswehr, einsatzgruppen, and Waffen SS. Donald Trump’s use of a private security force overlapping with the Secret Service, as well as his connection with America’s most notorious mercenary, Erik Prince (new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s brother) have worried some observers.

In another example, the German People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof) was established by Hitler in 1934, following the Enabling Act (1933), to make redundant the old German Imperial High Court (Reichsgericht) that had infuriated him by acquitting most of the Communist defendants in the Reichstagbrand trial. The People’s Court regularly meted out death penalties to those accused of degrading the “defensive” capacity of the state. Trump has denigrated the courts and the judiciary on the grounds of state security when (as in the recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to block his immigration ban) their decisions run counter to his desires. (The lack of respect for judicial oversight and checks on concentration of power only being reinforced by a snot-nosed, supercilious advisor’s overtly totalitarian assertion that the President’s powers “will not be questioned.”) His vows to not only maintain, but grow, Guantanamo and reintroduce the use of “enhanced interrogation” will depend also on the increased use of military tribunals in place of courts.

Another parallel institution just established is Steve Bannon’s “Strategic Initiatives Group”, perceived by some as an attempt to make redundant the more establishmentarian National Security Council, despite the anodyne assertion that it is geared towards bringing an inexperienced president up to speed on affairs of state.

But in the end, I think Snyder’s analysis of the role of American exceptionalism doesn’t even go far enough. American exceptionalism doesn’t just allow liberals and moderates to comfort themselves by ignoring ongoing regime change under the assumption that “the system” will correct itself. I would argue that the concept of American exceptionalism is itself being hijacked to facilitate the regime change. No longer is exceptionalism framed on the basis of the Constitution and the balance of powers established therein. Rather, it is increasingly based on an admixture of ethno-nationalism, economic autarkism, and state-industry intercalation that is itself strikingly similar to the German exceptionalism of the 1930s. No, history does not exactly repeat itself (and if it does, it sure doesn’t seem like comedy this time around). The Nazi eagle is not the parent of the American. But they’re both birds of prey.


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Brexit and austerity

In the hours following Brexit I wrote on social media:

Dear Britain,

I have no standing on this issue and fully respect your democratic process, which is certainly more transparent than what we’ve got going on here right now. Furthermore, I will likely be visiting you to take advantage of the most enticing exchange rate since my childhood, and whilst there may apply for a job for which EU citizens are no longer prioritized.

But holy sh*t, what the f*ck did you just do?!? Did you vote on the basis of most toupée-like hair of the best known proponent? That may bode ill for our presidential contest if we follow suit. Perhaps you can now blow up the Chunnel and charge the French for demolition costs, Trump-style.

But truth, yo, once you’ve recovered from your hangover, we need to talk. Basically all pluralistic societies need to have a few deep-and-meaningfuls.

In the wake of the vote, the following observations seemed so banal, so simple, so utterly self-evident, that I had not bothered posting them anywhere — they didn’t seem so deep or meaningful. However, considering that well-educated, fairly intelligent, and even arguably well-meaning people like David Cameron can so dramatically fail to grasp the situation, I’ll have a go anyway.

Economic globalization involves the movement across national borders of any or all production factors – capital, goods, and, yes, people. Even though there are almost always overall societal gains from trade, the lower and middle classes of many countries suffer from economic globalization. That is because their particular local combination of production factors produces goods and services that may be more expensive than those produced by other local combinations of production factors plus ever-dropping transportation costs.

Okay, so when people are put out of work, they need to gain the skills they will need for a new line of work that promises to be more competitive, or which is naturally less vulnerable to international competition. They will need to go back to school. In the meanwhile, will need to have a place to live and study, food to eat, and decent healthcare so that they don’t, you know, suffer mental breakdowns, get stuck in healthcare debt-spirals, resort to self-medication, fail to raise their kids to be decent people, etc. This has led to the long-established observation, perhaps most famously made by Dani Rodrik back in 1998, that increasing openness to trade requires increased government spending as a percentage of GDP. Here is a bad copy of his original graph. (Note, by the way, fellow Americans, that the US is the least open economy in his sample. Small countries in Europe, by contrast, are extremely open, and thus require more spending.)


