Safe Spaces: Guns in Neoliberal America

It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything here. Writing for publications is great, but there are also ways in which that kind of work can exist in tension with more open-ended thinking. This blog is a space where I can tackle that kind of thing. And where I can talk about something that I’m not seeing many other people talk about much, if at all: the place of gun violence and gun control against the landscape of contemporary American neoliberalism.* This is an immensely complicated issue, and I’m planning on trying to tackle it with more focus and at length elsewhere. But I think we need to start talking seriously about how the American appetite for guns relates to our contemporary market, political, and affective landscape.

Because whatever you may think of it, we already have “gun control.” We just have it in a very precise neoliberal sense, complete with its own rhetoric of freedom of choice, consumer rights, and individual responsibility. Likewise, America’s booming market for guns exists in no small part thanks to deregulation, a collapse of faith in public institutions, the widespread pillaging of social services, the redistribution of resources upwards, and more.

But what’s driving that market is neoliberal affect as well. I think that the current tenor of many American gun cultures (and, yes, there is more than one) can be directly tied to the ethos of the militarized surveillance state, to the operations of the security state, and to the same forces that have given us a privatized carceral state. This state is a behemoth that simultaneously generates fear as its reason for being and outsources monetization of that fear at every possible turn. These forces don’t operate in a vacuum – they’re deeply related to one another.

A case in point: if you follow headlines and watch political speeches, you’ve probably noticed a growing shift in rhetoric from advocating for “gun control” to talking about “gun safety.” You don’t need to be George Orwell to see “control” and “safety” as two sides of the same coin, and you don’t have to be Michel Foucault to see appeals to “safety” as also being very much about ideologically coding people’s relationships to one other and to the state, stoking, legitimating, and channeling their fears even as it promises to alleviate them.

I’m not taking any policy advocacy stance here, but I do think we need to be honest that, beyond the slogans, we’re dealing with institutions, practices, and attitudes that are durable and interrelated with each other. Moreover, since this America, these factors are embedded within a deep matrix of white supremacy, gendered violence, and other forms of oppression as well. Forget the epiphenomenal dog-and-pony show of the primaries: whatever future “gun control” (or “gun safety”) we may eventually wind up getting will necessarily emerge from that backdrop, and be constrained by its horizon of possibilities. We need to confront that possibility rather than just bemoan how “other countries don’t have this problem.” That’s true – they don’t, and they never did. But we do.

How does this play out, for us, in America, in our contemporary neoliberal moment? Well, one way to think about gun control and gun violence in general involves emphasizing spaces, and the flows of things through them. Spaces can be literal (streets, schools, offices, etcetera) but also metaphorical, just public “space” in general. The things can be guns, bodies, capital, attention, fear and “safety” itself. Today, in American academic spaces, there seems to be more attention to safety than ever. I’m not just talking about active shooter safety drills, or “gun free zones,” or absurd anti-shooter countermeasures, but about the idea of schools or class rooms as “safe spaces” or spaces that should be safe. Safe not just from gun violence, from physical violence, from sexual violence, but from other modes of violence as well.

But gaze at the national landscape and you see a sudden apparent paradox. In the name of making  schools “safe spaces,” some students, faculty, and activists will clamor for a student paper to be boycotted or a controversial teacher to be fired; elsewhere, in the name of making a campus “safe,” students, faculty, and activists will insist on expanding concealed carry rights to campuses so that everybody can bring guns with them to class.

We could mine this juxtaposition for all sorts of reductive thinkpiece fodder (“PC Culture Run Amok in Our Schools!” or “Gun Culture Run Amok in Our Schools!” – take your pick) and draw a lot of fine-grained, ultimately bullshit comparisons, but I think we should just let the juxtaposition sit for a minute. Let’s just contemplate, for a moment, how the safety of faculty and students boils down to regulating the presence and flow of ideas – and of weapons. What’s at stake here?

An emotional undercurrent runs through all of it: a sense of fear, of precariousness. This emotion is no less real even if some of its expressions may strike us as exaggerated or pernicious. Because whether or not they are safe in practical terms, campuses are not experienced as safe. Empirically speaking, they certainly don’t offer everybody equal grounds for the same sense of safety: it’s hard to overstate how much campuses are already saturated with emotional stress, abuse, and financial precarity for practically everyone on them. And so people reach for what guarantors of safety they can, be they slogans or sidearms or both.

I’m going to be teaching again in the Spring. I find myself half-jokingly contemplating a scene where I begin a class by saying “Trigger warning: gun violence!” and a jumpy student pulls out a Glock and starts shooting. It’s an absurd scene, but, in honesty, what isn’t absurd at this point?

