Tag Archives: guns

Call of the Uncanny

“That particular variety of terror that leads back to what has been known of old, that has been familiar for a long time.”

callofduty_black-ops

Two things. First, something I wrote exactly a year ago. At the time, I was living in a different city, and my day-to-day life was pretty different from what it is now. It’s impressionistic, not analytical, but I wanted to share it here, today, and then pair it with something else, a more critical reflection in light of President Obama’s speech to the nation this past evening.

9/11/13

I worked all day – really hard, all day long, and I am finally settling down for the evening. Nobody’s home yet, and so I’ve got the place to myself. Teaching, work, a little writing, shopping errands, a doctor’s visit, cooking, I’m exhausted. The anniversary was rough as always, but not as bad as it’s been previously, although realizing that my students were all five or six when 9/11 happened was weird – especially since I opened class by asking if people wanted to talk about the anniversary and no one had anything to say. If I’m still teaching five years from now, any students I might have then will have been born well after it – and hell, for my kids now, all they’ve known, given how memory works, is this world. But, whatever, class was good, and even reading various remembrance articles and the Paul Battaglia guestbook, which I read every year on the anniversary, didn’t fuck me up as much as it normally does.

I lie back on my couch with a drink and a smoke and I fire up Call of Duty: Black Ops II on the Xbox. My roommate and I just got it to play together. It’s not the newest iteration in the franchise, but it’s good co-op fun and solid to play solo online, too. I’m playing multiplayer, and we’re on a level that I guess is like Central Asia or the Caucasus or something in the wake of a Russian invasion. A bombed out medieval village with signage in Arabic script and Cyrillic. It’s the usual bullshit – I’m running around with a tricked-out silenced submachine gun dodging snipers and getting blown up by remote-controlled explosives, when I start hearing voices over the mic. You can hook up a mic, you know, to trash-talk or strategize with your team, but I usually turn it off unless someone I know is playing, since otherwise it’s a lot of kids – really young kids – giggling and cursing, or blasts of feedback from idiots who don’t know how to set their audio pickup properly. Occasionally you hear a mom call someone to lunch. But this time I’m also hearing adult voices, talking back and forth to each other, and it’s totally eerie and they sound shocked and deadly serious.

“I’ve seen at least fifteen so far.”

“It’s like a tornado of bodies.”

I know I’ve heard this somewhere before.

The match is in full swing. The game sound effects keep coming, badass voice-actors yelling macho SEAL bullshit: Enemy Care Package incoming! Flashbang out! Smoked ‘em! Air support on the way! Bag ‘em and tag ‘em! These clips mix in with the dorm room banter and pubescent laughter and bong rips, the usual chaos. But those other voices just keep getting louder.

“I don’t know what happened with the pilot, if it was mechanical error –”

“There’s so much smoke.”

Kids are laughing grenades are going off a machine gun nest has opened up and mic feedback is blaring but these voices are all I’m hearing. I’ve dropped the controller and my character keeps respawning, standing still, a sitting duck, getting shot in the head and resurrecting, over and over and over.

“Oh, oh, oh no oh no.”

“People are jumping again…They’re holding hands.”

“Oh God. Oh God.”

Someone is watching news footage from 9/11 while they play, and their mic is picking it up. Or they’re deliberately piping it in with a soundboard. Either is quite possible. Meanwhile the carnage continues, kids laugh, and someone has started talking to someone else in Spanish.

Twelve years out and the world only gets more out of joint. Nothing made sense then, and nothing makes sense now.

9/11/14

A year later, and still nothing makes sense. I’m still teaching, in Philly now, and my class, a course on Communication Ethics, is full of young men and women, most of whom were toddlers in 2001. Later this semester, we’ll read Eric Fair’s “Orders, Truth, and Torture at Abu Ghraib.” I’m curious what they’ll think of it. I don’t often feel much of a generational divide between myself and my students, but whatever gap there is, this anniversary attenuates it.

Although there’s some material about the War on Terror on my syllabus, I don’t usually write  about international affairs. The scope of this blog is writing about guns, gun violence, and the role guns play in the media, popular imagination, and lived experiences of Americans. Despite the temptation the anniversary presents to write a “My 9/11 Story”-style journal entry, and despite the fact that, as a born-and-bred New Yorker, I could say a lot of things about how 9/11 impacted my life and those of the people I love, I instead want to hew to this space’s more narrow purpose and make three observations, the first two involving objective data, and the third of a more personal character.

First, I’d like to call your attention to a fascinating interactive tool produced by Google as part of the Illicit Networks, Forces in Opposition Project (INFO). It uses customs data collected by the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) to visualize trends in the international trade of small arms, light weapons, and ammunition. You need to use Chrome or Firefox to see the visualization, but it’s worth installing the plugins to play with. The PRIO dataset covers some 250 countries, but I’d like to call your attention specifically to the figures for the US. In 2000, America imported $353,618,432 in ammunition and military and civilian small arms; it exported $542,735,831. In 2005, the figures are $495,869,1120 and $287,041,040, respectively; in 2010, they are $996,769,657 and $606,577,243. In 2000, Americans imported $0.24 billion in civilian weapons; by 2010, that figure more than doubles to $0.55B. It is important to note that the Google INFO data only extends to 2010, and that it does not take into account the substantial black market for US weapons, particularly that in Mexico. In any event, as of 2014, the US small arms and manufacturing industry employs nearly 50,000 people and generates revenue in the range of $13 billion a year.