A country whose lower and middle classes are suffering from the effects of globalization may in turn suffer fiscally. That is because the bulk of their tax payers are, well, not billionaires. At this point, they have two basic options: First, they can spend more money on retraining and education, healthcare, nutrition, and affordable housing programs in the hopes of boosting long-term competitiveness. But that will require either raising taxes on the rich (eek!) or borrowing.

Second, they can claim that, given the fiscal crisis, they need to go into austerity mode and stop social spending. If they choose Door No. 2, to make themselves feel and look less like assholes, politicians will (a) blame the poor and then wind up policing them rather than supporting them; (b) extol the virtues of the rich (“The rich already pay most of the taxes!” – leaving off the part about how the system precludes lower and middle income growth); (c) try to convince themselves and others that the rich will eventually come to the aid of government and make more jobs, perhaps in the yacht-making industry; and if/when the first three approaches wind up sounding insufferably condescending and alienating what is turning out to be a growing segment of the electorate, (d) pretend that the problem is all about the one globalizing factor of production that you can easily put a (dark-skinned) face to: immigrants. (Of course, tactic (d) makes them look more, not less, like assholes.)

The problem in the US, as in Britain, is not about immigrants. At all. It does not come from abroad. It is about economic redistribution within our respective countries so that gains of globalization can be shared.

The uncomfortable compromise between the Left and the Right in America in recent decades has basically involved funding what social programs have been grandfathered in during more generous eras (the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, SNAP) at least partially via borrowing, whilst lowering taxes on the rich (as in 2007). This is because Democratic politicians intermittently fought rearguard actions against conservatives defending progressive taxes, and then were totally bought off by Wall Street anyway. The Obama Administration has thankfully eschewed talk of austerity, thereby helping the US economy to hobble ever so slowly toward recovery, and now even the Right can’t muster under that banner. In the UK, Osbourne’s austerity package has had a similarly repelling effect on voters, and UKIP has taken up the slack. The fact that Cameron presided simultaneously over an embrace of austerity and the Brexit vote manifests a strange disconnect in his thinking between the two.

So, yes, there are important discussions that we as pluralistic societies need to have about what it means to be humane, respectful, open-minded, tolerant, and life-affirming in the face of diversity. But that conversation needs to extend not just to migrants, but also to *all* those who need tools and support to make the future something to look forward to, rather than fear.


Response to the question “how much of it is intentional (e.g. Zinn’s contention that the wealthy interests pit lower classes/races/threats to power against one another to preserve their elite status) or Hanlon’s Razor in action?”:

In some ways, the problem, in the narrow, technical sense, is infinitely more diagnosable than the reasons we are stymied in addressing the problem.

But I don’t think that I can really be binary about the choice you set out: I think it’s defensible to assert that our social, economic, and political systems are fundamentally geared to disfavor minorities, the poor, and migrants (with disproportionate risks at intersectionalities). But I also think nuances abound in this space and worry that it’s too facile to inculpate all beneficiaries of the system as “little Eichmanns” — many politicians on both sides of the aisle (but probably preponderantly Democratic) I would characterize as simply out of touch, and Skinner-conditioned not to bite the hands that feed in our highly monetized electoral system.

I find it generally more difficult to defend Republicans, since their ideology is really founded upon a refusal to acknowledge redistribution as a necessary part of meritocracy. Take their attacks on the estate tax, for instance — in order to concurrently uphold the values of the free market *and* wish to abolish the estate tax, you must believe that the karmic credit of one person’s work ethic should roll-over to their next of kin. That starts to look an awful lot like a tacit assertion that the current economic status quo is indicative of a normative eugenic hierarchy.

