Let’s Talk About Guntrolling

Yesterday, Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials backed down from an ongoing standoff with supporters of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who allegedly owes more than a $1 million for allowing his cattle to graze on publicly owned-land. The impetus for this de-escalation is not breaking legal developments – courts have already authorized seizure of Bundy’s cattle, which have in fact been returned to him – but rather the increasing likelihood of violence between law enforcement and the hundreds of “States Rights advocates” who have flocked to Bundy’s ranch in his support. These supporters include numerous self-appointed militia, many in full tactical gear and open-carrying assault rifles, men like Jim Lardy of “Operation Mutual Aid” in Montana, who commented to reporters that “We need guns to protect ourselves from a tyrannical government.” Bundy, for his part, says he “doesn’t recognize the United States Federal Government as even existing.”

Clearly, the specter of a Waco or Ruby Ridge-style siege is horrifying and unthinkable, and the BLM’s move towards de-escalation seems entirely appropriate and sane. But let’s pause for a moment and consider the double standards at play here. Heavily armed private actors, many from out of state, come to the brink of pitched battle with government agents over a white rancher’s million-dollar-plus tax bill, and the government backs down. And not just that. Despite the fact that Bundy’s status as a States-Rights poster-child claims fly in the face of Nevada’s own state constitution, and despite the fact that his supporters have already blockaded a Federal interstate and vowed to resist BLM intervention by “doing whatever it takes,” his cause is hyped in certain segments of right-wing media and lionized by GOP political figures including Mike Huckabee.

Now imagine if the scenario were a little different. What would be the law enforcement and GOP response if instead of drawing upon his ancestral claim as the descendant of 1880s Mormon settlers (Nevada gained statehood in ’64, BTW), Cliven were a Native American, say, a Tuscarora Iroquois, contesting a Federal claim of eminent domain on his tribal land? What if instead of being a white rancher who owed the Feds over a million dollars for use of vast tracts of public land, he were a 76 year-old African American Vietnam Veteran who forgot to pay $134 in property taxes on his Washington DC home? And what if in each instance militant supporters of similar complexions and dubious political affiliations were to gather en masse in the name of “Freedom,” toting sniper rifles and assault weapons, standing off with police, shutting down roads, and vowing to “pull the trigger if fired upon”?

Clearly, in our democracy, different folks are allowed to stand up for freedom … differently. And one of the ways you know that some Americans are apparently uniquely privileged when it comes to such expressions of freedom is that when they open-carry military-style weapons in public – in high-tension confrontations with police, even – they can do so with impunity. They’re not threatening you – in fact, it’s you who’s threatening them by questioning the appropriateness and prudence of their doing so. And if you do feel threatened, well, it’s your problem, not theirs. It’s guntrolling, pure and simple. And while the situation in Nevada may appear farcical, now of all times – in a week already marred by a horrifying act of violence perpetrated by a racist paramilitary – we would do well to consider how far our tolerance of trolling, and our own double standards, extend.

7 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Guntrolling

  1. donovanschaefer

    It’s the migration to the location that troubles me. We’ve talked a lot about how gun culture has a sort of apocalyptic aura surrounding it, how it doesn’t just supply people with a set of neutral objects, but collectively projects a mass hallucination of self-importance–a sort of MMO video game in which white men play out a particular set of fantasies. But seeing bodies moving to new locations to LARP seems like a new phenomena, as if gun culture needed to keep upping the ante in order to maintain the electricity its using to keep its players addicted to the game.

    1. Pat Blanchfield Post author

      I’m thinking a lot about the movement of people to Nevada as well. To some extent, it’s not new – there were a great many people who camped out outside the Branch Davidian compound in Waco to protest the ATF siege as it was ongoing, for example, (and their number included none other than future Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh) – and so these things have always been hotspots. But that’s more so now than ever, I think, given the role of the internet in allowing radical groups to network – there’s a forthcoming report from the SPLC that tries to correlate hate crimes and murders in particulars to posters’ use of Stormfront, and so yeah, in that sense, I do think that there’s a real dimension in which the virtual does become real in these geographical spaces, more so than ever before. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there are people at that ranch, like McVeigh at Waco, reading the Turner Diaries and just waiting for their moment to come.

      1. donovanschaefer

        Rather than phrasing it in terms of virtual/real, it looks to me more like the intensification of a particular network of affects such that bodies are pushed further along a spectrum of thinking–>talking–>moving. It’s that talking–>moving shift that seems remarkable here.

        I didn’t realize there were folks camping out at Waco. Were they armed?