The upshot is that, since 9/11, America has produced, imported, and exported more guns than ever before (or at least since WWII). The connection between this uptick in exports and post-9/11 American military interventions abroad is obvious. In terms of imports, there’s of course always been a steady demand for high-quality AK-style long guns and pistols from manufacturers in Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia (with imports from the latter becoming particularly hot commodities given recent sanctions). On the domestic front, though, when it comes to why Americans buy guns (imported or otherwise), their stated reasoning for doing so has undergone a substantial transformation over the course of the past fifteen years. According to PEW research, whereas in 1999 49% of people who owned guns said they did so for hunting, and 26% did for self-protection, by 2013, 48% of poll respondents said they owned guns to protect themselves, and only a third did for hunting. Given the fact that violent crime rates actually went down throughout the 2000s, the impulse to buy a gun to protect oneself seems, at first blush, perplexing. I suspect, however, that this trend speaks to a climate of fear that arose significantly prior to the election of Barack Obama and the subsequent, incessantly-hyped prospects (however dubious) of new gun control legislation. That climate of fear is, I think, part-and-parcel of the knee-jerk response to 9/11 itself. Simply put, Americans got scared, and have been arming themselves accordingly ever since.

Second, I’ll observe that quite a few die-hard pro-Second Amendment militia websites and Oath Keeper social media accounts make frequent use of this image in their banners, memes, and avatars. This painting of a ludicrously over-armed Special Forces soldier with terrible trigger discipline is actually taken from the first Call of Duty: Black Ops game. Likewise, it’s worth observing that direct product tie-ins between arms manufacturers and First Person Shooter games like Call of Duty – including the use of licensed weapons photos and name-brand virtual guns that players can use in-game – are common. In fact, according to Reuters, developer Activision-Blizzard “gives ‘special thanks’ to Colt, Barrett, and Remington in the credits for its “Call of Duty” titles.” And even a casual observer of the trajectory of both the Call of Duty franchise and its competitors (the Medal of Honor and Battlefield series) can’t fail to be struck by how they now involve modern or near-future settings in the Middle East, the former Soviet Bloc, and China, whereas during the 1990s and early 2000s, most of these games were set during World War II, and overwhelmingly in the European theater. The popularity of these games is hard to overstate: the Call of Duty franchise alone has sold nearly 140,000,00 copies, and, as of 2009, had generated nearly $3 billion in revenue worldwide. The point is that, much as we’ve upped our game since 9/11 when it comes to importing, exporting, and buying real guns, America has gotten a lot better at marketing virtual ones as well, at home and abroad.

For my part, personally speaking, I still play the occasional video game, but I haven’t touched Call of Duty or anything like it since I left Atlanta. Maybe it’s because my memory of those levels now look like scenes of breaking news from Novokaterinivka, where the Russians are invading, or from Zumar, Northern Iraq, where, despite all contrary protestations from the administration, we do, allegedly, have Black Ops-style “boots on the ground.” Maybe it’s because I’m afraid to hear voices from the real news piped into my headset while I’m pulling the trigger on a controller and firing virtual versions of weapons that I know are all too real, particularly as our President condemns Russian aggression, vows to “hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are,” and commits to further arming both opposition forces in Syria and the faltering Iraqi government. Maybe it’s because the prospect of playing a game like the upcoming installment of the Battlefield franchise, which shifts the scene of action from a foreign war zone to a US city, and which changes the role of players from Special Forces commandos to militarized police and SWAT teams seems particularly twisted in the wake of events in Ferguson, where Homeland Security-supplied military gear was deployed against protestors. Maybe, in other words, it’s because the collapse of the virtual realm of militainment into an omnipresent real-world battlespace now feels more complete than ever. Maybe, in yet other words, it’s because the map has become the territory, and that landscape is the world we’ve made, a world filled with more guns than ever before. It’s all just too uncanny – which is another way of saying that, now, thirteen years out, nothing makes sense, but also, at the same time, that everything, all of it, seems perfectly logical, even inevitable, in its terrifying senselessness.

Ferguson, Open Carry, and the Ghost of Huey Newton

Two encounters on social media, and one news item; together, a bleak picture.

On Tuesday, there was a post in my Facebook feed, written by a tenured professor at a Midwestern university, a white man. In a few brief, blistering lines, he shared an article about supposed New Black Panthers directing traffic in Ferguson, denouncing them as being “governmental,” and insufficiently “revolutionary.” A few moments later, presumably realizing that this perhaps crossed a line even by his own bilious standards, he deleted the post, replacing it with a borrowed quote from a black anarchist writer, former Black Panther Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, calling upon black people to arm themselves and meet police in Ferguson with a show of force.

