Tag Archives: gun control

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.

Real Talk

I’m going to be frank here. In the wake of Charleston, there’s been a lot of thought-provoking conversations about mass shootings, gun violence in general, and, inevitably, “gun control.” Many of these conversations seem divorced from reality at multiple junctures. Here’s what I think should be stipulated as the stark facts against which the seriousness of any discussion of “gun control” should be measured. They are specific features of our political process, our contemporary cultural landscape, and past history that demand acknowledgement, whatever your position on “gun control” may be.

1. There are at minimum 280-310 million guns in private hands this country. Plenty of their owners vote, and a hard-core group that will not compromise on gun rights does so with particular regularity and high impact in party primaries in key states.

2. The market for guns is not slowing down. Moreover, polling and market sales data indicate that there is a particular growth in favorable attitudes towards gun ownership and a correlative increase in gun purchases among African Americans. If you are white and scorn that impulse, I think you should reflect hard on why – and you should probably read this book, too. In any event, that expanding market of consumers is unlikely to vote against their own gun rights, especially since “gun control” has on numerous historical occasions been wielded specifically to crack down on African Americans owning guns.

3. If the murder of twenty-six toddlers and teachers in one of the wealthiest communities in the nation wasn’t a tipping point in terms of generating a counterbalancing grass-roots mobilization of pro-“gun control” voters in this jaded, violence-numbed country, then no single dramatic event ever will be. Period, full stop, end of story. There might be cumulative impact years down the line, but that’s a complicated discussion for another time.

4. On the national legislative level, lawmaking in the House is broken, and dominated by legislative capture. Not only is the Senate just as broken, its makeup skews votes on gun issues in favor of extremely low-population Western States where gun ownership and a fierce protection of gun rights is baked into voters of all affiliations.

5. On the state level, militant pro-gun actors have successful pressured legislators into expanding gun rights through a series of bellwether actions. Open Carry activists have entered State Houses and the personal offices of opposing lawmakers to tell them that voting against expanding gun rights is treason – with the obvious penalty being death. If you don’t think that impacts legislator behavior, you are fooling yourself. Because as Texas has proven, this tactic works. And mark my words – we will see much, much more of it in the next two years.

6. As far as the courts are concerned, since DC v. Heller, SCOTUS has enshrined individual Second Amendment rights more firmly than ever in American history. This has sparked a cascade of ever-expanding State-level court challenges and “preemption” laws which will only broaden gun rights. This also is not going to slow down.

7. President Barack Obama arguably never could have brought about “gun control” even if he had made it his sole priority in his first term; the fact that he couldn’t after Newtown only cemented this. The particular character of events in Charleston, in my opinion, pre-empts any substantive action on his part from the outset, and makes “gun control” a dead letter for the rest of his Presidency.

Now, even if all the above weren’t true, and “gun control,” somehow, miraculously, were to manifest on the horizon as an actual possibility, I think any serious talk about such “gun control” should also acknowledge as realities that:

8. “Gun control” and gun violence have been equally and inextricably bound up with white supremacy and white supremacist violence since before this country was founded.

9. Any Federally imposed registration process, mandated buyback program, or massive confiscation would quite likely generate violent resistance unlike anything this nation has seen since the Civil War — while also inflating an already abusive Security State apparatus ridden with white supremacy. And, as Alex Gourevitch compellingly argues, any such effort at “gun control” would also inevitably be marked by profound racial disparities and injustices in enforcement.

Whatever your position on “gun control” is, I think these are basic premises that should inflect it one way or another. They should also shape your choice and consideration of analogies when comparing “gun control” in the US to other places (Australia among them).

For my part, in addition to these premises, I believe some other things. I think that gun violence in general and mass shootings specifically implicate white supremacy at nearly ever possible juncture: in their genesis, their enactment, their representation in media, their treatment by our medical and criminal justice systems, and more. Hell, you can’t even define what a “mass shooting” is or count how many we have without immediately encountering complexities of racial framing: per most law enforcement calculi, “mass shootings” encompass acts of violence (gang shootings specifically) which decidedly do not correspond to the popular media association of the term with rampage killings carried out by young white men. I think this terminological instability is itself an index of the power of white supremacy to shape how we frame violence and measure the value of some lives over others. Likewise, I believe even Sandy Hook itself would have been unthinkable if not for white supremacy, and that the gendered dimensions of gun violence also implicate white supremacy as well.

I know some people may take issue with these other beliefs, but I think the nine assessments listed above share a sound grounding in reality. If you disagree, let me know, and I’m glad to talk. Because talking is important. We need to talk about Charleston, we need to talk about white supremacy, we need to talk about racist terrorism, we need to talk about gun violence, and we need to talk about mass shootings. But as Jennifer Carlson wisely cautions, and as I also believe, we should beware of facilely collapsing discussion of one concern into another or of gesturing at them all while saying nothing substantive about any. And all these conversations have to be reality-based — because at the end of the day, it seems to me, talking about things is only meaningful if you intend to actually do something about them.