Tag Archives: guns

So There’s Just Been a Mass Shooting

So there’s just been a mass shooting. The newsfeed is full of it, the TV can’t stop. Ugly scenes. SWAT cops running around in combat armor like beetles with ballistic shields and submachine guns. Ambulances and camera crews somewhere where they’re not supposed to be, where they shouldn’t be. The reports are confusing. Maybe the shooter is dead; maybe he’s still at large; maybe he’s been taken alive; maybe the cops killed him, maybe he killed himself (regardless of outcome it’s pretty safe to assume the shooter is almost certainly a “he”). The current casualty count is uncertain. Some victims may pull through; others may succumb. The dead bodies are still warm.

Here’s what happens next. Depending on circumstances and timeline, some of what follows may be attenuated, some of it may be condensed. But here’s what you should expect, and what you should know.

First, not all “mass shootings” are created equal. The very fact that we’re paying attention to this event in the first place, and calling it a “mass shooting,” is the function of selective economies of attention and predetermined narrative framings.

Much like “gun violence” itself, there is no settled, universal definition of what a “mass shooting” is. When counting and talking about “mass shootings,” some academics and members of the media will use the FBI definition of a “mass murder,” others will use its working definition of a “mass killing.” One key difference between these definitions is body count: if your definition of “mass shooting” is synonymous with the FBI’s “mass murder,” then it’s four dead, not including the shooter; if you’re using their definition of a “mass killing,” it’s three. The kicker here is that people have to die in order for it to qualify. In other words, if you’re wedded to either of these definitions, when seventeen people are shot and injured in a single incident at a block party in New Orleans, then this is technically not a “mass shooting.” As Gwyneth Kelly pointedly notes, variations in mass shooting data provide ready fodder for some pro-gunners to wave away the problem and discredit research in general. Meanwhile, crowd-sourced datasets like the Mass Shooting Tracker (which Jennifer Masica has written lucidly about here) count incidents where multiple people can be wounded, but many of these are acts of violence tracked by other FBI datasets (i.e., gang-related incidents) that rarely capture the same degree of media attention – or activate the same public emotional response – as do rampage killings by active shooters.

In other words, for you to be seeing that “Mass Shooting” news alert, a whole range of selection processes have already occurred. It’s not a one-way-street, though. The media is giving you news that you are presumed to care about, and your attention to it fuels the process. And so we need to ask a question here. It’s so obvious, and yet also asking it seems like violating a taboo, like callousness. Here it is, regardless:

Why do we care about these events so much? Of rather – why do we perform caring about these events so much? Not that caring and performance are mutually exclusive, of course – but what if there’s something about the latter that undermines our ability to do the former?

There’s a certain hierarchy to which mass shootings capture the general public eye. Shootings that happen in schools and on college campuses grab headlines, followed by those that happen in recreational venues (malls, theaters, trendy districts), and then workplaces and lastly homes. Body count and the age of the victims plays a role, but it seems that what matters most is that such shootings occur in public spaces that enshrine cultural values of education, leisure, consumption, and productivity. In other words: violence that strikes against the nurturing and flow of precious human capital is a collective horror. And since this is America, where life is cheap and some lives are cheaper than others, you should fully expect our attribution of value to be very much constrained by our biases with regard to race, gender, and class.

Second, the question of the shooter’s identity and motives will simultaneously become a rhetorical football, an object of dismissive, knee-jerk righteousness, and, above all else, and at every possible level, a derailment from actual political action. I game this out in real-time on Twitter practically every other week, and the song is always the same. The immediate rush to perform bullshit digital forensic psychology on the shooter’s social media footprints will selectively follow frames that simultaneously foreground “politics” (in the most point-scoring sense) while also effacing and sustaining deeper political structures. Considering race is the most obvious example. If the shooter is black, there will be barely-even dog-whistle characterizations of thuggish criminality, coupled with an attempt to tie his actions to black activism – to call upon leaders in the “black community” to answer and apologize for “their” “responsibility.” A similar pattern of racist targeting and a logic of collective guilt will be brought to bear if the shooter is suspected to be Muslim, where the vocabulary of terrorism is ready-to-hand, and especially if the target can be tied to our never-ending Global War on Terror. Meanwhile, if the shooter is white, there will be an immediate push to individualize his actions and to paint him as pathological, mentally ill. There’s a double lie in this latter, pathologizing move: it cynically stigmatizes the mentally ill as a group, and simultaneously disowns the normalization and influence of cultural pathologies which are shared by “normal” people and cultivated by cynical politicians and media figures.

