Guns: a topic guaranteed to sow division. While guns may be as American as genocide, colonialism, Hollywood blockbusters and Ponzi schemes, they are something people are amazingly inept at talking about. This isn’t another op-ed about how every citizen has a right to open-carry a belt-fed Squad Automatic Weapon, or a simpering NPR thinkpiece on how no one should feel compelled to carry a gun in a civil society. I am skeptical of any claim rooted in citizenship and too cynical to believe we live in an civil society. This isn’t to deny that gun culture is tied to extremely racist paranoia (like the Don Quixote of the gold standard/Bitcoin, Ron Paul, teaching his chosen son Rand how to use a gun because “the animals are coming” after the 1992 LA riots). Most recently, this has been reflected in the rash of stories about the “Muslim-Free” gun store that seems like a performance art piece to showcase how vile Florida is. Doubling down, the store received an endorsement from George Zimmerman, who painted a Confederate flag as some sort of half-assed attempt at creative liberty and “giving back” to the racists who backed his legal defense fund.
Guns are extremely loaded symbols because they are tied so heavily to the national imagery. In essence, I think some of the points I am trying to make about guns have some international applicability, but the context I can most confidently write about is within the U$A. However, diatribes related to restrictions on gun ownership are often interested in abstractions—”the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” vs. “shame on the NRA*”—rather than looking at the interlocking processes of gun lobbying: the suits who lobby on behalf of gun manufacturers, gun dealers and their customers, and the regulations dictating the sale and possession of firearms and ammunition.
*Honestly, the regulation lobby is fucking terrible when it comes to slogans regarding gun control, and the more professional (although no less hollow) pro-gun lobby proffers up such stirring march chants as “N-R-A We Won’t Go A-Way,” which is not exactly Yeats.
Federal law is a Frankenstein’s monster of bizarre, poorly explained bans and guidelines restricting ownership of particular makes and models. This is complicated by the fact that it is expensive to deal with retroactively illegal materials; that is, it is extremely expensive for the ATF to purchase back all currently illegal weapons and then (in all likelihood) destroy them.* Outside of the nightmare involved in locating all of them, the secondary market for guns lacks oversight, and you aren’t required to know who you sold it to in some states—the government would have to earmark money to purchase guns from their owners at “market price” so it could dispose of them. At least on the federal level, instead of committing to the cost of recouping banned weapons, all things that are currently illegal are grandfathered in as legal as long as they were purchased legally before the ban. These weapons carry a heavy markup on the secondary market because very few are available, even if the end purchaser is a rich asshole like Glenn Beck, on a ranch masturbating furiously to the fact that the Nanny State Socialist Eugenicist Illuminati Word Salad couldn’t stop his freedom. The more important question, of course, is: why is any of this important?
*Local gun buybacks are ineffective and expensive, because they usually set a single price for any gun, which (by the rationale of Econ 101) results in a lot of guns worth less than the set price and guns which are malfunctioning turned in for cash in hand (or gift cards, which is sort of a weird thing in itself). Also, it creates a pretty strong scarcity for certain grandfathered weapons (which are legal because they were manufactured before the ban), slapping Stoner 63s, Full Auto Ingram Mac 10s, and a few other guns with a price that far exceeds any value they may have.
What drives me to write this article is the odd paradox of people who espouse civil liberties promoting heavy government restriction on ownership, while people who are often unquestioning adherents to the rights of police argue about an emerging police state (so long as the police state angle is centered on the potential for police to take away their guns rather than the extremely real police state focused on communities of color). While I accept that both parties argue for and against government control in a haphazard manner, questions about what guns are and why they matter are pushed to the background as battle lines are drawn over whether or not restrictions should exist on the sale and possession of firearms.
Underlying this argument are both parties’ interpretations of the Second Amendment to the Constitution (a document that I don’t actually care all that much about). Historians and legal scholars agree that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to continue the common law of individual gun ownership, as it was helpful to forming militias. (It is also worth noting that guns were not standardized. Gunsmithing was a painstaking process and several other historical factors made it necessary for the government to allow for an armed citizenry if the government in question wanted to be able to quickly mobilize an army.) While the federal government feared armed uprisings after having to crush both Shay’s and the Whiskey Rebellion, it was content with a state of affairs in which guns were prohibitively expensive for most, and mostly owned by families of means. For the land-owning white men that were truly invested in the society, guns were a norm, while the disenfranchised—especially non-whites—lacked such access.