Aside: This isn’t to defend the Democratic party, though. The Clintons, in particular, were disastrous in a lot of ways — for developing countries probably to an even greater extent than the US. But perhaps the most pathological part about them was the extent to which they redefined what it meant to be Democratic. I think a lot of people my age who grew up with Clinton as the first Democratic president in their lifetimes thought that must be what progressivism looked like, when it was really just an opportunistic hodgepodge: an unholy matrimony of politics and deregulated financial markets; progressive-ish income tax policy but regressive capital gains taxes; more appointments of women and minorities to cabinet positions than during any previous presidency, but also passed DOMA and the Violent Crime Act. His legacy was in some ways one of moral hazard vis-a-vis the Republicans (they were just rewarded and emboldened by Clinton’s easy centrism) and a tendency toward “rational” accomodationism.

But at the extremes, I think it would be hard to argue that both Farage and Trump aren’t making conscious and explicit attempts at race-baiting. Trump doesn’t even try for plausible deniability any longer — bare bones legal deniability suits him just fine.

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Thoughts on university campus militarization

I first noticed a shift in attitudes after the Umpqua Community College shooting last October. Sure, there was the usual news cycle evincing shock, then anger, then sadness, provoking the tired old debates about whether gun laws would do anything to prevent that sort of atrocity. But the shock seemed play-acted, and the anger a kind of diluted atavism echoing past anger. People seemed suddenly to believe at that moment that this confirmed a status quo that needed to be lived with, coped with, endured. I heard friends discuss seriously whether they should spend hundreds of dollars on Bullet Blocker backpacks for their kids. And my university colleagues agitated for active shooter trainings and the retrofitting of classrooms with emergency buttons, bullet-proof windows, and lock-down equipment.

The fact that campus shooters are most often students – as with the disgruntled UCLA PhD student last month – hasn’t deterred Colorado, Utah, and now Texas from passing campus concealed carry legislation. Such legislation obviously runs counter to the wishes of the great majority of people who actually spend any time at universities – not least of all the professors, who tend to be targets of frustration when they give out grades below, say, A- to increasingly clientelist-minded students – and has obvious adverse impacts on the ability of students and professors alike to concentrate on their work in relative peace of mind. And to those who think that more guns somehow bring about less violence in a massively multiplayer deterrence game, the price tag for increased police presence in the this Chronicle of Higher Education piece tells a different story.

One of the ironies of this militarization of US university campuses is that while it is racking up costs, state budget cuts are jeopardizing the reason anyone is on campus in the first place. In Wisconsin, state legislators have stripped tenure protection and $250 million from public universities, for instance.

The long-run effect of these twin processes in many states can only be to drive out those professors who are talented, reputable, and just plain lucky enough to leave public universities. Same goes for students, though they may also need to be rich enough to attend a private school. Education regresses to being the private luxury good it was in previous centuries instead of the commonplace public good required in contemporary society.

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On good guys and bad guys in gun violence

I study, among other things, the markets for small arms – have done since Newtown. And while I usually don’t weigh in after horrid massacres like Orlando, I’ll make an exception here because of a simple question a friend asked me:

“What is the breakout of gun homicides in terms of assailants and victims? Bad-guy-shoots-bad-guy? Bad-guy-shoots-good guy?”

If you’re wondering where his framing language comes from, my friend is a conscientious, well-educated, liberal public defender from an economically and racially marginalized community. But he’s now getting in debates with right-leaning colleagues who invoke the “God-given right to self-defense” against the NRA-fueled specter of home invasion. Using their own terminology (“good guys” / “bad guys”), my friend would basically like to argue that most firearms violence is not directed at home owners, so you don’t really need a gun.