A few days earlier, in my Twitter feed, there was an announcement from CJ Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, that his group would stage an armed march in Houston’s Fifth Ward. The Fifth Ward is a predominantly black neighborhood, and members of the community there had not only made clear that OC Texas’s presence was unwanted, but that, if they were to show up, they should be prepared to encounter residents also bearing arms. When I asked Grisham whether, in light of events in Ferguson, he was reconsidering his group’s sortie into a largely black neighborhood, he replied: “What happened in Ferguson is exactly why People should be armed.” He then doubled down on questioning what I was referring to by events in Ferguson in the first place, asking: “You mean where a thug and criminal was killed after robbing and threatening a store owner?”

At that point it seems worth observing not only that what exactly happened in that store is now very much in question, but also that while Michael Brown had no criminal history whatsoever when he was shot dead, Grisham himself does have a criminal conviction, from a 2013 incident involving an altercation with law enforcement. Moreover, this episode arose while Grisham was carrying a weapon – unlike Michael Brown, who no one disputes was entirely unarmed when he was shot to death (or even during that alleged “strong arm” robbery). And yet Grisham, who is (no matter what you think of him) a criminal in the most precise legal sense of the term, appeared to see no contradiction in slandering the dead young man, who had no rap sheet or convictions to speak of. Grisham then proceeded to insist,“We won’t bow to the Black Panthers or Quannel X. We won’t be intimidated by bullies. This is America…All of it.” And then, a few days later, OC Texas called off its planned march in the Fifth Ward in favor of a “book drive” to benefit young students there.

Wednesday, news broke of a planned event by an organization in Texas calling itself the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. This group, made up of “black and brown residents of the city of Dallas” is named after the Black Panther leader who famously observed that “The gun is where it’s at and about and in.” The Huey P. Newton group is planning an “armed self-defense patrol” along Dallas’s Martin Luther King Boulevard, standing against police brutality and in support of its members’ own right to bear arms.

Stipulating – explicitly – that I do not begrudge the Supreme Court’s recognition of an individual right to bear arms, I admit that this development, like Grisham’s planned march, has left me deeply troubled. On the one hand, this escalation has a feeling of inevitability to it: as I have written elsewhere, once guns enter the public arena as a means of protest, once they are deployed as a kind of speech, it is arguable that the only equally powerful response is a countervailing display of arms. But the thing about shows of force is that they have a tendency to escalate without warning or plan. And I fear that, as events in Ferguson suggest, any intervention on the part of law enforcement in a confrontation involving armed black protestors will not favor the latter, no matter how well equipped or righteous they may be.

But I admit, too, that these developments also have a kind of all-this-has-happened-before, all-this-will-happen-again dimension to them. Indeed, the open carry protests of Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s were themselves largely responsible for a political backlash that more or less determined the shape of gun control politics going forward. Likewise, the role of guns in what many frequently remember as a solely non-violent Civil Rights Movement is also paradoxical and complicated (for an excellent history of this, see the work of Charles Cobb, Jr.). But much as differing voices today will by turns vilify and praise Black Panthers movements both New and Old, so too are the memories of black luminaries of the earlier Civil Rights Movement co-opted by unlikely, ideologically motivated figures, including Glenn Beck, who dedicates his book “Control” to “Martin Luther King, Jr. … who owned several guns but was subjected to the worst kind of gun control—and deprived of his basic right to defend himself and his family—when police in Alabama denied him a concealed carry permit in 1956.” Never mind the fact that I suspect that even Beck himself would admit that a concealed carry handgun license would likely not have saved Dr. King from James Earl Ray’s sniping at him from across the street with a .30-06 Remington rifle. For all these figures – for the anarchist professor in my FB feed, for CJ Grisham, for Glenn Beck – the image of armed black activists represents a malleable target to appropriate for their own dubious ends, whether they be furthering Leftist revolution, justifying threatening, racially coded displays of Right-Wing aggression in a black neighborhood, or just simply selling books.

But not only are these images of actual people, people who can speak and do speak for themselves, and who don’t need white people to ventriloquize them, the power of those images in the media derives from a history that is very real and far from settled. Indeed, one way or another, it is the events of the 1960s and 1970s, and their consequences – from race riots to white flight to police militarization to mass incarceration to the war on drugs – that have led us to our present situation. And that present situation is a continually unfolding tragedy that encompasses, among other things, what is happening in Ferguson, pervasive racial violence, uncounted and overlooked acts of police brutality, and a nationwide body count due to gun violence that reveals stark racial disparities, particularly among children.

And so while I do not know what happens next, I do not see how repeating the same brew of escalating gestures of further political violence can lead any of us anywhere good. I hope that in spite of the joy that trigger-happy radicals of whatever persuasion may take in the increased presence of guns in our political landscape, we can de-escalate, step back, and find another way forward.

