Eight Thoughts on Guns and Freedom

Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists. – Sarah Palin (NRA annual meeting, 2014)

The presidential election of 2016, probably the biggest “Fuck You” election in our history. Donald Trump going upside our head, with impunity, over and over again (weirdly like Biff in Back to the Future). Talk about the return of the repressed….
Guns give us a pretty clear and simple way to think about this gross (orange) hairball we’ve just coughed up. In the United States, guns are collocative with a host of other right-wing cultural tropes that have found their way into our political idiom (white supremacy, states rights, limited government, homophobia, biblical fundamentalism, military zeal, homespun rural values and toxic nostalgia, among others).

Did we assume (because the data / numbers / facts told (and tell) us so) that gun owners were / are simply an atavistic remnant of a fading age of Caucasian male celerity, in which the gun, like many an appendage from our earliest species origins, survived only as a useless, slightly maligned encumbrance? Did we assume atavistic meant harmless?

Recent major national studies of gun ownership (the NORC General Social Survey and a detailed survey conducted by Harvard and Northeastern University public health researchers) confirm long-term trends toward a bifurcation of gun ownership that closely tracks the polarization of the political parties in the United States. Because guns are so expressive of deeper national political and cultural currents, the way we think about them greatly matters for the future of political discourse, political opportunity, and public policy in the United States.

1. Demographics

21st-century demographics don’t favor gun owners, who remain predominantly older white males in rural parts of the South and Midwest. In the next 50 years, the nation (if it survives in its present form) will become more urban and less white. The Trump election and the emergence of an explicitly white nationalist political minority does not change this reality. More young people will grow up in an environment where there is no functional need to own a gun and where the idea of owning a gun seems alien. For these reasons, trend lines do not objectively favor gun owners.

Of course, guns are prevalent with young minorities who live in cities, but gun possession among this population is largely associated with gangs and drugs. In other words, gun possession within this urban youth population is an immensely destructive accouterments of youth, not an article of religious faith. Revamping our drug and incarceration policies to keep kids in school and out of jail, and to remove the market incentives for illegal drug trafficking, would likely make a big dent in the percentage of young minorities living in cities who possess firearms.

2. Protection

Notably, the percentage of Americans who say they own a gun for protection has risen precipitously at the same time that crime has fallen dramatically (even with the recent surge of violence in predominantly black urban silos). For this reason, it is difficult to make the argument that the perceived need for “protection” is based in reality, on actual probabilities of meaningful threat. Instead, we must wonder whether the urge to own a gun for personal security rests more on a different, less concrete understanding of what constitutes a threat, and how best to handle that threat, whether it is imagined or real.

Guns give people the fantasy of control, not the reality of control, so to understand the firearms ownership obsession, we need to appreciate what fantasies are at work. For example, there is a significant fear among whites of black youths. But of course we also know that most violence involving young black males is geographically specific, committed against other black males, who more than likely know each other personally. This reality removes any reasonable argument for stand-your-ground laws, concealed-weapons-laws, open-carry-laws, give-everyone-assault-rifles-laws, and let’s-allow-guns-in-schools-parks-churches-and-bars laws.

3. Politics

People in the United States generally don’t question the need for our state governments to license both cars and their drivers. It is self-evident to just about everyone that cars in poor condition, or in the possession of the wrong people, become weapons that menace our safety.

The logic for gun-control laws is virtually identical to the logic for licensing cars and drivers. And so it should not surprise us that one of the biggest obstacles to reasonable gun-control laws, particularly in less densely populated states, is the outsized influence within their governing bodies of white, male, and rural representatives. It is precisely among these populations where one would expect the logic for regulating ownership and use of both firearms and motor vehicles to be almost equally suspect.