Let me start by saying that I have no clue what the breakout of gun homicides is in those terms. I’m not a “firearms researcher”, nor a criminologist. I don’t really like bean-counting, and like even less cross-tabulating the frequencies of death by typology. I’m an economist and I mostly deal with price data and such. Moreover, it’s actually pretty difficult to break out in those terms: most available domestic crime data sets focus either on victims or on perpetrators, but not *incidents* constructed dydically by aggressor/ victim relationship. This is actually in contrast to many data sets on global armed conflict. But my best attempt at answering the question (without actually doing any work) would be something like this:

First, don’t forget that the human costs of firearms violence vastly outstrip the sub-category of homicides. Roughly 65% of all gun-related fatalities in the US are suicides, and someone is three times as likely to commit suicide if there is a gun in their house. There are also relatively small numbers of horrific firearms accidents each year – 500 or so, often killing toddlers and children, inadvertently perpetrated by them, or both. And firearms-related injuries – the proverbial GSW – outnumber firearms homicides by around 8 to 1.

Second, the economic costs of gun violence in this country have been estimated at $229 *billion* each year, or around 10 times more than the total annual economic benefits from sales, wages, and ripple effects throughout the national economy. Not really surprising, given that a gun may cost as little as $100 and, if it takes just one life, has deprived the economy of an entire lifetime’s earnings and productivity contributions.

Third, the number of victims of mass shootings is generally dwarfed by that of “garden variety” violence: often, though not always, gang-related; often, though not always, urban; often, though not always, in under-served areas with large minority populations. (And, while I’m at it, I’ll also mention that while mass shootings are often carried out by assault rifle, the vast majority of firearms homicides are carried out by handgun – it’s a ratio of 16-to-1. To a certain degree, then, the call to ban assault weapons is a call to defend the relatively privileged from gun violence. Which I support. But why not extend the protection to others, as well?)

But – and it pains me to have to state the obvious here – the good guy / bad guy dichotomy is unhelpfully simplistic. What about one of the 484 deaths caused by police this year, most of which by firearm? Anyone who has followed the litany of stories – take the one of a couple of days ago of Michael Moore, a black kid shot allegedly for talking on a cell phone mistaken for a gun, or that of Walter Scott last year, on whose dying body a gun was intentionally planted – will find it racist and morally repugnant to place these in the “good guy shoots bad guy” category. But just denouncing police as “bad guys” (though some surely are) is equally counterproductive if real reform is to be made.

And what about domestic firearms violence? The fact that, all else equal, you are more likely to be killed by a gun if you have one in your house than not has a lot to do with domestic violence that merely escalates in the presence of firearms. And while it’s theoretically possible that such escalation is gender-neutral, in fact it’s usually not. And surveys indicate that if women answer for a household, they are less likely to say there is a gun in the house than if men answer for the household. While it’s possible women are, for whatever reason, more apt to lie on this point, a more likely explanation is that men keep guns that their partners don’t know about. In any case, slapping a “good guy” or “bad guy” label on either party in a domestic violence scenario misses the point.

But more than just simplistic and unhelpful, the tendency to recreate the good guy / bad guy dichotomy is downright pathological, and on a massive scale. Calling a homicide victim a “bad guy” just because he was a young black man who belonged to a gang doesn’t exculpate the rest of us. In fact it does the opposite. We are all culpable to the extent that we do not reject a system that dehumanizes sizeable portions of our young, discriminates against them, ghettoizes them, underfunds their educational systems, gives them no good options (some are even forcibly recruited into gangs), floods their communities with guns, and then blames them for the violence that takes place there. We are culpable to the extent that we, consciously or no, believe that “they should just all kill each other”, or that someone “got what was coming to them”. We are culpable if we fail to recognize that no one deserves to die violently at the hands of their fellow person.

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Putting a price on small arms could be an invaluable policy tool

In 2015, the United Nations adopted a set of 17 new “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), number 16 of which is calls for the promotion of peaceful and just societies. Illicit small arms and ammunition supplies are commonly thought to be destabilizing factors in many areas of the world, making violent conflict potentially more likely, longer-lasting, and more intense. Some areas of Mexico, a quick 15 drive from here, are testament to this fact. And Mexico’s small arms problem pales in comparison with those of some other countries. Accordingly, target 16.4 under SDG 16 states: “By 2030, significantly reduce illicit […] arms flows”.

