Tag Archives: guns

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.

Living with Fear

Two things. First, this piece is longer and more personal than what I normally post. There isn’t any Constitutional reasoning here, no policy positions, no advocacy. Second, while I don’t normally go in for “trigger warnings,” I think in this case that I should flag that what follows is going to be intense, and involve some very real, very violent, and very troubling things.

I.

Over the course of the past year and a half, I’ve gotten a lot of mail, from all sorts of people – civilians, both gun owners and non-, law enforcement officers, veterans. Some of the letters have been supportive, others have been critical; some have been uplifting, others, terrifying. An Op-Ed of mine that ran in the New York Daily News generated the most of the last category, including a series of emails from someone I believe is associated with a specific extremist group. This individual wanted to let me know that America was on an inevitable path towards a second Civil War and that, when it finally broke out, I would be a prime target for liquidation.

Understanding my NYDN piece as a call for a renewed Assault Weapon Ban (which in fact I don’t support), he told me that such a measure would represent “the complete and total rape” of his “human rights.” Claiming that my position, as he understood it, made me a “slave-owning scumbag” – a term which he insisted had nothing to do with race, not least because he despised what he termed America’s “large, perpetual race-grievance based dependent class” – this person went on to write that that “background checks are a gross violation of my human rights…ALL existing firearms laws are.” “Get this through your dumb fucking head,” he wrote, in his last, most agitated letter. “This isn’t “absolutist,” this isn’t “rhetoric.”  I will defend my rights with my life, and if you don’t understand what that implies, then I will state it plainly: I am willing to kill for my rights.”

He didn’t have to put that last bit in bold to make his point, although he did anyway. For my part, I got the message loud and clear: however idiosyncratic his understanding of what constituted rape or slavery, this man was not afraid to kill people.

II.

His militancy, and the response to the NYDN piece in general, rattled me. But while all that left me afraid – scared to go out, at least for a while, skittish leaving the library late at night, jumpy on the decks of dark parking lots – nothing hit me quite like another letter I received, in response to another piece, this time in The Daily Beast. My friend Jason and I had gone to an Atlanta-area gun show to take portrait pictures and interview the attendees. We were there with the permission of the organizers, and entirely open about what we were doing. For the most part, the folks we met were welcoming, chatty, and even warm, but the private sellers – people who were there looking to sell guns for cash and handshake, no questions asked – didn’t appreciate the exposure. One in particular got agitated by our presence, threw a fit, and forced us to leave. Paradoxically, it seemed that my notebook and Jason’s camera frightened him – even though he was the one walking around with a Colt AR slung across his back. “We leave,” that article concluded, “without ever getting a chance to ask everybody what they’re so afraid of.”

The letter I got about that piece wasn’t typed. It had been painstakingly handwritten on a few pages of looseleaf and then mailed to the coordinator of a prison outreach organization that had reprinted the piece in its newsletter; the coordinator had then scanned the letter and sent it on to Jason and me. I won’t share the author’s name, or the names of his victims – I have no desire to give him an extended platform, or to magnify the suffering of their relatives – but suffice it to say that he’s currently serving a life sentence in prison somewhere in the South for his role in a multi-day, multi-state crime spree that he undertook with his two brothers over a decade ago. He was eighteen at the time; his older brother was twenty-one; the youngest accomplice, fifteen. Their meth-fueled rampage culminated when, just a few days before Christmas, they arrived at the home of a woman in her mid-twenties whom they later told authorities they had intended to rape and rob. Her three-year old daughter answered the door. Hours later, the girl’s naked body was found on the house floor – she had been sexually assaulted, her throat slit multiple times. Her mother’s corpse was found handcuffed to a bed, covered with a cushion, shot once in the head.

This man did not write to apologize. By his own admission, his actions were beyond atonement. Nor still did he write to place the blame for his crime on guns – although he did note that despite the fact that his older brother had been previously institutionalized for behavioral problems and a suicide attempt, he had encountered no problems acquiring “a sizeable little arsenal.” Those weapons included “a Colt AR-15, 12ga Mossberg, 9mm S&W SA, 9mm Ruger P95, .38 Charter Arms, .44 Colt Anaconda, .380 Bryco and a .22 Lorcin. I distinctly recall [being at one gun store],” this prisoner wrote, “[where] the cashier eyed us nervously and said ‘Y’all don’t kill nothing that don’t need killin.’” But the primary purpose of his letter wasn’t to talk about guns. Instead, he wrote to Jason and me about the last line of our article, which had “gotten” him.