The agenda underlying all these moves is two-fold. First, to muddy the waters and stoke rage by activating tried-and-true stereotypes and associationist assaults that quickly derail serious attention (“He liked Media Matters on his Facebook – he was a Liberal!” “Oh yeah? He followed the NRA on Twitter and posted this meme!”). Second, to depoliticize both the mass shooter’s individual motives and the phenomenon of mass shootings itself. A white man can assassinate a black State Senator in the name of a pretty-damn-familiar brand of Southern chauvinist irredentism and talking heads will question if he had “political” intentions or whether he really is a “terrorist” instead of just some poor lost soul. Meanwhile, male mass shooters from the killer in Killeen in 1991 to the killer in Isla Vista last year espouse a shared ideology of entitled, violent misogyny that is recognizable and overlaps with broader cultural attitudes, yet our refusal to grapple with that fact (or to put their acts on a continuum with a grotesque national landscape of gendered violence and domestic abuse) remains resolute. The deep structures of our culture and political process are extremely invested in not talking about racist violence, gendered violence, and the role of guns in both – let alone their intersections – and selective depoliticizing in favor of pathologizing is a favored national coping mechanism. The violence which spurred this post – a shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood Center – is an act for which the motive remains, at the time of my writing, per media insistence, “unclear.” I know as little as anyone else, but even now the stirrings of the framing process are visible: if the clinic was targeted, we are being told, it must be the solitary act of a madman, hygienically sealed off from the months of gory Right Wing vilification of PP that preceded it; if it wasn’t, then PP should apologize to its critics for having the gall to think that suffering an extended shootout on its own premises was somehow a political matter – even as those same critics none too subtly implicate PP may have deserved to be targeted. Implicit behind both these cognitive pretzels is not just a disavowal of the political stakes of abortion rights and cultural misogyny, but a truly remarkable notion of what constitutes “the political” itself: “Don’t worry folks – this wasn’t a political act, it was just a normal mass shooting. You know, one American going on a rampage in a high-profile public place and gunning down a whole bunch of other people, a phenomenon that happens pretty damn frequently, but which is of course not a political problem in and of itself. How could it be?”

Third, the “conversation” will inevitably end in general exhaustion, stultification, and monetized rage. Derailment and posturing from the Right will meet with self-sabotaging and posturing on the Left, and both sides will shadowbox over “gun control” while favoring magical thinking over an acknowledgement of the actual horizon of possibility. Meanwhile politicians will rise to occasion to utter the usual and increasingly pathetic pieties or pandering with promises of radical change that they couldn’t realize even if they were serious about them. And then we’ll all take a break for a bit, our energies spent, and walk away, likely less informed and more sure of ourselves than ever. Meanwhile, this mass shooting, like the previous mass shooting and the next mass shooting, won’t just spawn retweets and shares and Tumblr posts and thinkpieces and shoddy stump speeches. It will also sell guns. If you listen carefully enough, above the sound of keyboards and thumb-taps, you can hear the bills being rustled out of wallets, the metallic snap of rounds loaded into magazines.

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.

American Snipers

James Earl Ray's Remington Gamemaster 30-06. via the National Archives.

James Earl Ray’s Remington Gamemaster 30-06. via the National Archives.

This past weekend, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper banked $90.2 million in ticket sales. In case you weren’t already aware, Eastwood’s action-packed biopic stars Bradley Cooper as the late Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who claimed to have killed over 250 insurgents during the course of four deployments in Iraq. Although some of Kyle’s exploits are dubious – for example, while he boasted of shooting “dozens of bad guys” in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, there is no proof of this – his own attitudes are matter of public record, expressed in his writings: “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis,” he wrote, “I hate the damn savages.” Nonetheless, Kyle’s co-authored memoir, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in US Military History became a runaway NYT bestseller, and Eastwood’s film adaptation has been nominated for no less than six Oscars.