Wolves Run in Packs

On Sunday, a pair of Las Vegas police officers was shot to death while eating lunch at a local CiCi’s Pizza. The two shooters then proceeded to a nearby Walmart, where they murdered another person before killing themselves in an apparent suicide pact.

Many details are still sketchy – there are reports, for example, that the shooters exchanged gunfire with a civilian who was carrying a concealed weapon – but one thing is clear even from the early coverage: this was an act of political violence. After stripping the murdered cops of their weapons, the shooters draped their bodies in a Gadsden flag. They reportedly shouted “This is a revolution!” during their rampage; authorities are investigating anti-government literature and paraphernalia including swastikas found in their home.

Early reporting from the Las Vegas Review Journal also indicates that the attackers bragged about participating in the recent standoff between Cliven Bundy and Bureau of Land Management representatives in Bunkerville, Nevada. It’s unclear in what capacity they participated and under what circumstances they left; one allegedly told a neighbor that he had been “kicked off.” When reached for comment, Bundy’s wife Carol told the Review Journal: “I have not seen or heard anything from the militia and others who have came to our ranch that would, in any way, make me think they had an intent to kill or harm anyone.”

It’s easy to call out the ludicrousness of Carol Bundy’s statement by observing that, during the standoff, militia pointed their weapons at Federal Agents, blockaded an interstate, set up armed checkpoints, and announced that they were “willing to do whatever it takes,” which included dying in a gunfight with the Feds. The manifestly threatening dimensions of what happened at Bunkerville are clear, and were clear from the start.

It’s also not hard to imagine what the response to this most recent incident will be, particularly on the right. The undeniable political dimensions of the killers’ terrorism will be discounted – it will become a singular incident, the isolated act of a pair of lone wolves. Then their personalities will come under the microscope, and their connections to others downplayed: They were just a pair of crazy tweakers, totally deluded. And finally we’ll throw our hands up in the air and lament the senselessness, the incoherence of it all, consigning Sunday’s killings to the remote abstraction of an act of nature. What a tragedy. Nothing to see here; move along.

Tim McVeigh in Waco, TX, 1993

Tim McVeigh in Waco, TX, 1993

Over twenty years ago, another standoff between a group of zealots and Federal authorities drew a similar gaggle of militia-minded supporters. They stuck to the sidelines, didn’t draw their weapons on anyone, didn’t kill any cops. But they were there, they watched, they waited, and they planned. You’ve probably heard of this standoff, and of one of the folks who watched from the sidelines. It was at Waco, Texas, and that person was named Timothy McVeigh. He even gave an interview to a reporter while he was there.

“The government is afraid of the guns people have because they have to have control of the people at all times. Once you take away the guns, you can do anything to the people. You give them an inch and they take a mile. I believe we are slowly turning into a socialist government…The government is continually growing bigger and more powerful, and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.” McVeigh went on to quote “the U.S. Constitution and said U.S. armed forces should not be used against civilians, yet they were used against Koresh and his followers…[he said that] the Koresh standoff is only the beginning and that people should watch the government’s role and heed any warning signs.”

Sound familiar?

Back in 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on domestic terrorism threats from right-wing extremists, the blowback was intense. John Boehner labeled the report “outrageous” and “offensive,” and demanded “an explanation for why [Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano] has abandoned using the term ‘terrorist’ to describe those, such as al Qaeda, who are plotting overseas to kill innocent Americans, while her own Department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.” In response to that backlash, the DHS withdrew the report, and Napolitano was forced to apologize.

Five years later, folks at the Bundy ranch proudly wore outfits identifying themselves as “Domestic Terrorists.” And now two people who were there have committed an act of political violence in a Las Vegas strip mall.

Sure, the affair in Bunkerville may have attracted a lot of different people, many of whom Bundy and some of his erstwhile high-profile supporters might not like to be associated with – especially since some of the latter have now distanced themselves from Bundy himself. Maybe even some of those people were downright crazy, and got kicked off (although watching this and this, it’s clear that bar would have to be set pretty high.) But let’s not kid ourselves. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Wolves roam in packs.

Update: 6/9, 1PM The shooters have been identified as Jerad and Amanda Miller. Jerad Miller’s Facebook page is still up. It includes the following posts:

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 1.35.31 PM

And:

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 1.38.46 PMAnd, finally, on Saturday:

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 1.38.59 PM

 

Walking Backwards on a Slippery Slope

Last Friday, at the close of a month full of gun-related news, including a mass shooting in California and a series of high-profile Open Carry protests in the Southwest, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action issued a truly remarkable statement. Entitled “Good Citizens and Good Neighbors: The Gun Owners’ Role,” this press release struck a rare note not only by addressing gun owners directly, as opposed to legislators or the media, but also by reprimanding some of them:

“As gun owners, whether or not our decisions are dictated by the law, we are still accountable for them. And we owe it to each other to act as checks on bad behavior before the legal system steps in and does it for us.  If we exercise poor judgment, our decisions will have consequences… Let’s take just a couple of examples.  In each case, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.  In each case, gun owners would do well to consider the effect their behavior has on others, whether fellow gun owners or not. “

