Packing Heat in America

A police officer reacts to the Highland Park mass shooting near Chicago on July 4th (Getty images)

W.J. Astore

Another mass shooting in America, this one during a July 4th parade, killing six and wounding dozens. I saw this blinding flash of the obvious at the New York Times today: “Why does the U.S. have so many mass shootings? Mostly because people have so many guns.” Well, that seems logical. I saw an interview on MSNBC where it was asked whether the shooter was a Trump supporter and whether he was a “loner.” To his credit, the expert being interviewed explained that, though the shooter posed with a Trump flag, it may have been meant ironically, and that he wasn’t a loner in the traditional sense as he was part of an active online community of bizarre mass shooting enthusiasts.

There’s always the tendency to dismiss these shooters as loners, as nutcases, and to politicize it as well by suggesting that Trump or some other figure was at least partially responsible. But America had plenty of mass shootings before Trump came along, and these guys are not all loners. Indeed, in some sense they’re a manifestation of a society obsessed with guns and violence, of settling scores and dominating the Other (or others) through killing, mainly with guns.

Speaking of killing with guns, is it really necessary to shoot an apparently unarmed Black man sixty times (!) after he fled a traffic stop? Here’s the story from CNN:

The city of Akron, Ohio, remains on edge one week after the fatal police shooting of 25-year-old Jayland Walker. A news conference held by city officials on Sunday — along with the release of 13 police body camera videos — has started to paint a fuller picture of the shooting, which police say happened when Walker, who is Black, fled an attempted traffic stop on June 27. Walker was unarmed at the time he was killed, Akron Police Chief Stephen Mylett said. Authorities said Walker suffered at least 60 wounds in the fatal shooting. The Mayor of Akron declared a state of emergency and issued a curfew for Monday night through this morning in order to “preserve peace” in the community. 

A “curfew” to preserve peace: Something tells me we’re going to see a lot more of these “curfews” in the U.S. in the coming years, enforced by heavily armed police with converted MRAPs and similar tank-like vehicles. It’s hard not to think that America’s overseas wars have come home to Main Street USA, not in the same form as Baghdad or Kabul, but close enough.

Americans tend to put a lot of faith in “good guys with guns.” Those “good guys” failed to act for more than an hour in Uvalde, Texas, a delay that led to more children being slaughtered. In Akron, Ohio, the “good guys” apparently fired more than 60 rounds at Jayland Walker, who apparently was unarmed at the time of the shooting (though apparently he had a gun in his car). I like this official statement by the police: “The decision to deploy lethal force as well as the number of shots fired is consistent with use of force protocols and officers’ training,” the Fraternal Order of Police Akron Lodge 7 said in a statement.

America is in the (pistol) grips of a massive social experiment: what happens to a society when it’s consistently betrayed by its leaders, when people are increasingly desperate and fearful, and where those same people are massively armed with readily-available guns, including military-grade firearms. A society that continues to advertise violence on its TV and cable shows, that continues to suggest that more guns are the answer to gun violence, where the Supreme Court of the land embraces the idea of open carry of loaded firearms as a fundamental Constitutional right. It seems a foregone conclusion that such an experiment can only lead to higher body counts across the country. And indeed there were many more deadly shootings this past weekend, as this article summarizes.

Welcome to “extreme life,” as Tom Engelhardt notes today at TomDispatch.com. And while his article focuses mainly on soaring temperatures and extreme weather due to climate change, he starts by noting how the Supreme Court struck down the New York law that restricted the carrying of concealed firearms. Yes, America today is “packing heat” in more ways than one. Rising temperatures, soaring gun sales, more and more mass shootings, increasing alienation and unease: these times aren’t just “interesting,” as the alleged Chinese curse goes, they truly are increasingly extreme.

And in extremity, people often make the worst of choices, turning to anyone who promises them relief, a measure of “peace,” even if it takes the form of a militarized curfew.

Mass Shootings and American Carnage

mass-shooting

W.J. Astore

What can you say about mass shootings in America that hasn’t already been said?  El Paso and Dayton (not Toledo, Mr. Trump) are the most recent in a seemingly unending series of shootings in America.  A grim statistic:

“Dayton was the 22nd mass killing in America this year, according to an AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass murder database, which tracks all attacks involving four or more people killed.”

Or, alternatively: “The shooting in Ohio marked the 31st deadly mass shooting in America this year, defined as those where at least three people are killed by gun violence in a single episode.”

Or, alternatively:

“As of today (Aug. 4), we are 216 days into 2019. In the US over that time, more than 1,300 people have been injured or killed in mass shootings, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive.

QUARTZ
Injuries and deaths related to mass shootings.

The nonprofit organization, which is based in Washington, DC, defines a mass shooting as an event in which at least four people were shot. By its calculations, that means there have been some 292 mass shootings in the US since the year began.”

In a prepared statement this morning, President Trump came out against white supremacy, racism, and bigotry, but tragically this is a clear case of “Do what I say, not what I do” for Trump.  He compounded his hypocrisy by ignoring the ready availability of assault weapons, blaming instead mental illness and violent video games, among other factors.

Firstly, the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.  Secondly, violent video games are a global phenomenon, but I’m not reading about dozens of mass shootings each year in Japan or Korea or Sweden.

Trump’s weak-willed words were thoroughly predictable; he’s closely aligned with the National Rifle Association and its total fixation on gun rights to the exclusion of all others.  He’s not alone in this.  When I taught in rural Pennsylvania, my students knew all about the Second Amendment.  But their knowledge of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments was far weaker.  Yes, for many Americans guns really do trump free speech, freedom of the press, and similar rights.