This leaves me with the last line – “What are they so afraid of?” In a word, “Society.” I sincerely hope that what I am about to say isn’t misconstrued. I have no defense in what I was a part of and I got exactly what was coming to me. But it is of vital importance (I believe) that it be said that victims generally learn to fear, and that fear very easily translates into hatred. Such was my case in all this. I was an 18 year-old carrying guns, knives, tasers, you name it. All those things were my shield. I only felt secure when I could see myself being able to lash out. To a greater or lesser degree I think that’s precisely the fascination with guns today. The relationship between fear and hate I feel is closely mirrored in the difference between the responsible use of guns and the explosive violence they have gained notoriety for.

This man, who claimed to have re-converted to Catholicism in prison, concluded his letter with something that brought me up short. “There is no atonement for what I [was] part of. I will forever recall [the victims] as the greatest tragedy of my existence. But out of all of this I have learned something I never thought of. It is impossible to love with fear in your heart.”

Right after I got this man’s letter, I Googled his name, and clicked on the first link that came up. The first thing that flashed across the screen was a photo of that little girl, her eyes big and blue, her grin, toothy and wide. For weeks after getting her killer’s letter, I couldn’t stop seeing her face in my dreams. A doorbell rings, and she bounds to answer it, bright-eyed and smiling. She opens the door, and the brothers are there, standing on the porch.

The letter from that militia sympathizer may have given me panic during the day, and occasionally it still does if I think about it too much, but he doesn’t invade my sleep. The three year-old girl opening that door, though, is a nightmare I still can’t shake.

III.

Just last week, Byron Smith of Little Falls, Minnesota, received a sentence of life in prison for the premeditated murder of 17-year-old Nick Brady and 18-year-old Haile Kifer, a pair of cousins. Smith had grown exasperated with previous unsolved burglaries, and so, on Thanksgiving Day of 2012, he decided to set a trap for anyone foolish enough to enter his home. Smith moved his car to make it appear that he was not at home, and then waited in his basement in a chair he called his “deer stand,” equipped with energy bars, bottled water, and two guns. He also took an audio recording of the entire affair – you can listen to it here, if you want to.

On the tape, we hear glass breaking as Brady enters the basement, and then we hear Smith shoot Brady twice. Brady collapses and moans, and then Smith shoots him again, saying, with evident relish, “You’re dead!” after he fires the last round. Smith drags Brady’s corpse away on a tarp he’s laid out specifically for the purpose of not getting blood on his basement carpet, and then he adjusts his weapons while waiting for Kifer, who enters moments afterwards. He shoots her, and she falls down and gasps.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” he says to her, sweetly. Kifer begins to weep, “Oh my God!” Standing above her, Smith then fires twice more. “You’re dying!” he exults. And then one more round, followed by Smith sneering: “Bitch.”

After cleaning up the bodies, Smith delivers a breathy tirade into the still-running audio recorder. Among the other things he says, he offers the following:

“I refuse to live in fear. I am not a bleeding heart liberal. I felt like I was cleaning up a mess. Not like spilled food. Not like vomit. Not even like diarrhea, the worst mess possible. They weren’t human. I don’t see them as human. I see them as vermin. This bitch was going to go through her life spoiling things for other people. Stealing, robbing, drug abuse. It’s all fun, cool, exciting, and highly profitable, until someone kills you. Like I give a damn who she is? “Oh, sorry!” …. I try to be a good person. I try to do what I should, be friendly to other people, help them when I can, try to be a good citizen, not cheat people, be fair. And because I’m a good person, they think I’m a patsy, I’m a sucker. They think I’m there for them to take advantage of. Is that the reward for being a good person? And if I gather enough evidence, they might be prosecuted. If they’re prosecuted, it might go to court. If it goes to court, they might be found guilty. And if they’re found guilty, they might spend six months, two years in jail, and then they’re out, and they need money worse than ever, and they’re filled with revenge. I cannot live a life like that. I cannot have that chewing on me for the rest of life. I cannot, I refuse to live with that level of fear in my life.”

No one disputes that Kifer and Brady were attempting to burglarize Smith’s home. No one also disputes that, all told, Smith fired nine shots from two different weapons, most after the two teenagers lay wounded at his feet, and that both Kifer and Brady were unarmed.

IV.