This document was remarkable not only in its own right, but because of its aftermath, which is breaking news. But before I get to that, it’s worth looking very closely at what the NRA originally had to say. The first example the NRA chose was the escalating brouhaha over the availability of so-called “Smart Guns.” The issue of Smart Guns is extremely complicated, both in terms of the technological specifics and the relevant legislative landscape, and it’s something I will write about in more detail another day. Suffice it to say for the moment that the advent of guns with increased safety features, like the Armatix iP1, which only fires when held by a user who is wearing an RFID-enabled wristwatch, has provoked a backlash among certain gun enthusiasts – to the point that the weapon’s designer has received death threats and retailers were driven to withdraw it from their shelves. The reason for this backlash is that certain gun enthusiasts worry that once smart guns become available, all non-smart guns will be outlawed. It’s a fear that has intensified in no small part due to poorly conceived legislation in New Jersey, passed in 2002, that would mandate all firearms merchants to carry only smart guns once they became generally available. Although the legislator who sponsored that particular bill has indicated that she is willing to repeal it, the NRA has nonetheless steadfastly opposed the sale of any such smart guns, citing its concerns with laws like New Jersey’s. Last week’s press release doubled down on that opposition: “The lesson with ‘smart’ guns is that you can’t always evaluate the long-term consequences of a new ‘innovation’ in firearm technology or regulation at a glance… Before you embrace whatever schemes are being pushed by the self-described ‘gun safety advocates’ who’ve never met a ban or restriction on guns or ammunition they didn’t like, acquaint yourself with the facts.”

The NRA press release then turned to its second example of how “just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be”: the Open Carry of long guns in public spaces, which has entered the public eye in the wake of a series of high-profile Open Carry protests in Texas. With a caveat of praise for the “robust gun culture” of the Lone Star State, the NRA’s presser observed that a “small number [of Texans] have recently crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness.”

“Now we love AR-15s and AKs as much as anybody, and we know that these sorts of semiautomatic carbines are among the most popular, fastest selling firearms in America today.  Texas, independent-minded and liberty-loving place that it is, doesn’t ban the carrying of loaded long guns in public, nor does it require a permit for this activity.  Yet some so-called firearm advocates seem determined to change this…While unlicensed open carry of long guns is also typically legal in most places, it is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms. “

Why are these “firearm advocates” – like those “self-described ‘gun safety’ advocates’ – only “so-called”? It’s because, as the NRA sees it, their guntrolling “hijinx” threaten to ultimately work against gun rights – a suspicion that’s clearly justified given that several businesses have moved to ban Open Carry on their premises. With uncharacteristic candor, the NRA press release explicitly condemned this behavior:

 “Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates…Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners.”

Here’s why all this is particularly interesting. As an essentially conservative organization, at least in its current incarnation, the NRA can’t call for an outright ban on anything or demand restriction on its member’s behaviors; it can only enjoin “responsibility” and “neighborliness.” In this sense, the NRA’s statement parlayed the values associated with classic American conservativism at its best: self-restraint and persuasion instead of compulsion, community consciousness and responsibility instead of regulation.

But in another sense, that press release leveraged a more contemporary feature of American conservativism – a sense that citizens’ rights are embattled, teetering on a slippery slope towards destruction. In both cases – with Smart Guns and Open Carry – the NRA statement appealed to a consequentialist logic: doing X might likely lead, someday, somehow, to Y. Allowing for the sale of Smart Guns might lead, down the line, to the outlawing of all other guns. Brazen Open Carry of long guns in fast food restaurants might lead, down the line, to pro-gun control backlash among otherwise undecided voters. However realistic each specific scenario might be, the same slippery-slope logic underwrites both.

But the problem is that the NRA doesn’t have a monopoly on that kind of logic. Open Carry advocates themselves argue that not bearing their weapons encourages an “anti-gun” atmosphere that would inevitably result in yet further limitation of their rights. As Open Carry.Org puts it: “A Right Unexercised is a Right Lost.” Just because you can do this doesn’t mean you should, said the NRA to the Open Carry movement. Because we can, we have to, was the response.

The tragic irony here, of course, is that the NRA has been relying on slippery-slope logic for decades, not least by constantly hyping fears of a (highly unlikely) renewed Assault Weapons Ban to sell guns and by invoking the specter of a (pretty much impossible) government confiscation of all guns to drive up membership. The NRA has been pushing the slippery slope angle for years, cultivating extremist gun owners for the worst case scenario. But now suddenly the NRA finds itself beholden to those extremists, and the target of their paranoid fears. Because when some Open Carry activists cut up their NRA membership cards and accused the NRA of “losing its relevance” and siding “with the gun control extremists and their lapdog media,” it was only a matter of time before Chris Cox, Executive Director at the Institute for Legislative Action, was obliged to perform a backtracking mea culpa: “Now, the truth is, an alert went out that referred to this type of behavior as weird, or somehow not normal. And that was a mistake. It shouldn’t have happened. I’ve had a discussion with the staffer who wrote that piece, and expressed his personal opinion. Our job is not to criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners.”