  2. Pat Blanchfield Post author

    RE: Waco, there were indeed a lot of folks on the sidelines there – one of the features of its becoming such a long-running media spectacle, even after the Branch Davidians compound itself had been effectively sealed off. As to whether or not they were armed, that’s a good question – it’s been a couple of years since I did research on that, I’ll have to go back to look. I certainly don’t remember actual confrontations between armed protestors and ATF.

    RE: Affect / movement – this is interesting for me, I think we should talk about it more. I’m not as a proficient in the language of affect theory as I am in some other schools of thought and psychoanalysis in particular, and so for me talking about guns always involves a kind of engagement with fantasies collective and individual, and also – particularly on the collective dimension – hysterias. I think thus for example a lot about how fantasies about the seizure of property (and of guns exemplarily) are invasion fears, insults to fantasies of masculine potency, etcetera, and how guns represent a bulwark against that ramify in real, symbolic, and imaginary dimensions. In turn, I think it’s interesting how interests like the Koch-funded AFP have been using the Cliven case as a rallying cry and advertising it as a ‘Battle’ on social media – which both curries to those fantasies, foments them, and very literally marshals bodies to the ranch. Everybody gets caught up in these fantasies – with varying degrees of consciousness – and then, eventually, there’s a passage a l’acte, if not at the site itself, than elsewhere, because that’s how symptoms appresent socially. So, yes, talking, moving, and the pot stirs and bubbles.

    On another note, something I’ve been writing about a lot but haven’t posted yet here involves the slippage guns present in American legal and media discourses between talking / acting / threatening. There are a series of profound incoherences between how we treat various kinds of brandishing, menacing, assault with a deadly weapon, etcetera, that blur lines between when simply holding a gun (or even discharging it) is construed as an act of ‘speech’, an act of outright violence, whether or not it’s protected speech, etecetera.

    1. donovanschaefer

      Right, I think the affect theory-psychoanalysis translation wouldn’t be too difficult to pull off. Affect is very much about the language of fantasy, it’s the virtual/real divide that seems extraneous to your point to me. From the affective perspective, apocalyptic fantasies are already having material-political effects even before people show up in Nevada with light assault weapons. Those bodies are already situated on a spectrum of effects of power by virtue of the fantasies enfolding them; there’s no need to create a virtual/real split.

      All of which is to say I’d be very interested to read some of your stuff on the material effects of the gun even *before* the gun turns into violence. I’ve thought a lot about guns as material objects that reshape the flows of power in a space just by being there, even without a trigger being pulled, but haven’t been able to get my thoughts on it down yet.

      1. Pat Blanchfield Post author

        Right. I’m not really wedded to the virtual versus the real as a term of art in any particular way, was actually trying to draw upon the simulation / MMO / LARP stuff in your original reply above and that leaped to mind. I do think though that some of the fantasies at play here are more than just apocalyptic, or rather, that in the American context they’re overdetermined, repressed, and in all these kinds of twisted feedback loops – IE, fantasies of protecting female vulnerability, denial of male vulnerability, atavistic fears about vengeance for historical acts of violence (specifically racial violence) etcetera, and so all these things co-imbricate such that catering to one fantasy brings about the other (IE, men are sold guns to protect “their” women, but the consequent of indulging that fantasy is that those guns are more likely to kill them; being afraid of getting shot and then arming yourself makes you more likely to think others are armed too, etcetera). And of course these are totally bound up in the present moment – IE, for some, the Obama Presidency marries racialized fears with Federal Gov’t fears with masculinity anxieties, etcetera, in what is basically a perfect storm. In a sense then we could also talk about guns as fantasy-actuators, as sort of the shortest circuit between bringing fantasies to life in the world (which is a helluva way to put it). But of course the reality is much more than the fantasy, unpredictable, horrible, and damaging even to the person who thinks they’re in charge of it. And so to some extent – this is me just wool-gathering – I think you could say that the gap between that fantasy and the bloody reality – the way violence can’t be contained – fueled by capitalist pressures and historical trauma – is basically the quintessential American death drive.

        RE: Guns as materials, cool, I’ll see if what I have is something I can post or otherwise share for you down the line. Would be glad to talk about and eager for your thoughts. I should register at the outset that I’m not so good at OOO, and have some serious reservations about it.

  3. Debra

    This is so bizarre. Seems like there is this weird trend where white guys with guns can do whatever they please. Meanwhile anyone who doesn’t fit that category gets hit with the full force of the law. Non violent protesters get pepper sprayed or worse. Some people even go to federal prisons just for advocating for animal rights. Muslims can be tracked and spied upon just because. But if you are a white guy you just might get away with murder and advocating violent treason. Just because.


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