The intimidating rhetoric and organizational virtuosity of the National Rifle Association reinforces the rural-white-male bias within state legislatures. The effect has been to give interests favoring extreme gun rights disproportionate power to open the floodgates to gun ownership and to block laws that would enact even the mildest background check or gun safety provisions. Of course the other major source of influence in this debate, when one looks further under the skirts of the NRA, is the firearms industry.

4. Constitution

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Okay. Super.

Citizens of other nations generally feel no need to own guns and their rate of gun violence is far lower than it is in the United States. We shouldn’t underestimate how weird and creepy our national obsession with firearms appears to people in other countries around the world. Second Amendment zealots fully appreciate how far they have removed themselves from the global mainstream when it comes to opinions about gun ownership. They just don’t care.

Appealing to an abstract “Constitutional” or “God-given” right to own guns in response to the condemnation of pretty much everyone else in the world really is not useful. Most legal scholars would agree our nearly 230-year-old Constitution, which is one of the oldest in existence, and which has never had a fixed meaning but has always been in instrument of political conflict, is long-past due for an overhaul. The U.S. Constitution was drafted for a nation entirely different from the country in which we now live. As for our right to own guns being God-given, well, let’s wait to see if God ever speaks on this topic (or on any other).

5. Definitions

What is a well regulated militia? What does it mean to say this militia is necessary to the security of a free state? What is the origin and nature of this right of the people to keep and bear arms? What are the scope and limits of infringement?

For that matter, what is the definition of arms? And do we need to continually (but randomly) adjust the definition of the constitutional right to keep and bear arms to whatever lethal production value presents itself to us? In the 21st century, we each can manufacture (untraceable) weapons using 3D printers. Pretty much anyone can buy an assault rifle that on its own would have obliterated the entire Continental Army. We can now weaponize drones. How do we know which of these capacities for extreme lethality falls under the protection of the Second Amendment? How do we decide?

How do we balance this vague and uncertain (because entirely decontextualized) right to keep and bear arms against other rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution? What is the relationship between guns and freedom, anyway?

6. Ontological Fundamentalism

Constitutional fetishists – and certainly Second Amendment gun fetishists – are like other fundamentalists (Biblical and Koranic and Talmudic and otherwise) in the predilection for assigning mystical, unassailable powers to historically arbitrary objects (or people or events). We can deduce evidence for the arbitrary (and so essentially false and manufactured) and misplaced (because essentially dead) reverence for history in the tendency of ontological fundamentalists to assign more literal (and legal) significance to the sacred texts as they become more distant in time. In this sense, the Second Amendment, particularly to the degree it collapses the entire meaning of the Constitution and of the American political experiment into itself, is little more than a scam and a ruse and a blight upon the nation.

7. Human Nature

Guns don’t kill people, people do.

When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

Guns are only tools.

For decades, gun rights advocates have parroted these slogans without really feeling any need to justify their claims logically or support them with evidence. Indeed, logic and evidence both clearly indicate that the abstract concept of a “person” is woefully inadequate for capturing the range of psychological circumstances and conditions to which every one of us is subject on a daily basis. At any given moment, even the most rational or disciplined or experienced among us is capable of acting irresponsibly or dangerously — out of rage or despair or incompetence or inattention or indifference.

We are imperfect beings. Put a perfect tool of destruction and mayhem in our hands, and you can well predict the havoc we are capable of unleashing.

8. Freedom

Gun rights advocates in the United States sequester their odd claims under the sheltering canopy of faith and freedom. Gun ownership has become a bizarre, frenzied religion. A cargo cult that worships the smooth barrel of a gun, a false idol, with its prosthetic, prophetic promise that we can blast our way into Heaven. The language of the Second Amendment has itself become fundamentalist literalism, obsessively parsed for divine meanings and prophecies, the authority that justifies itself. To paraphrase Sarah Palin, violence is how we baptize our enemies and confirm our freedom.