Guns and bodies; capital and souls. Thinking and writing about guns for a decade now, it seems to me that most folks don’t care about the flow of lead and blood in spaces they don’t live in or care to think about on the regular. Straw-purchased guns drop bodies in Chicago and Baltimore and most people don’t care. But suddenly guns and bodies appear in places they do care about, or that they could see being inhabited by people they know or who look like them — now, that’s a five-alarm fire. Untraceable guns killing socially marginalized people in the streets? That’s where they’re supposed to be, the implicit logic goes, killing whom they should. But legally bought guns killing people in spaces that disrupt the precious flow of human capital? A national crisis.

Our unique brand of white supremacy and neoliberalism may well be able to tamp that crisis down. We certainly have the technology and profit motive to make everybody we deem valuable stakeholders in the American enterprise feel safer, or at least, feel just safe enough that we can continue to monetize their generalized sense of fear in other ways (analogies to the War on Terror are more than incidental here).

But can America – in 2015, or 2016, or ever – offer much in the way of a corrective to the deeper structure, to the underlying, fundamentally unequal distribution of who-gives-how-many-fucks-about-whom?

Your guess on that one is as good as mine.


*Update, February 2016: I want to comment that there *is* indeed a superlative book on neoliberalism, affect, and debates over gun carrying, which I hadn’t read in its entirety before writing this – Jennifer Carlson’s “Citizen Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline.” It’s an all-around brilliant and non-pareil intervention into contemporary debates over guns by way of rigorous ethnography and an unflinching analysis of race, class, and gender within the context of the American post-industrial landscape, and I cannot recommend it more highly.

4 thoughts on “Safe Spaces: Guns in Neoliberal America

  1. davidyamane

    Good to see you back in the blogosphere, and very pointed and provocative thoughts here as usual. As you know, Jennifer Carlson in her book Citizen-Protectors does situate contemporary LEGAL gun carrying in the context of neoliberalism. Although she focuses more explicitly on the political economy of neoliberalism, I think the affective aspect which you draw particular attention to is in there as well. And something very much to be appreciated from you both.

    Trying to understand people’s stances toward guns — pro, con, indifferent — is very much connected with their emotions. I have thought about this with respect to risk assessments and “rational” vs. “unreasoning” fear — e.g., the work of Daniel Kahneman on cognitive bias and Dan Kahan on “cultural cognition.” I’m sure you’re familiar with all that — it only reinforces your points here.

    Speaking of which, you may have let your own get the best of you when you wrote, “expanding concealed carry rights to campuses so that everybody can bring guns with them to class.” You mean everyone over 21 who is licensed to do so, which is a very small fraction of everybody. You can still oppose it as a policy, but at least should do so without exaggerating for effect.

    1. Pat Blanchfield Post author

      It’s good to be back – thank you for the feedback. Jennifer’s book is great, still (very slowly) reading. I’d also like to talk to you more at length about fear (have been thinking about this a lot). RE: The “everybody” – no intention of implying that such laws would go around existing statutory limitations on who can get a CC. Rather, writing from the standpoint of someone who’s been in various roles on campuses for a long time – as a student, as a professor, in admin work etc. – the affective upshot is that “everybody” can be carrying, any sector of that community (now of course some already have been, and would anyways, but that’s another story). Meanwhile voices on campus on multiple sides invoke the democratic accessibility of such laws as both a virtue and as a problem. Worried that your students will be armed? Get a gun yourself. Worried that your professor or the guys at the frat next door may be armed? Get a gun, too. Unsurprisingly, this has extended to debates over campus sexual violence, where people advocating for (not) arming students make similar appeals to safety, again on both sides, but to different ends. Worried about a potential rapist? Get a gun. Worried that your rapist might have a gun? Then you’d definitely better get a gun, too. And the thing is, these scenarios (and the consequences – IE, someone buying a gun and having it on campus) can be sold as either a positive outcome (IE, making them safe) or presented as nightmare scenario (IE, making things less safe) while remaining more or less formally identical – and playing ultimately to similar affective chords. Of course, the injunction for those encouraging campus carry enjoins that people responsibly follow the statutory age requirements – but that’s hardly incompatible with the neoliberal model. In fact, I’m almost surprised that we don’t see more, say, under-21-year-olds campaigning for gun rights for their 18 year old peers precisely BECAUSE they’ll be going to college and need to be safe there. In some ways, that we haven’t seems another sign of commitment to the neoliberal structures and ideology over and above commitment to gun rights as such.

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