The success of American Sniper unfolds against the broader landscape of a widespread cultural fascination with snipers. You can donate to sniper-specific charities and even “Adopt a Sniper” by sending them a care package. Sniper-themed apparel, bumper stickers, and other merchandise is all over the internet – including “I  My Sniper” T-shirts. A large subculture of people online track record-breaking distance shots and confirmed kill counts of military snipers; sometimes, such feats even make mainstream headlines and are re-dramatized on “educational” TV shows. If you’re a video game fan, you can rack up extra points pulling off long-distance Call of Duty and Counterstrike kills, or play sniper-specific video games that luxuriate in slow-motion video clips of bullets tearing through anatomically correct bodies, pulverizing organs and shattering bones as they go.

Now, I find this mania over snipers deeply troubling. The sniper represents the allure of power through the long-range projection of deadly force – a fantasy with a distinctively American ideological appeal. They’re the paradigmatic lone warriors of the War on Terror, patriotic avenging angels who inflict righteous destruction on evildoers from far-off, hidden positions. Like drone operators, snipers wield cutting-edge, high-precision equipment to produce tremendous destruction from afar. But unlike drone pilots, whose work is sanitized, largely base-bound, and removed from the zone of action, the sniper offers the image of a wily hunter of men, embedded on the battlefield, to be sure, but cleverly hidden, and still far enough way to pick away his enemies from relative safety, although with just enough of a frisson of personal exposure to get an audience’s adrenaline pumping. The sniper is grizzled, impassioned, and athletic, but also cool, composed, and professional; although alone, he is capable of inflicting devastatingly disproportionate mayhem. All this combines to appeal to various quintessentially American ideals of personal independence and masculinity – and to imperial fantasies of our own national power.

Of course, the contradictions here are obvious any day of the week. We revile our supposed “barbarian” enemies in the Middle East for decapitating people with swords, and then go to the movies and cheer every graphic headshot a badass Texas-born SEAL in a ghillie suit delivers from a mile away by pulling the trigger on his $7,000 rifle. But on today of all days, the ugliness couldn’t be clearer. Writing in Buzzfeed, Adam Vary observes that, “By the end of the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, the film is projected to make roughly $105 million at the domestic box office.”

Dwell on that sentence for a moment: “By the end of the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend…”

A movie about an American sniper – the killer of at least 160 people, and a man who expressed odious, bigoted views – breaks box office records on the same day that our nation honors the legacy of an American Civil Rights icon who was murdered from a block away by a white supremacist assassin with a scoped Remington .30-06.

That’s America for you. America: a nation where it costs $60 million to make a movie transforming a man who bragged about gunning down hundreds of Iraqis abroad and dozens of desperate Louisianans back home into the celluloid hero of a global war that will ultimately cost US taxpayers anywhere from $4 to $6 trillion. America: the same nation where a Civil Rights luminary who preached nonviolence and denounced the “triple evils” of poverty, racism, and militarism can be cut down by a rifle bullet that cost 26 cents.

Michael Dunn, Jordan Davis, and Anita Sarkeesian

On Friday, Florida judge Russell Healey sentenced Michael Dunn, the murderer of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Healey also gave Dunn an additional ninety years for three thirty-year counts of attempted murder (against the other occupants of the vehicle into which Dunn emptied his handgun), and a further fifteen years for “for shooting or throwing deadly missiles.” This sentence is richly deserved, and I hope it brings Jordan’s family, including his mother, the remarkably brave and dedicated Lucia McBath, some measure of peace.

In the wake of this verdict, I want to say two brief things.