However, neither gun ownership nor the Second Amendment can confer, exalt, or secure freedom. Enhanced destructive capabilities do not make us free. Nor can we subsist on parchment freedoms inscribed in the Constitution. Indeed, to make a piece of technology or a piece of sheepskin the enabling condition for our freedom is to trivialize beyond recognition the meaning of freedom, and its importance to our nation.

Freedom is a spiritual condition of awareness, an intellectual endowment of foresight and reflection, a physical gift of health and wholeness, and a social capacity for conversation and communion. We are free when we can trust the spaces and the silences that separate us from our brothers and sisters, an interim that lets us fully see ourselves, and know ourselves, through the reflection in their eyes and in the rise and fall of their breasts.

The gun destroys the interim. The gun takes away our freedom.

Appendix: Public Data on Gun Ownership

In this (now foreshortened) era of open government and data transparency, the demographics of gun ownership in the United States remain opaque. Which poses a conundrum for gun rights zealots. On the one hand, the National Rifle Association has pushed hard to limit collection and disclosure of gun purchase and ownership data. The NRA also has successfully curbed research for public health studies regarding the use and abuse of guns.

At the same time, the NRA, along with various hunting, target-shooting, concealed-carry, and open-carry advocates, have recently made a big deal of the claim that gun owners are no longer simply older white guys with beer bellies and a pickup truck. One of the most aggressive claims is that women are flocking to gun ranges, arming themselves, and fully embracing the idea that guns = protection and guns = empowerment.

But gun people cannot have it both ways – stifling data collection and data disclosure concerning firearms use, while at the same time grandstanding about demographic trends in gun ownership based purely on anecdote and speculation. Happily, new data sources provide at least glimmerings of insight into the state of the gun market. So let’s test some of the gun ownership demographic claims of our firearms friends.

  • Shrinking percentages of Americans own guns. The percentage of Americans who live in a household with a gun has fallen to approximately 22 percent, its lowest level in nearly four decades. (this data to some degree contradicts Gallup and Pew surveys indicating that gun ownership rates have remained relatively constant over time, tracking at about 42 percent, with a high of 52 percent in 1993).
  • Partisan identification matters. The percentage of Republicans who live in a household with a gun has remained steady at about 55 percent since 1980. In this same period, Democrats who say they live in a household with a gun has fallen from 55 percent to 22 percent.
  • Gun ownership patterns track population movement and partisan shifts. Gun ownership remains stable in the American South and in rural parts of the nation, both of which have become solidly Republican in the past four decades. At the same time, urban dwellers more consistently identify as Democrats, are a larger percentage of the population, and percentages of urban dwellers who own guns have dropped in line with percentages for Democrats.
  • Guns sales have surged. In the most recent decade, annual gun purchases (as measured by background checks) have more than doubled, at least partly fueled by the fear of more legal restrictions on gun ownership (and possibly also fueled by fears of a black America, with the election to the presidency of Barack Obama).

Gun rights spokesmen will reliably tell you that no one in their right mind would be truthful about their gun inventory, since honesty invites government scrutiny, surveillance, and seizure. The logical difficulties with this assertion — which emerge from the troubling effort to prove a negative, over and over again — tells us far more about the mind of the gun rights purist than the validity of national opinion survey results. But the assertion itself does point us toward the following set of paradoxes.

  • More lax gun ownership laws. Fewer gun owners. Even as gun ownership laws in state after state have loosened to allow concealed-carry and open-carry privileges to pretty much anyone legally allowed to own a gun, and even as the limitations on gun ownership have generally slipped away, fewer Americans choose to own guns.
  • Less crime. More guns owned for protection. By and large, gun ownership remains a hinterlands phenomenon and a regional phenomenon. Moreover, in the urban areas in which lower percentages of the population own guns, violent crime has continued to drop (although there is no consensus on causation). At the same time, more Americans, and more women, do say they own guns for protection (although largely in the statistically less-dangerous regions of the country).
  • More guns owned for protection. More gun suicide. Each year, guns cause the deaths of about 30,000 Americans. About 20,000 of these gun deaths are suicides. An increasingly high percentage of suicides in the United States are committed by older, white men in rural areas.
  • Less gun control. More paranoia. Legislators have opened the flood-gates for concealed-carry and open-carry permits. Secondary and online markets for guns operate with impunity. We may be experiencing a historically glorious moment of legislative and judicial dispensation and validation for American gun owners. Yet delusion and paranoia within the gun-rights community has never been more intense.