But what does that mean? And how will we know? There is currently no good way of detecting and quantifying international illicit arms trades. Illicit trades are notoriously difficult to detect and quantify: obviously participants have incentives to shield their activities from public scrutiny. This being the case, numbers of seizures of illicit small arms have become the UNODC’s major metric for inferring volumes of illicit arms flows. But such statistics are highly flawed: Cross-country comparisons may be flawed due to divergent capacities or corruption levels, for instance. And even comparisons between time periods within a single jurisdiction may not hold if regulatory priorities change.

These problems lead to a kind of reverse moral hazard: countries may actually be discouraged from intercepting illicit arms and ammunition flows for fear that the increase in official seizures will be interpreted as a real rise in illicit flows.

The Solution

Some colleagues and I – collectively founders of a research consortium called the Small Arms Data Observatory (SADO) – have proposed a new method for detecting and quantifying illicit trade volumes by testing econometrically for price changes on the black market. Ours is the first effort I know of to quantify illicit global flows of small arms, and it seeks to do so without relying on problematic seizure data.

Our idea in a nutshell is statement of simple microeconomic theory: if demand factors – homicide rates, per capita income, government transparency, and ongoing violent conflicts, to name a few – and licit supply can be perfectly controlled for in a given market and time period, negative and positive deviations from predicted prices will respectively indicate net illicit imports to, and net illicit exports from, that market.

We have now created beta versions of two pioneering datasets on illicit small arms prices. The first compiles thousands of individual transactions from dozens of countries around the world, culled from media outlets, reports, journal articles (See Figure 1). Encouragingly, we’ve found that small arms prices show great variation from place to place, and year to year. Counter to one popular and resilient myth of small arms availability in the developing world, you can’t, in fact, buy an AK for a chicken. You might have to pay 2 or 3 cows in Uganda, or a loaf of cocaine in Colombia. The second dataset derives from the first, but is generalized to the country level, in theory allowing for analyses that will yield net illicit arms flows.


Figure 1. Illicit transactions of small arms by type and price, 1965-2015.

We’re not there yet. But in the meanwhile, we can already tell a few interesting stories with price signals. Let’s take a few examples from our neighbors in Latin America. Prices for small arms rose steeply in Haiti following the re-instatement of Aristide in 1994, dropped for about a decade, then spiked again in the wake of a UN Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH) from 2004 onward. Colombia saw a sharp rise in prices for assault rifles following a 2004 amnesty/buy-back program for paramilitaries and guerrillas.


Figure 2. Small arms price indices in four Latin American countries.

Very generally, where prices are low there is likely a surfeit of weapons: in economic terms, gun supply exceeds consumer demand. But low prices can translate into lethal consequences. In Brazil, after a long period of generally high prices, costs started dropping since the mid-1990s. The county now has on average 42,000 gun homicides a year. In Mexico, there has been a gradual decline in prices over the past 25 years, likely owing to a lively traffic in arms across the U.S.-Mexico border. The country has experienced over 138,000 homicides since 2006, 95% of which have been committed by firearm.

Accompanied by data on illicit arms seizures, this approach has the potential to rate the effectiveness of countries at intercepting illicit small arms trades. Even more promisingly, we may also be able to identify the most flagrant violators of international laws such as the Arms Trade Treaty and staunch these deadly flows.

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A note on the California Consensus (CalCon) and empirical peace research

Bullets whizzing by your head have a way of lodging in the brain, even if they mercifully miss striking you. One of my formative professional experiences occurred about 15 years ago crossing an ordinary street in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Gunfire erupted around me as one gang fended off the attempted theft of their armored SUV by another. The story of how armed urban gangs became central actors in first securing, and later undermining, the security of a democratic Haiti is as involved as it was far from my mind as I dove behind a nearby pickup truck and hoisted myself up by the side mirror to keep my legs out of the way of bullets ricocheting off the asphalt.