First, despite the pervasive coverage of the Davis killing as the “loud music murder,” it is imperative that we not let this use of language cloud our actual understanding of Davis’s tragic death. Jordan Davis did not die because his music was too loud. He died because Michael Dunn, a 46 year-old man who appears to have been drinking heavily, decided to empty his handgun into a car with Davis and three of his friends inside. Michael Dunn – an adult man – chose to murder a child because he was on a power trip, decided Davis’s life was worthless, and snuffed it out. Davis was no more killed by his music than Trayvon Martin was killed by his hoodie, and using language that suggests otherwise, as so often when it comes to how we describe violence, diminishes the responsibility of those to blame and perpetrates a very real kind of violence in and of itself. We can hear a similar shirking of responsibility in Dunn’s own words at his sentencing hearing, when he stated, “I am mortified I took a life, whether it was justified or not.” Setting aside the fact that his gesture toward justification, much like his initial attempt at a modified Stand Your Ground defense, is offensive on the face of it, it’s interesting that he chose the word “mortified.” Nowadays, people use the word “mortified” more or less to mean that they’re deeply embarrassed and ashamed (“My fly was open during my speech? OMG, I’m mortified!”). But the word originally derives from a Latin verb that means “to put to death.” And let’s be clear – only one person was put to death here, and that was Jordan Davis. In fact, Davis’s parents specifically asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty for Dunn.

Second, let’s recall that when Dunn killed Davis, he used a gun which he was legally licensed to carry concealed. Earlier this week, after receiving assassination threats, feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a planned lecture at Utah State University in light of Utah’s ultra-permissive Concealed Carry laws. In response to her decision, there was a backlash against her in some sectors of the gun rights community. Much of this response hit predictably sexist notes, and one major outlet even featured a piece based entirely around unsourced slander. The recurrent theme in this criticism, as in some of the feedback I’ve gotten about this blog, is that it is “irrational” for people like Sarkeesian to fear people carrying concealed weapons. Although my attitude towards concealed carry is not entirely negative, I want to stress how frequently  these accusations of Sarkeesian’s being “irrational” recycle predictable, sexist tropes of women as overly emotional and incapable of logic (as though being afraid of people bringing guns to an event at which you had been told you would be shot was somehow unreasonable!). Moreover, they are also frequently voiced by the same folks who oppose gun restraining orders for those accused of domestic violence, and who otherwise are inclined to pre-emptively dismiss the experiences of women who come forward about domestic abuse as “false accusations.” And even if we were to temporarily bracket the grim data about women and gun violence in this country, I think it’s about time that we banish the canard that Concealed Carry permit holders are somehow inherently reasonable and responsible. Being a bigoted, frequently-intoxicated rageaholic or psychopath who feels entitled to murder children whom you decide are “thuggish” or to assassinate women whom you feel “have it coming to them” isn’t something that we can detect when issuing a Concealed Carry permit – and being afraid of such people is eminently rational. So let’s dismiss the knee-jerk #notall-ism, and recognize that default presumption of maturity and responsibility to all permit holders for the wishful thinking that it is. There are intelligent conversations to be had about Concealed Carry, but dismissing as “irrational” or otherwise mocking the fear of people who regularly face threats to their well-being – or who have to wonder daily whether their kids will come home alive or instead wind up dead at the hands of some trigger-happy vigilante – is not a way to start them. If you think otherwise, well, maybe you should try walking a day in Anita Sarkeesian’s shoes – or asking Jordan Davis.

 

 

 

Campus Speech in the Crosshairs

Last night, Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a speaking event, scheduled for today, at Utah State University.

Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic who addresses the representation of women in video games (and does so, I think, quite brilliantly) has been a consistent target of violent threats for some time. Such threats against Sarkeesian and other women in the video games industry have only escalated with the development of the so-called #Gamergate “movement” (for a primer on Gamergate, check out this article). There’s a lot to be said about Gamergate, about the culture-war identity politics at play in it, and about how its most strident, misogynistic voices exemplify the paradoxes of fictimhood at its most distilled – they are at once shrilly pseudo-aggrieved while simultaneously they threaten people who are genuinely marginalized – but that’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, I want to focus on the background and circumstances of Sarkeesian’s cancelling her talk.