Thirteen Ways to Think About the Election

 “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
   – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Snark Tank.
 I could not watch the presidential election debates. The visuals and audio distracted and agitated me. Everything about the debates that made the Saturday Night Live sketches amusing – melodrama and pathos, personal insufficiency and insufferable arrogance, and prurient and bottom-fishing viewer sensibility (let’s see the train wreckOMG!  WTF! HaHa!)  – only depressed me, dragging me to the edge of vertiginous despair, imagining a reality show called Snark Tank (with a nod to Sartre and Nausea), in which I have as much desire to watch as I do to hang myself. Unfortunately, our national trials may only have just begun. I am bunkering down.

This Will Not End Soon.  In this stretch run of the nation’s most hideous presidential election campaign since 1860, exhaustion is palpable. Dread pervades mundane details of our lives, and surely this dread is justified. We yearn for surcease, but the election itself will not bring peace. As we instinctively know (but would generally like to forget), the election itself (and the improbable ascent of the improbable, possibly insane, Donald Trump) is not cause but effect. The deep structure of hatreds ripping apart the nation will persist, probably for years, and may plunge the nation into unprecedented mayhem, because the underlying mechanics of the crisis are a toxic, embedded, and unyielding mix of demography, technology, economics, and culture. Breeding a deeply emotional and psychological response entirely opposed to the interest-based rationalism by which liberal democracy justifies itself. In the parlance of the psychology of personality disorders, we are experiencing a surreal national condition of emotional dysregulation. Donald Trump’s most enduring legacy may be the degree to which he has liberated and sanctioned and normalized a thuggish, emotionally charged politics of fear and intimidation.

Backlash. The lurid temptation exists to focus on personalities during presidential election campaigns, never with more avid, gob-smacked awe than in 2016, particularly as we wrap our heads around the sociopathy of the Trump freak show (parturition of zombies manifesting from burning corn fields). But obsession with personalities is a mistake. To stay sane, we simply cannot avoid attention to cultural dynamics rooted in geographic partition and economic disjunction, forces, pendulously sweeping back and forth across the nation like thunderclouds spawning their own high winds, crackling with electricity. In the heady days immediately following the 2008 election (a brief moment when the memes of Dope and Nope and Rope had yet to ravage the positive message of Hope), few anticipated the inevitability of such a primal backlash to the reality of an African-American president, and the degree to which this response postholed electoral and legislative reaction into a rictus of reactionary revolution now immanent within the American heartland.

Existential Trump. Parsing Trump and Clinton campaign speeches, roundtable events, and primary debates since January 2015 reveals an emphasis by Trump on science as an instrument of security and defense (Clinton emphasizes science as a driver of economic development, STEM education, and applied knowledge). Trump’s instrumental and technical understandings of science reflect the zero-sum, territorial, and extractive dynamics of his psychology (and of his appeal to the extractive, mineralized heartland), in which any gain for one party requires an equivalent loss for another party. The primitive nationalism he espouses is essentially a brute-force, mercantilist narrative of enforcement, domination, deception, and indifference to consequences of one’s actions. In this narrative, science is only useful insofar as it provides a means to secure our national interests, which (pretty much by definition) means enforcing our will elsewhere, for which the byproduct is greater insecurity for other nations. Once again, we can see in this view of the world a pitiless Hobbesian sensibility, not much more refined than a war of all against all.