Listening to Cox flail uncomfortably and pin blame on some unfortunate staffer, it was hard not to recall the opening words of Friday’s press release, about people taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions, good and bad. “In ways small and large,” that release ran, “We are all in this together, and we all have a role to play in preserving our cherished freedoms for ourselves and future generations.” What does that future hold if preserving those freedoms now no longer carries even the minimum obligation to enjoin responsibility and restraint in exercising them?

 

 

 

 

The Velocity of Rage

“I decided to purchase the Glock 34 semiautomatic pistol, an efficient and highly accurate weapon. I signed all of the papers and was told that my pickup day was in mid-December. That fell in nicely, because that was when I was planning on staying in Santa Barbara till. After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who’ve looked down on me in the past.”

– from Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto,” My Twisted World

Early Saturday morning, the headlines were dominated by news of gun violence in the West – a “drive-by” in Southern California. Doubtless the first impression of many readers upon seeing those headlines was that they referred to some horrific episode of gangland violence – maybe a LA drug deal gone bad, with a body count high enough to make national news.

Within hours, though, the coverage morphed. The six dead victims weren’t gangbangers, they were “normal” people, including several students at the University of Santa Barbara. The crime scene wasn’t some bombed-out lot in South Central, it was in the prosperous beachside community of Isla Vista. And the perpetrator, who was also dead, wasn’t some drug-dealing Blood – he was 22 year-old Elliott Rodger, the son of a Hollywood filmmaker. Suddenly, the “drive-by” had become a “mass murder.”

As with the coverage of all mass murders, an immediate propensity to label Rodger a mentally ill “spree killer,” was on display, particularly within the pro-gun community.  But the question of Rodger’s psychiatric diagnosis is not just thorny but also fundamentally irrelevant. Determining whether, as his family claims, Rodger suffered from an Asperger’s-spectrum disorder, or, as seems more plausible to me, he was a malignant narcissist, is a red herring. This is not only because such speculation plays into a documented media tendency to over-emphasize mental illness as a factor in gun violence, nor because it ignores the fact those with mental illness are some five-to-six times more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators. The real problem is that focusing on Rodger’s individual pathology sidesteps the fact that his actions are symptomatic of sicknesses that are social, on the upswing, and far-too-often ignored.

Writing in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny powerfully identifies Rodger’s actions as acts of terroristic violence part-and-parcel of an existing ideology of misogynist extremism. Penny writes:

The ideology behind these attacks – and there is ideology – is simple. Women owe men. Women, as a class, as a sex, owe men sex, love, attention, “adoration”, in Rodger’s words. We owe them respect and obedience, and our refusal to give it to them is to blame for their anger, their violence – stupid sluts get what they deserve. Most of all, there is an overpowering sense of rage and entitlement: the conviction that men have been denied a birthright of easy power.

This analysis is brilliant, and, I think, absolutely right. Echoing Penny’s argument, I would also add that Rodger’s sense of frustrated masculine entitlement very much resonates with the misogyny that seethes just beneath the surface of some of most militant pro-gun extremism, and with issues of racial and financial privilege as well. Like Adam Lanza, the twenty year- old shooter at Sandy Hook, Rodger came from a background of incredible wealth and opportunity. Much as Nancy Lanza purchased numerous guns that she gave Adam as gifts, Rodger’s mother bought him a BMW 328i – the vehicle he used in his rampage – “to give him confidence.”

Just as it is hard to imagine an African-American mother spending thousands of dollars on guns to give her teenage son, it seems equally hard to imagine that a young black boy who had experienced numerous previous encounters with police and who had posted disturbing messages on the internet, as Rodger had, would be free to drive a luxury car around the California boardwalk instead of languishing in Juvenile Detention or worse. By the same token, it seems hard to imagine that, were Rodger black, largely white Men’s Rights advocates would sympathize with his experience of “loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires” for “blonde sluts.” In fact, Rodger himself found it “rage-inducing” to see a “black guy chilling with 4 hot white girls.”

To borrow a metaphor from psychiatrist Daniel Schechter the causes of violence, like extreme weather events, are multifactorial and, to some extent, impossible to predict. The interaction of wind shear and pressure differentials and atmospheric humidity can transform balmy skies into a tornado in a matter of minutes. With societies and individuals, the dynamic systems that produce violence are even harder to track, and acts of violence even more difficult to anticipate. To take but one example: insecure white men can be dominated by fears of black male sexuality, and not infrequently buy guns to defend “their” women against it – although of course the harsh statistical reality is that those guns are much more likely to be used by those men against their wives or partners than defending them against home invaders. Such acts of violence are not directly predictable, nor reducible to any single causative factor, but the bodies are very real all the same.