In essence, guns are about power, and power is about force of arms and the capacity to threaten violence, a point that Charles Cobb Jr makes eloquently in That Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Cobb notes that history has poorly addressed:
“the vital role that armed self-defense played in the survival and liberation of black communities in America during the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s. In the Deep South, blacks often safeguarded themselves and their loved ones from white supremacist violence by bearing—and, when necessary, using—firearms. In much the same way […] nonviolent civil rights workers received critical support from black gun owners in the regions where they worked. Whether patrolling their neighborhoods, garrisoning their homes, or firing back at attackers, these courageous men and women and the weapons they carried were crucial to the movement’s success.”
These historical erasures of the complexity of gun ownership (both how guns enable oppressive behavior and how they allow for collective resistance) create a meaningless debate. By meaningless, I mean the debate is premised on the idea of either the pure restriction of gun ownership or of its rabid expansion. This repugnant debate erases long histories of resistance using force of arms, never questions the balance of firepower between civilians and a militarized police force, and, most importantly, is fantastic political choreography for instilling paranoia in groups which are already heavily armed and dangerously paranoid. By framing guns in terms of the fanatical gun ownership of the Tea Party fringe (for example, the literal arsenal held by Alex Jones, which he humblebragged about in his bizarre argument with Piers Morgan) against contextless “reasonable” restriction, we do violence to our own capacity to take a meaningful position on the subject.
Part 1: A Paranoid Debate of Meaningless Sound and Fury
If gun control were framed as a question of who has guns (the police) and who doesn’t in a meaningful way (anyone else—if you think differently, reflect on the fact that while the people in Waco and Ruby Ridge were dyed-in-the-wool fanatics and have politics I find completely odious, they were all relatively well-trained with firearms and had access to plenty of them, yet were easily dispatched by the police), that would be one thing. Instead, we are provided with the spectacle of a gelatinous gremlin* smugly talking down to a braying, leatherfaced Branch Davidian who believes 9/11 was an inside job. The debate resulted in a cornucopia of hot takes so scorching that even Alex Jones believes they would melt steel beams—even fucking Glenn Beck made fun of him after taking a break from shedding tears over whatever incoherent nonsense had most recently piqued his interest.
*Full disclosure: I voted to deport Piers Morgan out of spite (well, signed the extreme right-wing petition that believes he wants to take my non-existent guns and thus should go back to England) as I think he is an avatar of loathsome, smug liberalism—especially in light of his belief that he was the victim of cisphobia after the backlash for his transphobic interview with Janet Mock, where, after being called out, he waved his credentials of supporting gay marriage as though that has anything to do with not being a transphobe, and got the HRC and other Big Gay Inc. NGOs to call him their cishet BFF. In short, I fucking hate Piers Morgan and believe he should be deported into the sun.
The consensus on the Internet that matters™ (Huffpo) is that Morgan won this debate and perhaps, if one is trying to make a finer point, that people like Jones are representative of a lunatic fringe and shouldn’t be given more publicity. But what were the actual terms of the debate? One person wants to restrict the sale of assault weapons (a meaningless category which I will get to later), and the other believes that David Koresh was a savior, and that at birth every child should be issued a Bible and at least a 22LR chambered rifle (AMERICAN-MADE *cue screaming eagle sound effect*). While Jones is paranoid, and comes across as a man who is truly out to lunch when it comes to our communal reality, Morgan didn’t really say anything of substance. He didn’t address how 2/3rds of gun casualties are self-inflicted gunshot wounds, he didn’t address how many people are shot by the police (a group he doesn’t care about restricting gun ownership for) or that retired police officers retain the right to purchase military-grade hardware, he didn’t have much of anything of substance to say about guns themselves. He simply handed out backpats to everyone who was slightly less of a moonbat than Jones, and did so by hammering home that we should “restrict assault weapons.”