Predictably, Americans search for a magic bullet (pun intended) after these horrifying massacres to put a stop to them.  How about better background checks?  Eliminating extended magazines for the millions of assault rifles that are already in the hands of Americans?  Better databases to track the mentally ill and the criminally violent?  And so on.  And we should have better background checks before you can buy a gun; we should stop selling military-style hardware; we should keep better track of dangerous people.  But steps such as these will only stem the violence (if that).  They won’t put an end to it.

Our culture is suffused with violence.  At the same time, powerful forces are at play (stoked by our very own president) to divide us, to inflame our passions, to turn us against them, where “them” is some category of “other,” as with the El Paso shooter, who targeted immigrants “invading” America.

To stop mass shootings, we must change our culture of violence.  This is made much more difficult by men like Trump, who’ve embraced violent rhetoric for their own selfish purposes.  But we must change it nonetheless, else witness more carnage across America.

Note to readers: This is not the first time I’ve written about violence and guns in America.  Here are links to a few articles on this subject at Bracing Views:

God, Country, Guns

Guns and Grievances

“People Who Cherish the Second Amendment”

America: Submerged in a Violent Cesspool

Lockdown America and School Shootings

God, Country, Guns

mass shooting

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I saw a sticker on a pickup truck that read “God, Country, Guns.”  To me, that sticker made as much sense as “God, Country, Hammers” or “God, Country, Bicycles.”  A gun is just that: a tool, an object, like a hammer or a bicycle, only much more dangerous in the wrong hands.

But many Americans don’t look at guns as tools, as objects, as a deadly technology that requires great care and also strict regulations.  They identify it with God and Country.  They see it as representing certain values, such as freedom and liberty and individuality.  For some men, guns are synonymous with masculinity.  They are symbols of potency.  Of agency.  They are worthy of protection, indeed of a lifelong vow, ’til death do us part.  Hence the catchphrase, “you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

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This sacralization of the gun, its elevation as a totem of strength and virility, its hugely symbolic presence in American life, is an important reason why gun control efforts largely fail, even in the aftermath of horrendous mass shootings.  Reasoned and reasonable efforts to limit mass shootings, e.g. by banning military-style assault weapons, high-capacity clips, and bump stocks, are no match for people’s emotional — I daresay religious or spiritual — attachment to guns.

I’ve owned guns myself and have enjoyed firing everything from a pellet rifle to a .45-70 and from a .22 pistol to a .44 magnum.  As a historian of technology, I appreciate the history of guns as well as their aesthetic beauty.  (If you go to a gun show or hang around gun owners, you’ll often hear guns described as “beautiful.”)  But my appreciation for guns doesn’t translate to an affection for them.  And in the cause of greater public safety and a reduction in mass shootings, I’d like to see stricter regulations for certain guns and related accessories.

Again, here are three reasonable changes I’d like to see:

  1. No military-style assault or high-caliber sniper rifles.
  2. No high-capacity clips.
  3. No bump stocks or other devices to increase rate of fire.

Yet, no matter how reasonable these changes seem to most, organizations like the National Rifle Association will oppose them,* as will those who associate guns with God and Country and freedom and similar values.

Growing up in the 1970s, I remember reading “Field and Stream” and “Outdoor Life” (and an occasional “American Rifleman” too).  In the early ’80s, I wrote a paper on the history of hunting in America prior to the U.S. Civil War.  Until fairly recently, gun owners focused mainly on hunting and personal protection, using weapons like bolt-action or lever-action rifles, shotguns, and revolvers.  Rifles that I recall friends talking about or owning were .30-06 or .30-30.  Nobody talked about owning an AR-15 or AK-47 or similar military-style assault rifles with “banana” (high-capacity) clips and bump stocks.

America, of course, is a land of extremes, and one example is today’s gun-rights crowd, which attacks all regulations or restrictions as an assault on their “rights” or “way of life” as articulated in the Second Amendment.  But it didn’t use to be this way.  Indeed, it wasn’t this way when I was a teenager.  How did guns become so venerated, so cherished, so worshiped, in American culture?  So much so that people ride around today with stickers equating gun ownership with God and Country?

As long as our society continues to worship the gun, the more likely it is that we’ll suffer more mass shootings — and indeed shootings in general.

*Yes, in the aftermath of the Vegas Massacre, it’s true the NRA said it wouldn’t oppose “additional regulations” on bump stocks.  Note, however, that no ban is forthcoming from Congress.  The NRA are a savvy bunch…

Guns and Grievances

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Guns look way too cool in our movies

W.J. Astore

The news out of Orlando is shocking.  Another mass shooting in America.  Another 50+ people dead with an additional 50+ wounded.  And then I saw this headline:

“America has 4.4% of the world’s population, but almost 50% of the civilian-owned guns around the world”

The ready availability of guns in America, to include military-style assault weapons with 30-round clips, makes it far easier for shooters bent on murder to kill large numbers of people.  It doesn’t matter what you call these shooters, whether you label them terrorists or lone wolves or crazed lunatics or whatever.  Apparently the latest shooter bought his guns legally, had a grievance against gay people, expressed some last-minute allegiance to ISIS, and then started blasting away at innocent people in a club that was friendly to gays.

Sure, guns alone are not to blame.  The primary person to blame is the shooter/murderer himself.  But (to repeat myself) the guns sure make it a lot easier to kill, and in large numbers.

We live in a sick society, often a very violent one, certainly a disturbed one, one that places enormous stress on people.  Another exceptional headline that I first heard on Bill Maher is that America, again with 4.4% of the world’s population, takes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs.

Guns and drugs – the two don’t mix, even when they’re legal.   Americans are over-armed and over-medicated.  Add to that mix the fact that Americans are under-educated, at least compared to our peers in the developed world, and you truly have a toxic brew.

Over-armed, over-medicated, and under-educated: surely this is not what our leaders have in mind when they call us the exceptional nation, the indispensable one, the greatest on earth.  Is it?