In the case of Rodger, where details are still being disclosed, things also seem particularly murky. But some of the interlocking, precipitating forces are visible even now, and they are both individual and collective: scorned white privilege and class entitlement in a feedback loop with festering misogynistic rage, for starters. And at the center of this particular storm, the inevitable, precipitating ingredient: guns.

There are few more brutal and irrevocable ways to subject others to your fantasies of power, to make them suffer your rage, than with a gun. Elliot Rodger may not have been as swift or smooth as he might have wished when it came to meeting women – and even his BMW’s top speed of 140 mph apparently didn’t make up for that lack of confidence – but none of that ultimately mattered, because had three handguns and thirty-odd ten-round magazines of bullets that could go 1,500 feet per second into the bodies of people he had never met.

We live in a country where public space can become the stage for some demented person’s acting out their rage, their brokenness, their hate. Although born of impotence, the velocity of their fury is deadly – it can collide with us at any time, in any place. On Friday, that place was Isla Vista.

 

 

Guntrolling, Chipotle Edition

This weekend, a bunch of folks affiliated with Open Carry Texas went into a Dallas Chipotle carrying loaded assault rifles. On the heels of a recent incident in which Open Carry activists brought weapons into a Fort Worth Jack in the Box – reportedly prompting some terrified staff to lock themselves in the restaurant freezer – this weekend’s scene in that Dallas Chipotle prompted substantial pushback, and ultimately resulted in the chain requesting customers not open carry long guns in its franchises.

BoA8k96IUAAJodY.jpg_large

Naturally, Open Carry Texas is shocked, shocked at the response. As OC Texas founder CJ Grisham told Forbes “We don’t go there just to carry guns into a restaurant,” he said. “We always let the manager know we’re coming. We try very hard to make people feel comfortable.”

Of course they didn’t go to Chipotle just to carry their guns there. They went for the barbacoa bowls and watery margaritas, and like all good foodies, they had to take a few selfies of their meal and post them online. Of course, they just happened to have their assault rifles with them at the time. But that’s not the point. Stop getting so sensitive and stuff, people. Open Carry Texas is trying very hard to make you feel comfortable.

Let’s call this what it is: trolling, pure and simple. It’s doing something outrageous that clearly codes one way – threatening and aggressive – and then throwing hands up in the air, protesting-too-much, disowning all responsibility, and claiming victim status. We’re not threatening you, say the gun trolls. In fact, it’s you who is threatening them by questioning the appropriateness and prudence of their walking around the local strip mall locked and loaded for World War III. And if you do feel threatened, well, it’s your problem, not theirs.

But of course it’s objectively threatening, and they know it. As a veteran friend who now works in law enforcement pointed out, carrying a long gun slung across your chest is called “at the ready” for a reason – and it’s not because you’re ready to eat tacos. I’ve been in plenty of places where people do openly carry weapons – Switzerland, for starters, and those rifles were fully automatic, in point of fact – but whenever I’ve seen it it’s always been done with extreme caution, responsibility, and restraint, and never at the ready. Open Carry Texas’s trollishness is obvious and reasonable pro-gun folks aren’t happy about it either.

Some people troll Internet comments sections with lame gifs and snark; others troll Twitter with sock puppets and vitriol; and still others troll fast food joints with assault rifles. As a rule, you shouldn’t feed the trolls. But it’s crucial to assess Open Carry Texas’s veneer of good faith, recognize the insane troll logic that underwrites it, and then stop feeding them — denying them attention and, if needs be, burritos, too.

Playing the Man Card

Update 5/25: In light of Friday night’s mass shooting in Isla Vista, confronting the relationship between gun violence, misogyny, and pro-gun extremism is more crucial than ever.

There’s a piece in Mother Jones by Mark Follman that’s worth a read, now more than ever. It’s about the experiences of numerous women affiliated with the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America movement. These women have been the targets of repeated acts of intimidation, including threats of rape and sexual violence, stalking, and more. In one particularly memorable episode, activist Jennifer Longdon, who was left paralyzed after a 2004 shooting by unknown attackers, claims to have been ambushed in her driveway by a man carrying a rifle and dressed in black “like something out of a commando movie.” Follman writes: “He took aim at her and pulled the trigger. Longdon was hit with a stream of water. ‘Don’t you wish you had a gun now, bitch?’ he scoffed before taking off.” Although several of Follman’s sources provided him with copies of the threats made against them – including emails and voicemails – there’s been an inevitable backlash of gun enthusiasts accusing them of fabrication.

I understand that when it comes to debates over gun rights and gun control there’s always an impulse – on both sides – to discount or otherwise question personal stories. Several of the episodes Follman reports do indeed have a sensational character to them, and in some cases the victims may not have filed police reports. I admit, I’m still inclined to believe most of these stories anyway, for two reasons. First, at least in my own experience, violent threats from pro-gun extremists are quite real. Second, it is morally reprehensible to dismiss claims of threatened sexual assault in a nation in which nearly one in five women is likely to be raped in her lifetime.