As Utah State University News indicates, Sarkeesian received threats prior to the talk, which the FBI determined were “similar to other threats that [she had] received in the past.” Among these was the specific threat of “the deadliest school shooting in American history” targeting her and other “feminists.” However, Sarkeesian – who has bravely and regularly faced down threats of violence in the past – cancelled her appearance not simply due to this threat itself, but because Utah State officials informed her that licensed Concealed Carry permit holders would be allowed to carry loaded weapons into the speaking venue. This is not a matter of University policy: in fact, Utah State law specifically prohibits public colleges and universities from banning concealed carry on their campuses. Although the State Board of Regents retains some limited authority when it comes to regulating the presence of guns for campus, this only extends to allowing students to request to share dorm rooms with roommates who aren’t licensed to be armed, and to maintaining no more than one “secure area” where guns are not allowed in which to conduct private “hearings” (IE, for grievance procedures, disciplinary hearings, firings, etcetera); that “secure area” ceases to be a gun-free space, by the way, the moment the hearing event is over. When it comes to a public event like Sarkeesian’s, then, Utah State’s hands are tied. And although Utah is the first state in the country to have laws like this on the books, other States are poised to enact similar ones soon, and Georgia (where my own university is located) appears to have already “accidentally” enacted similar legislation this summer.

Now, in case you’re curious, the requirements for getting a CC license in Utah are listed here. As these things go, the requirements are fairly high (in that you have to take a course with a certified instructor), but Utah also maintains reciprocity honoring licenses issued by numerous others states, including, for example, Georgia, where all you have to do is fill out some paperwork, undergo a background check, and wait about a month or so for your permit. In other words, beyond having that, a gun, and a willingness to show up at a Utah college and murder someone in public, there’s really nothing stopping you: unless you’ve already made your identity and intentions clear (and most of Sarkeesian’s threats are anonymous), campus security will wave you on in.

Of course, gun rights advocates will doubtless say that the presence of guns on campus should make things safer, rather than less (in fact, there’s a national Students for Concealed Carry group that makes this case explicitly). Whatever the statistical odds of dying in a “random” mass shooting, the primary threat against which Campus Carry groups advocate arming oneself, the situation with Sarkeesian is entirely different: she is being specifically and personally targeted with the threat of assassination. Against that backdrop, her desire not to have an audience containing armed people is eminently reasonable – and far more reasonable than, say, suggesting that a “good guy” with a gun could somehow manage to get the draw on a “bad one” before the bad guy manages to get a shot off at her. At which point, what is Sarkeesian supposed to do? Bring a gun of her own, and keep it in one hand to sweep the audience with while she holds a laser pointer for her PowerPoint in the other? Roll in with her own coterie of pistol-packing supporters, forming a human shield around her, maybe?

All of this is at once ridiculous, tragic, and terrifying. As I have argued elsewhere, the presence of guns at contentious public events inevitably changes the dynamic – there’s a chilling effect on expression, an ever-present implicit threat. Knowing that random members of the public are in your audience carrying heat is something that certainly should and will impact what you say, particularly when you’ve already been told that someone will show up to your event and shoot you. While I readily admit that I also find the prospect of ludicrously over-militarized campus security personnel toting M-16s and grenade launchers likewise toxic when it comes to impacting speech on campus, and in quashing student dissent in particular, I believe that colleges and universities are supposed to be places where ideas can be exchanged freely and without fear of violent repercussion. They should not be places where speech hangs in the balance of who’s better armed or who has the quicker draw – and certainly not places where a speaker should be silenced from the get-go by the prospect of having to speak in the crosshairs.

Playing the Fictim: Identity Politics and Being a “Gun Owner”

Unlike some other posts, this one is going to be a little more free-form and abstract. It’s something I’ll expand further as part of a longer project, but, for now, I just wanted to put this out here.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how in American political media we frequently hear denunciations of “identity politics.” According to one of the dominant narratives, people “play” identity politics when they either implicitly or explicitly invoke their demographic affiliations as a kind of token in a political game. For example, politicians play identity politics when they appeal to where their constituents were born and live (“Unlike my opponent, I grew up in this district! – I’m no a Washington outsider!”) or gesture to their gender and class status (“As a working middle class mother, I know what it means to raise a family, and care about what happens in our schools!”). Playing identity politics in this sense means making a claim to a specific identity in order to signal that you share a particular perspective and set of concerns with your target demographic. That identity claim serves as a touchstone for building coalitions, cementing solidarity, and turning out votes from people who identify with you.