Generally, gun control arguments revolve around restricting ownership of guns, and yet are very clearly crafted by individuals who don’t have much insight about guns. Without getting too far into the minutiae of guns (a subject which is invariably boring), for tax purposes most guns are reduced to the lower receiver—thus, the restrictions are on a particular part rather than the entire system.* Ways of circumventing this have been passed around the (largely technically-apt) gun-obsessive community for years (mostly by purchasing unfinished receivers and milling them yourself, creating so called “ghost guns”). The laws that are effective (the 86 full-auto ban and the ATF stamp program charging money to purchase guns of specific barrel lengths or to modify certain characteristics) create a huge profit-margin-driven secondary market almost exclusively accessible to the wealthy. That is, for a limited number of existing guns meeting certain specifications, they are inherently valuable objects and are largely collected as fetish objects.
*There are exceptions to this, and I’m happy to talk at length about guns and gun regulations, but most of this is not particularly exciting.
This is frequently also a moment for politicians to shoot themselves in the foot, because the language used conventionally to talk about guns in no way reflects the legal niceties surrounding them. After Sandy Hook (unless you are kin to Alex Jones/Glenn Beck and believe that Shadow Government SAG actors worked overtime to create a convincing school shooting that unravels if you have the deductive skills of a paranoid attack dog tethered to the idea that Big Government wants to take your guns), many people wished to restrict or ban assault weapons. The problem is that “assault weapon” doesn’t actually mean anything.*
*In the most technically arcane way: an assault rifle is any military-issued, fully-automatic rifle. Full-auto has not been available without some serious legwork since the late 80s. “Assault weapon” was a designation created in 1994 to refer to “military-style” additions to civilian products.
Technically, what most people meant was that they would like to ban AR-15s, and there was a movement to expand the (then-expired) 1994 assault weapons ban. At the risk of boring you (because, like many things that are technically important but not easy to address, assault weapons involve a bunch of really specific points), while most coverage focused on the AR-15 (which is an extremely popular weapon), the AR-15 is more of a designation than a singular entity. The AR-15 is really just the Armalite civilian model (a configuration of parts to work with existing laws around the sale and use of firearms) of an M16 (a military weapon that actually is a modified AR-15 utilized by the military in Vietnam, that is widely despised by the military in a story too long and boring to get into). To effectively ban such a weapon you either need to designate a unique feature that makes the gun illegal* (such as: putting a cap on its rate of fire, which has its own logistical problems, limiting magazine capacity, which is the current solution, or banning certain types of ammunition**) or ban all named versions of the weapon in circulation, and by extension weapons derivative of them.
*This generally only covers, in law, barrel length or the capacity for fully automatic fire, and some companies get pretty creative with how they follow the law as laxly as possible.
**Chris Rock’s old routine about making bullets really expensive is basically the idea behind this, by banning popular bullets outright (so that people can’t load the gun unless they have a stockpile of ammunition or can make their own) and by extension making the limited remaining supply very expensive (which the threat of a ban actually does, as everyone who owns a weapon that takes the ammunition rushes to buy it, and stores price-gouge while directing the purchaser towards the NRA and blaming the president). Armor-piercing rounds are 100% illegal because they are made to circumvent the sorts of body armor worn by police officers.
The 1994 assault weapons ban put limitations on a certain set of features (most of which were not necessarily part of most things we consider assault weapons, like bayonet lugs, a grenade launcher undercarriage, or a collapsible or folding stock). More to the point, there is no real relationship between these named, restricted parts and the lethality of a gun (well, a bayonet is theoretically an attachment that makes a gun more dangerous, but not more so than bullets, while a grenade launcher is obviously more dangerous, and a folding or collapsible stock makes a gun marginally more concealable but in no way makes it functionally more lethal). Relevant to the latest round of attempted regulation, the Sandy Hook shooter used a Bushmaster XM15-E2S, which is Bushmaster’s version of the AR-15—which simply banning the Armalite AR-15 (the original it is modeled after) wouldn’t cover. To cover all the bases, Feinstein’s proposed ban is basically a long list of different guns.
While the expanded assault arms ban failed on the federal level (but passed on the state level in New York, Maryland and Connecticut) it did have one beneficiary: gun manufacturers.
(To be continued.)
Art by Jun Joestar.