One of the central lessons I drew from this experience was that small arms have big impacts on humanitarian, economic, and political life. As former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon noted:

The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems – and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Some areas of Mexico are testament to this fact, with over 138,000 homicides committed since 2006, 95% of them by firearm. And Mexico’s small arms problem pales in comparison with those of some other countries. Accordingly, target 16.4 of the UN’s newly-adopted Sustainable Development Goals states: “By 2030, significantly reduce illicit […] arms flows[…].” The UN’s 2013 Arms Trade Treaty now regulates the sales of conventional weapons in order to curb irresponsible transfers. For as the prices of small arms and ammunition rise and fall, so too do the costs of violence.

Yet there is currently no good way of detecting and quantifying international illicit arms trades. Illicit trades are notoriously difficult to detect and quantify, be they in small arms, illegal drugs, counterfeit products, or even humans. Trade facilitators usually have incentives to shield their activities from public scrutiny. This being the case, numbers of illicit small arms seizures have become the UN’s principal metric for inferring volumes of illicit arms flows. But such statistics are highly flawed: Cross-country comparisons may be biased due to divergent capacities or corruption levels, for instance. And even comparisons between time periods within a single jurisdiction may not hold if regulatory priorities or regimes change. These problems lead to a kind of moral hazard: countries may actually be dis-incentivized to intercept illicit small arms and ammunition flows for fear that the increase in official seizures will be interpreted as a real increase in illicit flows.

My new research project, the Illicit Small Arms Trafficking (i-SAT) project, jointly led by myself and Nicholas Marsh of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), seekes to crack this touch empirical nut. We have painstakingly assembled a dataset of prices of small arms and light weapons on black markets around the world. We think that if we can build statistical models that control for both demand-side factors (e.g., population, income, homicide rates, etc.) and legal supplies as revealed by commercial trade databases, we can detect and even quantify the net illicit inflows and outflows of small arms. The basic idea is that if observed priced in a given country and year deviate significantly from our predictions, it will tell us something: lower prices will imply that the total supply exceeds the licit supply. Significantly higher prices will suggest that there are exports unaccounted for by licit trade figures. We hope in future to dramatically improve the precision and responsiveness of these models with web-crawling algorithms capable of generating real-time updates for a global monitoring system.


This research project was just one of many presented on April 13th at the California Consensus for Peace Through Technology (CalCon for short) – a unique event co-convened at the Kroc School by myself, Robert Muggah of the Igarapé Institute (Rio de Janeiro), Gary Milante of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and Lindsay Heger and Conor Seyle of the One Earth Future Foundation. CalCon was intended to catalyze more policy-relevant and rapidly-responsive peace research via the application of technology. This inaugural year had a focus on challenging violent movements. Invited presenters – some of the most innovative and promising in the world – gave 5-minute pitches to a room of technologists, funders, and policymakers. They then had an opportunity to workshop their ideas with interested attendees. Projects ran a wide gamut. One project proposed a new secure platform for accessing “big data” from telecommunication corporations to inform the targeting and design of humanitarian and development interventions. Another proposed a crowd-sourced online forum for engaging the Mexican public in the identification of those disappeared by drug trafficking organizations and other groups. My colleague, Prof. Choi-Fitzpatrick, presented his idea for creating an automated system for estimating protest sizes via drone imagery.

There is, of course, nothing inherently peaceful about technological change. Violent actors ranging from legitimate militaries to the Islamic State to urban gangs are pioneering ways of harnessing technology to enhance their capacity for violence. In doing so, they continue a very long tradition. Those of us seeking to bring about a more peaceful world must also adapt to new platforms and learn new tools to compete effectively in today’s evolving landscape. The conscious application of advanced technology to peace research has the potential to base the practice and policy of peacebuilding on relevant, real-time empirical data to an unprecedented extent.

CalCon has begun to put the Kroc School on the map as a force for innovation in peace research. For my part, I’ll be tracing those bullets that passed me by – and those that continue to find targets, cutting short the lives of roughly one half million people each year.

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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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