But whatever you may think about its more headline-grabbing episodes, Follman’s piece offers some evidence that’s indisputable and deeply troubling. It’s hard to see video of a group of men gleefully riddling a topless female mannequin with bullets and then photographing it with its pants down around its ankles, or to watch a Florida firearms instructor shoot up a Moms Demand Action poster as a way of saying “Happy Mothers’ Day,” and fail to recognize that there’s a deeply twisted, violent misogyny at work in certain extremist segments of the gun rights movement.

Let’s be clear about something. I believe that the majority of firearms owners, and even of ardent Second Amendment supporters, don’t actively hate women – they’re decent people, and a not-inconsiderable number of them are in fact women. Saying otherwise paints too many good people with too broad a brush, much like claiming that all gun owners and Second Amendment supporters are racists. But it would also be naive to think that debates about gun control – like practically every other contentious debate in contemporary America – aren’t also shaped by deep-seated cultural problems of sexism and racism, or that gun violence isn’t also an inextricable part of the landscape of gendered and racialized violence. Sociological data, for example, indicates that professed racism correlates with increased odds of gun ownership among whites (although opposition to gun control and racism aren’t as linked). Likewise, 44% of all women killed by guns die at the hands of former or current domestic partners, while men are more likely to die in shootings by strangers, and having a gun in a home where there’s domestic violence increases a woman’s odds of dying by some 500%. Given the extent to which guns are involved in acts of violence, and the fact that American violence all-too-often involves sexual assault, domestic abuse, and racialized fears, the presence of guns on the scene shouldn’t be too surprising.

But what Follman’s article reveals, I think, is something more – a superadded, symbolic dimension to the vehemence of pro-gun extremism that is thoroughly gendered and deeply disturbing. The men shooting that mannequin are having a blast – no pun intend – and it’s hard to ignore the relish in that Florida gun instructor’s voice. Whether or not it bleeds into outright assault (in the legal sense), the symbolic violence they are inflicting on the women who oppose them carries overtones of male sadism at its worst. They’re putting those uppity women in their place – and they’re getting off on doing it.

Frankly, it is unsurprising that female gun control activists receive threats of rape. Women who take public, controversial stances on any issue regularly receive such abuse, and worse. But I think what makes the thinly-veiled imagery of misogynistic violence emanating from the darkest corners of the pro-gun movement particularly inevitable is that it targets women who are ostensibly threatening to take men’s guns away from them. Much as rapists seek to dominate their victims – frequently as a proof of their own virility, or in response to a perceived affront to their masculinity – these men are responding to women who threaten to emasculate them by “grabbing” their guns. In other words, they fear a kind of symbolic castration, and respond by threatening symbolic – and real – sexual violence.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not jumping off the often-caricatured Freudian deep end here. For most sane folks, a cigar is just a cigar, and a gun is just a gun – although NRA Board Member Ted Nugent’s invitation to Barack Obama to “suck on my machine gun” and talk radio host Pete Santilli’s call for Hillary Clinton to be “shot in the vagina” may be the exceptions that prove that rule. Those cases aside, we do live in a nation that associates the ability to wield a gun with sexually successful masculinity, particularly in our popular media. In his excellent book On Killing, former paratrooper and West Point psychologist David Grossman observes that:

Much has been made of the relationship between male sexuality and the power of motorcycles (1,200 cc of power throbbing between your legs) and muscle cars. The continuing popularity of magazines in which motorcycles and cars are displayed along with scantily clad women in provocative positions make this relationship clear. This kind of sex-power linkage also exists in the gun world. A video advertised in gun magazines, Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns, taps this same vein. “You’ve got to see this tape to believe it,” says the ad. “14 outrageous sexy girls in string bikinis and high heels blasting away with the sexiest full auto machine guns ever produced.” The psychological state that is satisfied by Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns is not widely shared among gun aficionados and is often viewed with considerable scorn…Yet, in reality, our Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns video is only a little removed from the not-so-subliminal message of virility implied in the familiar image of a barely clad woman clinging to James Bond as he coolly brandishes a pistol.

I’d argue that the same is true for a great deal of gun advertising – hell, buying a Bushmaster is literally marketed as getting “your man card” back. Of course, in the real world, dropping a grand or two on a tacticool AR makes you an action movie star about as much as spending eight bucks on a pack of Marlboro Reds makes you a cowboy. But when it comes to the theatrical performance of American masculinity – and the marketing bottom line – projecting virility and general badassness is all that counts.

ManCard

But just because that image is a fantasy doesn’t make threatening it any less dangerous – in fact, the tenuousness of that fantasy translates directly into the ferocity with which it is protected. Shattering someone’s fantasies is a dangerous prospect, because people kill for fantasies all the time. And while I’d argue that, at the end of the day, the threat of nationwide gun confiscation is also pretty much a fantasy – one that also has a lot to do with marketing and unrealistic perceptions of personal power on both sides of the debate – I do think it’s incumbent on all of us, and in this case particularly on gun owners and Second Amendment advocates, to look this particular flavor of ugliness in the face and repudiate it.