But identity politics don’t just involve a politician making claims about their own authenticity – they just as frequently involve branding their opponents as inauthentic, or branding them as stigmatized. Unsurprisingly, then, in the contemporary landscape, the idea of identity politics as a “game” that is “played” is thus most often encountered when it comes to race. On the Right in particular, where condemnations of identity politics, like denunciations of “Political Correctness,” are most frequently encountered, this phenomenon paradigmatically takes the form of accusations of “playing the race card.” The game here, though, always seems more than a little bit rigged – Barack Obama and Eric Holder are perennially accused of “playing the race card” when they talk about events involving race, as they were in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, or in response to events in Ferguson. But while when black Democrats simply talk about race or class, they’re “dividing the nation,” when Karl Rove blasts Obama for being “a Chai-swilling, golf-playing, basketball-trash-talking, leading-from-behind, I-got-no-strategy President” or when Newt Gingrich calls him the “Food Stamp President,” they’re not “playing the race card” at all, they’re simply calling things as they see them – which of course involves no race-based blind-spots or craven identity-politics dog-whistles whatsoever.

But unpacking the nuances of “identity politics” in its various configurations in the American political landscape is far beyond the scope of this blog. What I want to reflect on is something else: the increasing prevalence of the term “gun-owner” as a term of identity politics in its own right. Americans self-identify as “gun owners” in polls and frequently vote for or against politicians based upon their supposed affinity for that identity, with numerous organizations claiming to represent “gun owners” the way organizations like La Raza or the NAACP claim to represent their constituencies. Indeed, not only does the NRA describe itself as “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization,” but Gun Owners of America, which stands to the right of the NRA as “the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington,” proudly proclaims “a record of helping pro-gun candidates defeat anti-gunners in hundreds of races across the country over the past 30 years, and will continue to do so as long as our supporters provide the necessary financial resources.” “Pro-gun candidates,” “anti-gunners” – all these terms function as identity politics labels, without question. Likewise, Democratic politicians, particularly rural “Blue Dogs,” will regularly claim to be as “pro-gun” and even personally identify themselves as gun owners, often in order to avoid alienating their gun-owning voters.

But does possessing a gun automatically make you a “gun owner” in the way that a group like Gun Owners of America says it should? That is to say, does it necessarily mean that you are a member of an identity-based coalition, or even, as the NRA or GOA might suggest, that you suddenly become a member of a minority whose civil rights are under threat? Let’s set aside the complicated data on who owns guns and why, and likewise bracket the fact that many political figures who are accused of being “anti-gun” actually own guns themselves – including Joe Biden, who’s encouraged people to buy shotguns to defend themselves, and Mark Kelly, the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, who owns several guns. The question I’m asking is this: what is the status of “gun owner” as a term of identity politics? Is “gun owner” an identity in the same way as being black, female, Hispanic, or gay is?

Recently, Open Carry Texas tweeted that “owning guns is the ultimate respect for defending life” Think about that for a minute. Owning a product represents the ultimate respect for a value. Not just that, but owning a weapon (not, say, a defibrillator, or an organ donor card) represents the ultimate respect for human life. Likewise, for many folks, owning a gun represents a patriotic duty – a synecdoche for authentic Americanness. But how many other powerful political interest groups and voting coalitions are defined by the mere fact of owning a particular product?