"Information Desk" - by Jessica C. White

“Information Desk” – by Jessica C. White

Not too long ago I was visiting Asheville, North Carolina. In a gallery near French Broad, I found myself transfixed by a piece of art in a way that’s never happened before. The piece was by Jessica C. White, a brilliant artist who does woodcuts on a variety of themes, including a series of images that appear to be taken from surreal, faintly macabre children’s books. The one that caught my eye was called “Information Desk.”

The scene is somewhere in a thick, ominous forest. A girl in a cute little dress with an orange bow stands in front of a large office desk behind which sits a large brown bear, his paws stretched out neatly in front of him. She seems diffident and fragile, vulnerable, but also graceful and present and strong. Silhouettes of wolves lurk among the trees behind her, no less foreboding for being shadowy and spectral. The girl looks over her shoulder in their direction, at once seemingly worried but also somehow untroubled, as she asks the bear, “Can you tell me how to live without fear?”

Looking at the girl, reading her question, I stood transfixed, and then I started sobbing, crying in a way I hadn’t since I was a child. I thought about that girl in the photo, about the men at her door, about fear, about how there are wolves and bears, some imagined, some dreamed, and some so very, very real. I thought about all the letters, about the calls, about the threats, about the nightmares, and about how nothing made me want to go out and buy another gun and keep it under my pillow more than people telling me that they would relish watching me die for the outrage of using my First Amendment rights to ask them to reflect on how they understood our Second Amendment ones. I thought about how it’s impossible to love with fear in your heart, and I thought about how being unafraid to kill people doesn’t mean that you are actually free from fear – that in fact it can mean just the opposite. And I realized then and there that I was OK with being scared, that I was OK with being frightened, but that I wouldn’t ever, ever live dominated by fear.

Because there’s fear and then there’s fear. There’s a way to “refuse” fear by doubling down on living in it, and then there’s a way to live with it that’s not a disavowal, but a recognition. I think living in a democracy means accepting that we are ultimately fundamentally vulnerable to each other, like it or not. Of course, some days, I’m terrified by this fact, and I feel like I don’t have firm answers about anything; other days, I feel like I understand myself and my fellow Americans only less and less. But for all that, what I remain certain of is that we can’t afford to keep living in fear.

 

 

Some Thoughts on Policy

Site traffic has gone up, and so I want to take a moment to spell some things out explicitly. This blog and my writing on guns and American culture more broadly are about reflection rather than policy advocacy. I want to explore the place firearms occupy in our cultural and political landscape, and to evaluate critically how they are involved in distinctively American experiences of historical violence and ongoing social conflict. This is a daunting enough task without wading into policy prescriptions. That said, today’s debates about guns and gun control are so polarizing and so frequently lacking in nuance that it’s almost impossible to talk about these things without being pigeonholed – and so I want to make my positions, such as they are, very clear.

(1) I believe the State legally cannot and practically will not take any law-abiding citizens’ guns away from them, full stop. The Second Amendment guarantees a right to bear arms, and the Supreme Court’s decisions in DC versus Heller and McDonald versus Chicago enshrine that as an individual right more securely than ever before in American history. I suspect that this interpretation will only be cemented further if the Court decides to hear Drake versus Jerejian. The original intent and context of the “well regulated militia” clause are, at this point, entirely moot.

(2) I do not support a renewed or revamped Assault Weapons Ban (AWB). I have a variety of reasons for this, which I’ll outline at some other point, but suffice it to say that I feel that many AWB proponents are operating under a mistaken set of assumptions, that numerous politicians who advocate an AWB are misguided, and that the entire issue is a red herring. The more fundamental problem in America today is that life in general is cheap, with some folks’ lives valued even less than others. Fixing that – to the extent to which it is even possible – demands changing consciousness and deepening our capacity for compassion, not regulating barrel length or stock configuration. The issue of mass shootings, which at this point I think have become a fixture of life in contemporary America, complicates things (since you can kill a lot more folks a lot more quickly with a drum magazine as opposed to a ten-round clip) but that’s a topic for another time and there, too, I still don’t think a new AWB is the answer.

(3) Like 91% of Americans, I think we need a Universal Background check system. I’m glad to talk more about this, and about the potential complications and pitfalls (particularly when issues of mental health privacy are involved) but I firmly believe that this is one issue where we have to do better, and where we can.

