Fear of the (Better-Armed) Other

Part 2 of 4

(Part 1 can be found here.) 

The bounty heaped on gun manufacturers by the expanded assault weapons ban is exacerbated by the paranoia underlying both wings of the gun control debate. The NRA is mostly known for possessing a debating prowess less sharp than Michael Moore and boasting confused grandpa Wayne LaPierre’s hyperbolic speeches about the centrality of violent video games in spree killings. Additionally, Wayne is chillingly callous towards the suffering of the mentally ill, deeply confused by the nature of the video games industry, and very invested in generating fear of an ill-defined Other.

LaPierre yammers on about how the “truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters—people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.” These monstrous Others are fueled by (apparently) a diet of subpar flashgames, AAA action shooters about the glory of America and Guns, and violent films from the early 90s, combined with a society that lacks the moral guidance of a paranoid and armed populace and that is guided by gun-hating liberals and spineless prosecutors who are disinterested in stopping the “real criminals.” Flagrantly, LaPierre makes the claim that loopholes are how you spell liberty. What he specifically means by this is that any means of circumventing a law is, de facto, an exercise of one’s Second Amendment rights. Of course, LaPierre was laughed at by most media outlets, although he probably was a contributor to a pretty significant spike in AR-15 sales (and, concurrently, prices). Because of grandfather clauses, the assumption was that these (then-endangered under a pending federal law that was unlikely to pass) firearms would be legal.

The federal ban failed, and of the three states that enacted their state version of the Feinstein bill, the one worth mentioning is New York. New York has a heavy restriction on ammo capacity (as mentioned way above, this is one feature where regulation is somewhat effective)* and created a far more restrictive conception of grandfather clauses. That is, there will no longer be a grandfather clause that allows an individual to pass weapon ownership to another person: the legal loophole exists for you and ceases when you die. This naturally leads to significant riffing on how the government wants to literally take your gun from your cold dead hands. However, the fear behind ownership is that without guns, you are able to be preyed upon by some nebulous, criminal Other.

*Embarrassingly for the gloating signatories of the bill, it banned almost everything. The bill included such interesting restrictions as only allowing rifles a capacity of up to 7 bullets in a magazine (plus one in the chamber). The problem? There is no such thing as a 7-round magazine—they come in 5 and 10 capacity, and the solution (you can put up to 7 bullets in a 10-round magazine unless you are at a shooting competition) is the sort of laughable enforcement that everyone loves from the government.

This side of the “debate” is mired in paranoid expansion of gun ownership because of the conception of a “Nanny State” that will leave one vulnerable to the predation of an (often ill-defined or not explicitly mentioned) Other. Once you start with the belief that gun-ownership is a good in itself, or at a bare minimum part of a zero-sum game in which you must remain well-armed enough to resist tyranny, every registration, closed loophole, restriction on gun shows and protest against gun ownership become part of a rich tapestry affirming that you should prepare for the government to come for your guns because effective political stumping by your opposition is angling to remove your guns.

But if the “conservative” side sees gun ownership as the expression of individual rights through the conspicuous possession of quasi-military hardware as the safeguard against an indistinct tyranny, the “liberal” side sees restriction of ownership (if not an outright ban on ownership) as the protection of reasonable people from a well-armed Other. It is a position that is hard not to, on some level, sympathize with—a bunch of Tea Partiers open carrying AR-15s to Target or a public park simply to show that they are capable of doing so is, most charitably, unnerving. This was pretty much derided as an activist position by gun control activists and journalists, and the NRA was not exactly pleased.

Of course this is still ultimately a coup for the NRA, a mouthpiece for gun manufacturers (that incidentally has dues-paying members), because rather than being faced with a nuanced discussion of who has guns, why gun deaths have a strong racial component, how an NGO can have its spokesperson openly argue for circumventing the law, why the ban on automatic weapons and restrictions on suppressors is adequate (from the NRA standpoint), or if it is responsible in promoting creeping fear of government bans to drive sales for its primary donors, the NRA is faced with the softball question of: do you support a bunch of people in military garb going to fast-food restaurants while carrying guns and yelling mispronounced Greek at anyone who expresses discomfort? (Spoiler: the answer is no.)

Given the demographics of gun ownership, this side at least is not trying to expand gun ownership by utilizing fears of a dangerous racialized other to spook a group that is already the majority of gun owners. However, this articulation of grievances in order to support gun control is patently paternalistic to the point that it is egregiously offensive. Here is an excerpt from the New York Times’ Sunday Book review criticising Cobb’s stance against gun control because armed self defense was important for the civil rights movement:

Today, with 270 million legal guns in private hands all over America—and who knows how many illegal guns in the hands of gangs and criminals—gun rights have become more associated with “the conservative white right,” Cobb acknowledges. He also says that “violence on a scale much larger than Ku Klux Klan terrorism is the greatest problem facing many black American communities today.” Yet he does not endorse gun-control laws that might help reduce inner-city violence. Such measures, Cobb seems to suggest, are not a sufficient solution; the primary perpetrators and primary victims, young black people, would benefit more from social and educational programs to encourage nonviolent ways of addressing grievances and frustrations.

While rates of victimization by guns have trended down for the 18 years Pew Research Center tracked, a reviewer in a paper of record feels compelled to bring up fears of gang-related gun violence and illegal guns while simultaneously arguing that gun control (rather than, as Cobb argues, educational programs and poverty-alleviation measures) would help a population that is most often the victims of violent crimes committed with firearms. This is without even going into depth on the ways in which gun tragedies are often an excuse for the collective left and right to punch down at the neurodivergent.

What is striking about this, other than the blatantly paternalistic nature of the argument, is the echoing fear of an (armed & racialized) Other. The only substantial difference is the assertion that, because of this Other, you should restrict the ownership of guns rather than buy one yourself. While the “Nanny State” of the pro-gun lobby is probably less ominous for its constituents than it is for marginalized communities (i.e. being predominately white and rural vs. being predominately non-white and urban), it is somewhat odd that nationally the capacity to regulate cheating with modified bats in softball (which is a very low stakes proposition) is nearly impossible, yet we apparently should trust in the capacity of a large bureaucracy to regulate the circulation of guns. How this restriction will be carried out, and what restriction even means, are often unclear, which helps to stoke fears concerning the circulation of guns—which (in a very Econ 101 sort of way) drives the sale of guns.

EDIT: Since I started writing this, the Roanoke, VA shooting has occurred. It is worth noting that the shooting created a shift in conversation from the relative lack of concern the media feels for unarmed black men gunned down by the police back to the much safer territory of the gun debate.

Art by TN. 

Sascha Vykos

Sascha Vykos

Sascha Vykos is the cofounder of Empire of Loathing, and enjoys reading about the eventual death of the universe, berating voters for wasting their time and energy, berating video games for lacking any meaningful player agency, and berating books for being an artless attempt to increase the amount of atmospheric carbon. Exhausted and angry with a lack of quality original content and armed with a simmering resentment for everydayfeminism and "the discourse," she suggested this blog to Johnny, who graciously shouldered all of the responsibility.

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