Here’s the thing. “Gun owner” as a phrase is clearly a term of identity politics. But unlike being black or lesbian or poor or from West Virginia, being a gun owner is an identity you can buy. Only in America does spending $1000-plus on an AR-15 or $75 on a Bryco .380 not just equal expression of respect for a sacrosanct value – it gives you a claim on an identity, and not just to being a patriot, but, as we’ll see in a moment, to something much more. But buying a product does not make you a thing. It just means you bought something, laid down cash, swiped your credit card, wrote a check, whatever. You became an X-owner. If manufacturers of X branded it as whatever, and you embrace that identity, then good for you, I guess. You bought in. But the truth is that buying a gun makes you an American patriot about as much as buying a tiara turns you into a princess. This should be obvious, but just because you bought something doesn’t make you somebody. It just means you gave else someone your money.

Then again, from a certain perspective, I suppose, an identity-you-can-buy represents perhaps the most quintessential example of identity politics, American-style, that I can imagine. But there’s a rub here, too. Because although Americans arguably brand more products with patriotism than any other culture out there, half the time, gun manufacturers aren’t even American themselves – they’re multinational corporations, Italian, Russian, Austrian. Chatting with me about this over the weekend on Twitter, Ross Golowicz pointed out that Chrysler brands itself as “Imported From Detroit.” Imagine the same phrase, advertising a gun: “Imported from Detroit.” Of course, in reality, it should be more like “TEC-9. Imported from Miami. Bought at a gun show in Alabama. Smuggled to Detroit.” Or even: “The SKS. Imported from Tito’s Yugoslavia. To South-Central LA. The Ultimate Respect for the Value of Life.” But, sure, brother, that $700 you dropped on that Bulgarian AK, the $500 you spent on that Austrian Glock, that makes you a true American. And it means you respect life more the value of life than the person who didn’t, or who maybe spent that paycheck on rent or a trampoline or cocaine or a sofa instead.

And here’s the last bit – more often than not, condemnations of playing identity politics from the right are coupled with an accusation of “playing the victim.” Consider how often figures on the Right blame African Americans in particular for being duped into a culture of “victimhood.” But despite the fact that the personal right to bear arms is more secure under the Supreme Court than it ever has been in American history, the defining feature of both the NRA and GOA’s activism on behalf of American gun owners is “protecting” them – as in serving them in a civil rights struggle wherein their constituents are a deeply imperiled minority: in other words, where they’re victims. And the language of victimhood isn’t even subtle. In response to efforts in Massachusetts last year to impose legal limits on magazine size, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action issued a press release to state residents entitled “Your Governor Wants to Personally Victimize Law-Abiding Gun Owners.”

My friend Jennifer Nelson, who’s a brilliant scholar out in Michigan, has a word for tone-deaf, misguided folks who seek to position themselves as the “real” victim of imagined wrongs – they’re “fictims.” I think it’s a simply genius turn of phrase – they’re fictitious victims, with their fictimhood serving not just to deny the actual victimhood of others, but to actively prevent reflection on their own complicity in that suffering by pre-emptively co-opting it. The Men’s Rights Advocates out there who decry sexual harassment laws and complain that they’re the “real” victims of sexism when 20% of women in this country are likely to suffer a sexual assault? Fictims. The angry white folks who deny the existence of structural anti-black prejudice and bemoan “reverse racism” while never having had to have “the talk” with their kids? Fictims, the lot of them.

Frankly, I can’t think of an identity-politics based group more prone to the shrillest flights of fictimhood than some segments of the militant pro-gun movement. To take but one example – I once got some threatening mail from a man I believe to be associated with a specific extremist group, a guy who, among other things, made it pretty clear he wasn’t fond of black folks since, in his words, they represented a “large, perpetual race-grievance based dependent class.” He also wasn’t that fond of me since, according to him, the simple discussion of any regulation of the right to bear arms – not just a renewed Assault Weapons Ban (which, again, I don’t support), but universal background checks or any limitation on what any civilian could conceivably own in any possible world – not only represented the “complete and total rape” of his “human rights,” but also made anyone who might initiate such a discussion, in his words, a “slaveowner.” As he wrote:

“You’re a slaveowner because you believe the rights of others falls under your control… I just want you to know, I fucking hate you and everyone else like you. You are pure fucking slaveowning scum and I am so very, very tired of having to tell you to stop presuming you can speak about the rights of free men and how best to violate them…I hope you understand, if you and your kind keep pushing for this, it’s a war. A real war.”

