Guns and Understanding
I have no intrinsic interest in guns. I have never handled one and have no desire whatsoever to do so. Seeing firearms up close (on military or security personnel, for instance) is something I tend to block out or mentally neutralize.
Like so many excursions, my foray into this topic began with a tweet of a tweet: Tressie McMillan Cottom retweeted Ryan Cooper’s pointer to Pat Blanchfield’s treatment on the rise of the assault rifle in American culture and politics.
Patrick Blanchfield writes extensively about US culture and gun politics. This concluding passage, from “Recoil Operation” and featured in Cooper’s tweet, drew me in:
In its perfection of these mechanics, the AR-15 embodies a quintessentially American fantasy for engaging the world: maximum impact, minimum pushback, all bundled up in sleek aesthetics and sold at a hefty profit margin. America’s rifle is thus an overdetermined object: the symbol of the violence we visit on others, and which we thrive on exporting. We are accustomed to standing on one side of it, the right side; we expect to have our finger on the trigger, or to be standing behind the counter and taking a check in return. Only when we imagine being on the wrong end of our own icon, when we envision the AR coming home to America, to do to us what it is has done to others abroad, only then, do we recoil.
Strong, compelling writing like this works like a magnet for me. I read Patrick Blanchfield’s full article in The New Inquiry and it left me chilled, appalled and well, upset. So I tweeted.
The trouble was (and still is) that I have no business with guns but I do care deeply about society, about our existence as a species, and about what our kids are learning from us as we go about our day-to-day. (One recent example of a rifle being auctioned off by a church to raise money to buy school supplies for needy children illustrates the overlap of interests and mentalities at play in the culture at large.) In the United States, I no longer see how it is possible to care about these big, overarching themes and ignore the role of guns in American society and the impact of this phenomenon on the world. (An optical illusion sculpture by Michael Murphy conveys this expertly.)
Based on two long reads by Patrick Blanchfield, I want to share what I am coming to terms with thus far.
- The United States has some peculiar aspects of culture related to gun ownership, use, sales and distribution.
This will not surprise anyone. After so many mass shootings, we have become accustomed to hearing about how Americans are singular in the ‘developed’ world in our number of deaths by firearms per 100,000 citizens. And yet, Blanchfield points out in his gun control article that more than 6 million Americans own 10 (!) or more guns, and that these owners are overwhelmingly white. Depending on where you are in the country, procuring a firearm may be a labor and paperwork intensive undertaking or it may be remarkably simple, calling for little more than cash and some form of ID.
While many point to the Second Amendment of the Constitution as the basis for this uniquely American enthusiasm for private gun ownership, Blanchfield suggests:
…whatever the status of the individual right to bear arms in the nation’s Constitution, an overwhelming number of state constitutions guarantee it in no uncertain terms. If the Second Amendment were to disappear tomorrow, the on-the-ground legal reality in forty-four states would remain the same. (From “The Gun Control We Deserve”)
Clearly, private gun ownership is more than a thing. For large swaths of the population it is much closer to a given, a fundamental right; and for some a part of what it means to be an American.
2. The firearms economy is extensive, entrenched, global, and booming on too many levels to count.
There’s a single graphic that Blanchfield advises readers to open in a separate tab: https://armsglobe.chromeexperiments.com/ It’s an interactive display of global small arms imports and exports. He writes:
Year by year, look at how the lines blossom; see where they come to land. America shines like a star, its lines rushing upwards like fireworks; there is no comparison.
The weapons industry has a healthy home in the United States. A strong domestic market comprised both of state organs (military and law enforcement agencies) and enthusiastic private consumers make up a sizable source of industry wealth. Then, there’s the field of weapons exports at which the US also excels, working with trading partners both aligned and at odds with frequently shifting US foreign policy positions. Long story short: There are boatloads of money being made building, selling, importing, and exporting firearms in the world and the United States is uniquely set up to profit from each of those avenues to alarming degrees.
3. Gun ‘control’ exists already in multiple forms and variations. The much more difficult and in fact, messier questions revolve around what kind of gun control we as a society want and for whom.
There are many state and local laws which regulate the purchase and use of firearms among private citizens. Technically, those all are forms of gun ‘control.’ The fact that these rules and regulations can vary dramatically from state to state suggests that such decision-making remains a product of strong local and regional political interests. Further, Blanchfield offers this context for understanding why gun control remains mired in talk, rarely resulting in action to disrupt the status quo:
At the deepest level, the schizoid landscape of American gun control is the product of two phenomena, both baked into the American past and protean in their contemporary manifestations. First, a long history of skirmishes over who should be armed and how — fraught battles that pivot on questions of race, class, masculinity, and the role of law enforcement.1 Second, the synergy between American militarism and capitalism: a perennial entanglement that has produced a society in which there are more guns than civilians to own them. (From “ Gun Control We deserve”)
Guns are the last thing I want to talk about, think about, wrestle with or get a firm handle on. The proliferation of and wealth generated by firearms in the United States and the world has been a willful mystery to me for so long. Yet here I am armed with quotes from Patrick Blanchfield, the first author who was able to make me care this much. The first author who was able to shake me awake with two strong essays — making it plain that the questions and solutions around safer societies, diminished threat of gunshot deaths in the US and abroad are more complicated and fraught than are acknowledged in media headlines. We who do not own guns, who struggle to understand why guns are so significant to so many people in our neighborhoods, cities, counties and states, we have more work to do. With respect to the world, the United States has a gargantuan role in the export and sale of firearms and this is inextricably tied to the politics of how firearms of all sizes and power levels are promoted and regulated. As citizens we have a hand in this state of affairs.
The fiery debates over guns that regularly suck the air out of American public discourse rarely acknowledge these realities. This is in part because reckoning with an endlessly complicated mess of technical particularities, local oddities, and regional differences makes for poor national political theater. But acknowledging the forces and structures that have gotten us to our present moment would also be an ugly business — revealing that no one’s hands are clean, and that they’re largely tied, too. (From “the Gun Control We Deserve”)
“No one’s hands are clean and …they’re largely tied, too.” This sentence haunts me.This statement cannot refer only to elected officials. Or arms dealers. Or gun owners. It is all of us who have voices, who have a vote, who have the capacity to reason and the willingness to dig deeper than our surface wounds.
If you do nothing else after reading this — please go read both Blanchfield articles: “Recoil Operation” and “The Gun Control We Deserve” and follow all of his links to further data. Pause. Reflect. Repeat. Then let’s talk.
images via CC0 via Pixabay.com