(4) I find extremism – both pro- and anti-gun – repugnant. A defining feature of America is our Constitutionally protected right to engage in meaningful conversation with one another. At its best, this means dialogue – talking with one another, not at or over each other. Being made uncomfortable by an opinion different than one’s own is not the same as suffering a literal assault, and encountering people who live and understand the world differently is not an affront to one’s way of life. Confronting these challenges with tolerance and openness is a basic part of what it means to live together in a democracy, and here, again, we have to do better.

OK, that’s it. Thanks for visiting – I hope you’ll stick around.

What’s the Matter with Georgia?

Just last week, Georgia governor Nathan Deal signed off on legislation that vastly expands the scope of places where state residents can carry guns. “When we limit a Georgian’s ability to carry a weapon — to defend themselves — we’re empowering the bad guys,” offered Representative Rick Jasperse, who introduced the bill to the legislature. One wonders why Jasperse feels it necessary to “empower bad guys” by stipulating an exemption for the Capitol building and the offices in which he himself works – presumably he trusts his constituents to carry guns in bars, churches, schools, and airports, but just not around him.

In any event, there are two new pieces of gun-related news out of Georgia. First, and tragically, there’s been yet another mass shooting – this time at a FedEx facility in Kennesaw. Details on that are still unfolding, but at least six people have been shot, two critically, and the shooter, who reportedly entered the site dressed “like Rambo” is dead by his own hand. I don’t live in Atlanta any more, but my thoughts are with the victims, and I send my friends in the area my hopes for their safety and peace.

Secondly, and this is the type of thing that doesn’t make national headlines, a man with a pistol strapped to his hip spent some time milling around a parking lot in a Forsyth County public park while a children’s baseball game was going on. Twenty-two people called the cops, who arrived and determined that the armed citizen in question was breaking no laws. “He’s just walking around [saying] ‘See my gun? Look, I got a gun and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ He knew he was frightening people. He knew exactly what he was doing,” said one parent, Karen Rabb. Another parent spoke of trying to put her distraught son to bed that night – the child kept asking, “Mommy did that man want to kill me?”

I’m not sure if this kind of guntrolling is the type of activity Representative Jasperse would like to encourage (although he’s certainly helped make it possible). But reading the response of that concerned mother — “I own a gun. I have no problems with the Second Amendment. But they do not belong in a parking lot where we have children everywhere. If you want to make a statement, go to the Capitol” — and actually agreeing with her (at least in part), I also feel compelled to note that, while you might be able to get away with taking a gun to the steps outside the Capitol, you certainly can’t bring it inside. Because, unlike where your kids are trying to have their little league game, bad guys are still empowered there.

 

Let’s Talk About Guntrolling

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

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

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

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

Shelter in Place

Starting a new week, let’s take a brief moment to reflect on the one just past. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – on each day, a High School or college campus somewhere across this country was either locked down because of reports of an active shooter or because of an actual shooting (two of which were fatal). On Saturday, a mass shooting in Columbia, Maryland, that left three dead and five injured, while in Baltimore proper, the murder rate is now just about one per day. And if you’ll look, you’ll find that Sunday was marked by violence too – not least in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where a group of local Pastors who had planned on marking the day as “Justice Sunday” and preaching against community gun violence did so as local police put in weekend hours investigating a triple shooting.

This is our normal, now.

On Twitter yesterday, the writer Jessica Luther of the Atlantic noted that, of the Columbia victims, one, Brianna Benlolo, was only 21 years old, and leaves behind a two-year old child. “There’s apparently no story tragic enough to create change RE: gun control laws,” observed Luther.

This is simply true, on the face of it. If the story of twenty toddlers mowed down within minutes in a wealthy Connecticut suburb can’t galvanize policy change in this jaded nation, then no story will.

No stories, no matter how tragic, will change anything, because this is how we’ve decided, collectively, to live. Or at least, it’s how some of us have decided that we are to live, with some of us living it more than others.

Stories are vital. But stories – no matter how heartbreaking – won’t end structural violence and broken lawmaking.  Either we confront our national history of violence, the way our culture is steeped in it – or we don’t.  Either we confront industry capture of our legislature, the ability of an extremist minority and the corporate interests that encourage them to overrule common sense and majority sentiment – or we don’t.

But for those of us who believe in the power of stories – and I’m one of them – maybe, also, there’s a place for talking about those structures in terms of stories, however crude.

A nation built with guns, under the sign of guns, is consumed by them. America’s ballistic growth has reached its limits, can go no further, and now turns in on itself. What gave us our manifest destiny now claims our future, robs us of our children in brutal atavism.