This strikes me as gun ownership identity politics in its most distilled fictimhood. There’s such a huge cognitive dissonance operating here – a self-righteous and histrionic attempt to co-opt the role of righteous victimhood attributed to slaves underwriting an appeal to violence against the alternate evils of the Federal Government and government-dependent criminals and social parasites who are, inevitably, stereotyped as black. Having a black man as President, of course, allows for these two threats to fold together into a kind of perfect nightmare for these people – the ginned-up fear of roving hordes of urban blacks merges with paranoid, insurrectionist fantasies of going full-Wolverines against home-invading Federal jackboots. And all this histrionic, fear-driven distortion – a grossly warped view of the history of slavery, a skewed understanding of our current economic crisis – perpetrates yet another distortion. It frames the “real” victims of our contemporary national struggles with gun control and gun violence as those primarily white gun owners who may potentially have their consumer choices somewhat more regulated, instead of the actual victims of gun violence, who are disproportionately poor, young, and black.

One last thought. In some ways, the idea that becoming a true American hinges on owning a piece of property (in this case, a gun) seems obscene in a very modern way – hell, from a certain cynical perspective, it’s part and parcel of life under globalized capitalism, a state of affairs in which being an American is itself a brand identity, something we like to think we can export, like democracy and McDonalds and Google and Law & Order spinoffs. But on another level, if we go back to the beginning, to the documents composed at the founding of this country, we have to acknowledge that, for the framers, the ownership of property was the criterion for being a true American, for being a “free man.” And we have to admit, too, that in many cases that “property” in question included other human beings. Whom “real” Americans, “free men,” kept in line at gunpoint.

At which point, then, I have to ask, if, by buying a weapon, you buy an identity, and that identity comes marked with an attitude of co-opted, histrionic fictimhood – who’s playing identity politics now? What identity, ultimately, are you really playing at – and what are you buying into?

Confidence in the System

Image via KTLA

Image via KTLA

Back in August, a pair of men in an SUV were being pursued by the LAPD, allegedly for reckless driving, when they decided to pull over onto a highway onramp. One of them got out of the car and opened fire on the police cruiser behind him with what the LA Times describes as a “high-powered, assault-type rifle.”

The men then sped off, trading gunfire with police in a mile-long “rolling gun battle” along the freeway before ultimately abandoning their vehicle and fleeing into an industrial area of South-Central. The LAPD called in a SWAT team, a pair of helicopters, and K9 units to hunt for them. After two hours, dogs found one man, unarmed and hiding in a dumpster; officers arrested him after disabling him with a flashbang and pepper spray.

As for the other suspect, who was still carrying his assault rifle, the LAPD found him, too, and moved to intercept with a BearCat armored personnel carrier. According to the LA Times, the man then “peppered the BearCat with bullets, striking [a] SWAT officer, before he was killed by return fire.” According to a police spokesperson, “Thank goodness we had that armored vehicle as a shield because a regular police cruiser would have been Swiss cheese.” Thank goodness – and thank the taxpayers, too, since that BearCat (one of the LAPD’s two) cost them $150,000. As for the make and model of the “rare” gun carried by the alleged shooter (since identified as Andre Maurice Jones), I can’t find an exact description in any reports, but if I had to guess I’d say it was a heavily modified SKS outfitted with a 75-round magazine, a weapon configuration that’s illegal under California law but which you can acquire easily enough, magazine included, for under $400.

Anyway, all this happened over a month ago, so why is it in the news today? Well, it seems that all those drivers whose commutes were disrupted by that gun battle and hours of subsequent evidence collection were re-routed through automated ExpressPass lanes – and then billed for it. Although the company which administers ExpressLane billing, Xerox Service, is working to undo the tolls, and is deeply apologetic for the inconvenience, people are nonetheless quite out of sorts. Said one commuter, “I know it’s just a buck, but it’s the principle of the thing. It doesn’t inspire confidence in the entire system.”

Yes. Of all the parts of this story, that one-dollar fee really is the thing that should inspire a crisis of confidence in “the entire system.”