Legislative Collapse. Donald Trump promises to deliver the world to his partisans in his first week as president – the overarching themes of this carnivalesque purge/pogrom/program being gleeful deconstruction of Obama’s signature policy achievements and vengeance upon his supporters. Some of these wrecking ball initiatives will require Congressional assistance, but many will not. In the absence of legislative sanction, almost all of Obama’s most important initiatives depended on executive actions. The problem, of course, is that Congress no longer legislates. And without a considered (or unconsidered) legislative firehose, any presidential legacy remains inherently fragile, easily subject to reversal by subsequent executives. And we need to understand that Congress is now held hostage to inquisitorial, predatory Tea Party priests whose spiritual mandate is to destroy the democratic legitimacy and efficacy of governing institutions that bind together the national fabric. It’s an unimaginably sad and bitter state of affairs.

White Supremacy and the Republican Party. White supremacy is culturally the natural, logical end of Tea Party politics. White supremacy revanchists, while a minority, are not marginal to the campaign. They are its energy and its spirit, spiked, toxic tails furiously wagging the besotted dog. One outcome we cannot discount is that a Trump victory will liberate the Alt-Right to provoke the race war that has always been their final aim, a kind of millennial rapture exalted and burnished by Donald’s Trump’s own lunatic, grandiose posturing. After brief, pause, the craven return of Republican Party minions to their own vomit ominously prefigures a moment when government turns its sights on the most vulnerable members of our society, with implicit sanction for a para-militarized Citizen Comitatus to take matters into their own hands. To think those whom they target will not respond in kind is naive at best.

Demographic Divisions. The New York Times published a useful, data-driven analysis of the demographically narrowed white rural base of the Republican Party, which even as it only fractionally represents the fullness of the nation, has been able to exploit the surplus concentration of Democratic voters within relatively smaller numbers of urban Congressional districts. This urban-rural gash through the nation, while always an axis of cultural difference and political  conflict, has exploited the outflux of whites from cities into isolated pockets of self-referential loops of nostalgia and fantasies about the historical and contemporary realities of American life, cementing the influence of the Tea Party across a vast but inbred swath of the nation. There is room for hope. Perhaps. Many reliably Republican congressional districts in exurban swaths of the country are themselves shape-shifting under the pressures of economic globalization, industrial and agricultural automation, racial and ethnic migration patterns, and environmental disruption. With white populations in these areas aging and in decline, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the existing foundations of politics in rural Republican states will collapse. What fills the void, however, remains an open question.

Perspectives on Populism. It’s crucial to emphasize that elites from both political parties, isolated within their own insular, self-referential bubble, can take the lion’s share of the blame for this dizzying descent of American politics. Rather than explore and probe the sources of fermenting discontent and alienation, particularly in the wake of the global financial and economic meltdown in 2008, coastal elites (none more than the Clintons) simply elided the very real agonies of this flyover population from their consciousness in favor of an entitled “politics as usual,” demarcating themselves from activists by invoking the shibboleth of “populism”. And are now reaping the whirlwind of their own obduracy. In fact, recurring references to the Trump (and Sanders) movement as manifestations of populism are anachronistic and misleading. True populism was an authentically democratic American protest movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that focused on creating cooperative agrarian institutions to empower farmers (mostly in the South and in the Midwest) buckling under the tightening grip of emerging national and monopolistic financial, commercial, and transportation companies. Populism eventually devolved into the cranky and racist fulminations of Southerners such as Tom Watson and Pitchfork Ben Tillman, but contemporary use of the term is anachronistic and misleading. The “populist” shibboleth is now almost exclusively used as a patronizing term for groups and ideas that threaten the hegemony of globalizing elites. The term also serves to narrow the scope of discourse to a kind of political incrementalism that (almost by definition) fails to take seriously the legitimate fears and concerns of “ordinary” Americans. Trump may be emotionally crippled and dangerously self-consumed. But millions of Americans do support him (astonishingly large numbers, in fact), not all are Alt-Right racists, and we need to understand far more deeply the causes and consequences of their alienation from existing political institutions.