But: “Our” future. “Our” children. “Us.”

Therein also lies the problem.

Because some of the people who live on this continent, in this place, have been losing their children to this thing for much, much longer than others. And some people who once lived here are just gone because of it. Gone. Children, parents, entire peoples. Just gone.

Who are we to think we can live without this touching us? Do we really believe this?

We built this country – built “us” – on the premise that an economy of violence can maintain a strict logic of externalities, brutally enforced borders between oppressors and oppressed, settlers and natives, masters and slaves, citizens and non-. But violence doesn’t work that way, on principle, and definitely not in our crowded, contentious democracy. Violence cannot be contained. And there is no external, no outside anymore. Not here, not in this place, not within us.

So we go to the mall. We go to work. We take our kids to school. We wait for the bus. We walk across campus. We take in a movie. We sleep in our beds.

We shelter in place.

But there is no shelter.

Not in this place.

Not Just For My Son

Earlier this week, I attended a Town Hall event in East Atlanta organized by State Senator Vincent Fort and a suite of community groups. The event focused on repealing Georgia’s Stand Your Ground legislation (SYG; GC 16-3-21) and was a deeply powerful experience.

Lucia McBath

Lucia McBath

Of the many phenomenal speakers that night, one in particular downright tore the roof off with her heartbreaking story and raw power: Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, a 17 year-old boy who was shot to death while sitting in a car with some friends in a gas station parking lot in Florida. Davis’ killer, Michael Dunn, a 46-year-old white man, apparently felt that the boys’ “thug music” was threatening, and when the boys refused to turn it down, he emptied the clip of his handgun into the vehicle. Dunn, who had allegedly been drinking heavily at the time, is pursuing a modified SYG defense because he claims he believed he saw one of the boys inside the car reach for a shotgun. Dunn immediately fled the scene; no such weapon was ever found.

McBath, whose father was for two decades the President of the Illinois NAACP, spoke movingly about how she had raised her son. “My son was taught and trained to stand up for himself, and he told Dunn they weren’t bothering anyone and that if he had a problem he could just roll his windows up… And Dunn, because they didn’t do what he told them, empowered by his gun, he fired ten rounds into the car and three of those bullets instantly killed my son.” McBath – whose bravery is humbling and inspiring and profound – ended her speech with a plangent appeal for recognition, for action: “I feel in my heart at times that I am a lonely warrior. That no one hears me. I am begging you to hear me. Not just for my son, but for Trayvon, for Sandy Hook, for so many…This has to end.”

As McBath spoke, people yelled back – “We hear you! We hear you!” – and when the speaker asked for folks to pledge to sign petitions and march and call the Governor the audience response was tremendous. We held hands and prayed and sang and I for one walked out with faith in the capacity of righteous people in numbers to do good, to effect change. And I think these people will.

But then I got home and read an article in Mother Jones and it made me ill. It’s by a reporter named Josh Harkinson, and you should read it – it’s not long. In quick summary: Bushmaster Firearms International, the company which makes the XM-15, the AR-style assault rifle Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook massacre last year, is a subsidiary of a company called the Freedom Group (AKA Remington Outdoor Company Inc.), which is in turn a property of Cerberus Capital Management, LP, a private equity firm that possesses nearly $20 billion in assets. Immediately after the shootings in Newtown, and in the face of public outcry, Cerberus pledged to liquidate its holdings in Freedom Group. A year later, it still hasn’t. Why not? Well, in large part, it’s because Freedom Group and Bushmaster are making more money than ever before. As Harkinson explains: “Between January and the end of September, the company raked in $94 million in profits on more than $1 billion in gun and ammo sales, compared with just $500,000 in net profits during the same period in 2012… According to the Freedom Group’s third quarter report, this year’s earnings spike came primarily from a $42 million bump in sales of “centerfire rifles,” a category which includes the XM-15.”

There is so much wrong here. Setting aside some of the more obscene ironies that Harkinson’s on-point reportage highlights (for example, the fact that the California State Teachers Retirement System continues to hold a $750 million dollar stake in Cerberus) the picture that emerges is of deep structures of power and embedded interests that stretch across multiple institutions, private, public, non-profit, and more – with the NRA serving, as it so often does, as the nexus at the heart of things. Because, of course, the folks who call the shots – so to speak – at Freedom Group are heavily represented on the NRA’s Nominating Committee, arguably the most important decision-making body in that institution, and as individuals are major donors to the NRA (in fact, they’re in the “Golded Ring of Freedom” club of million-dollar-plus contributors). And it’s not a far step from that, either, to note the confluences of interest and lobbying activities that link the NRA and the right-wing, corporate-sponsored American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – whose activities in promulgating SYG laws in conjunction with the NRA are a matter of public record.

My goal here isn’t to sketch out an org chart, nor to sniff out (not-so) secret pathways of converging interests, nor to finger individuals for blame – although there are plenty of folks in this story who deserve public shame (not that they give a damn about it). Instead, I want to make an observation, at once structural and personal, about our contemporary moment.

The continued, outrageous profits raked in by Bushmaster and the insulation of Cerberus in its hypocritical efforts to placate public scorn, combined with the successful legislative advocacy of industry-sponsored groups like ALEC – including but not limited to SYG – represent a twisted state of affairs that is at once classic American capitalism at its worst but also something  uniquely of our 21st Century moment. Industries manufacturing products that hurt people, making money hand over fist in the process, and then successfully protecting their interests through shaping legislation are as old as this country itself, as is the pervasive enmeshment of all our financial activities, however ostensibly benign they may seem, in such activities. But the degree of legislative power today’s firearms industry wields – power, I think, rivalling that of players in the financial sector – has no parallel with any other group thanks to the added element of its frankly ludicrous claim to uniquely patriotic standing and a misbegotten Constitutional warrant that has been twisted and deformed beyond all recognition by those with a financially motivated interest to do so.

But of course that’s not all of it. It’s not just about lobbyists and lawyers and businesspeople gaming the legislative system, shamelessly declaring their best intentions, and piously gesturing at doing the right thing even as they continue to enrich themselves. It’s about selling people fear, about cultivating their fears to stoke marketplace demand, and about enabling their clientele to act those fears out in the most violent ways imaginable.

Let’s get real: there are gun manufacturers and retailers who don’t mind mobilizing insurrectionist fantasies and white supremacist irredentism to move their product. That’s part of their business model. And not just that: they’ve acted, successfully, to change our legislative landscape so that when their clients act on those fears and kill others – children, even – both the killers and their enablers face no blowback whatsoever. Instead, they profit.

And let’s get even realer: if our society – with all its hideous double standards – does nothing – nothing, nothing, nothing – when twenty toddlers, nearly all of them white, and in a wealthy community in the Northeast to boot, are slaughtered, mercilessly – what in the name of God  would ever drive us to action?

“I am begging you to hear me. Not just for my son, but for Trayvon, for Sandy Hook, for so many…This has to end.”

COPYRIGHT JASON FRANCISCOMy friend and frequent collaborator Jason Francisco does work photographing graffiti memorials to murder victims in the most blighted parts of North Philly – walking so-called “murder corridors” with his Leica. New memorials go up every week, sometimes, every day. So many. So many kids. Last year, he took a picture of a massive one, on the Corner of 5th and Cecil B. Moore. The mural stretches up and down, easily six feet tall, sprayed lovingly on a cinderblock wall mounted with barbed wire.  A childlike angel, faceless, its hands clasped in prayer, floats next to the epitaph: “Dedicated to Sandy Hook Elementary School.” Sending the photo to me, Jason remarked: “I hope there is an equally enlightened graffiti writer in Newtown, CT who remembers the victims of gun violence in Philadelphia.”

I’m not a gambling man, but I’m willing to make my bets on that one.

That Town Hall event earlier this week was powerful. It left me feeling hope and conviction. I still feel those things, and believe that SYG can be repealed, and my heart and solidarity is with those who fight towards that end. But against forces so powerful, against exploitation and oppression so thorough and vile and total – beyond simply repealing laws but to changing attitudes, to changing our culture, to changing our way of life – what is to be done? I wish I knew. But I do know that we have to try.

———-

Note: I didn’t bring an audio recorder with me to the SYG event, and am working from my handwritten notes. If I’ve gotten any of the quotes – or any other details wrong – please let me know, and I will amend this accordingly. As always, the same goes for the rest of the content in this piece.

If you want read more about the NRA Board, you can do so here. If you want to learn more about the geographic breakdown of gun violence in America’s inner cities, I recommend this article.

Jason Francisco’s photoseries on Philadelphia’s Murder Corridors, “These Are the Names” is available here. It’s really worth checking out.