Perspectives on Globalization. The ugliness of the presidential election in the United States is not an isolated phenomenon, and not reducible to domestic political theatrics. Indeed, one finds politicians across the globe, and more specifically in Europe, exploiting economic and ethnic disquiet to encourage and incite nationalist, neo-fascist spasms that current politics in the United States largely echo. The common denominator of these nationalist movements is a generalized and despairing distress in the aftermath of the global economic and financial crisis, which has gradually transformed itself into a roiling anger at political and financial elites and encroaching nonwhite immigrants. The prevailing emotional state throughout Europe, as well as in the United States, is combined revulsion and contempt for elites and outsiders that directly results from the vagaries and mysteries of global capital and population flows, the resulting erosion of stable cultural identities demarcated by the formerly clear (or at least ostensibly clear) boundaries of nation and race, and the corresponding failure of globalization’s reputed economic benefits to accrue to what we might call each nation’s flyover population.

Liberal Democracy, Capitalism, and the Nation-State. One way to ponder the meaning of these global developments is to remember there may be nothing inevitable about the specific cluster of philosophical, political, economic, and geographic configurations we associate with “the West” and with the “modern era” (let’s call these configurations the emergence in the last 500 years of civil society, capitalism, the rule of law, and the sovereign nation-state). In fact, comparative and historical perspectives clearly tell us that the liberal democratic, capitalist nation-state is disjunctive and exceptional, and entirely vulnerable to collapse when confronted with tectonic environmental forces that have levelled other dispensations throughout human history. In this context, the flaying of the liberal body politic at the very moment when global capitalism seemed poised to definitively establish itself, is less a surprise than it is an expected historical outcome, as is reversion in this environment to authoritarian, militarized, threat-sensitive political regimes that successfully impose often-brutalizing values of security and control. Hobbes trumps Locke.

Constitutional Collapse. The U.S. Constitution is a nearly 230-year old ossified legal document of questionable relevance to modern American politics, except insofar is it lends political cover for national attachments and fetishes Tea Party marginals have used to essentially rip a new asshole for the nation. I’m talking about you, Second Amendment, which so far as we can tell from political debate (including the Trump-Clinton presidential debates), is the only part of the Constitution that anyone cares about (beyond sanctification of the idea that non-human corporations can claim the rights of human individuals, perhaps to a greater degree than human individuals themselves). We can partly blame the purblind originalist and textual fetishes of Antonin Scalia (his scalding recursive / rhetorical flourishes continually telling us the Constitution essentially serves merely itself) for the brittle state of the Constitution, its recent failure to provide robust support for policy debates vital to national life in the 21st century, not the 18th century. In the absence of any tensile, elastic conformity to the needs and concerns of a fractured America in the age of autonomous vehicles and predator drones (not flintlock rifles and mule-drawn carts), the Constitution can legitimate and sustain very little beyond the fundamentalist buffoonery of those who fixate on its most cryptic and archaic provisions to provide whole-cloth sanction for crackpot schemes and skullduggery. In the current crisis, the Constitution is not our friend.

Servant Leadership. What can we ask of our leaders, and of ourselves, going forward? For starters, humility. Politics in the modern era is craven, but it needn’t be that way. The catastrophic Tea Party assault on public institutions and public service does not obviate the enduring realities and requirements of effective political leadership and communication. Democracy requires legitimacy. Democracy requires trust. Democracy requires the pure of heart, the felt sensibility that our leaders exist only to serve us, not that we may serve them. Hillary Clinton should be wiping her rear end with Donald Trump. But Donald Trump exists precisely because her choices and actions and affiliations (and those of her husband) have permanently detonated her legitimacy for a vast swath of the nation. Oh, that we did not remain so chained to our histories.

Solace in Hard Times. Read Lord of the Rings. Over and over.