Guns & poses

By cling­ing to their 18th-cen­tury con­sti­tu­tional “right to bear arms”, Amer­i­cans show them­selves to be happy with their coun­try as it is.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Paul Thomas

By cling­ing to their 18th-cen­tury con­sti­tu­tional “right to bear arms”, Amer­i­cans show them­selves to be happy with their coun­try as it is.

It has been said of the US that it’s the first coun­try in his­tory to pro­ceed from bar­barism to deca­dence with­out an in­ter­ven­ing pe­riod of civil­i­sa­tion. Like vir­tu­ally ev­ery arch pro­nounce­ment in the English lan­guage, it’s rou­tinely at­trib­uted to Os­car Wilde. It has also been cred­ited to Ge­orge Bernard Shaw, writer John O’Hara and Ge­orges Clé­menceau, who led France in World War I. In fact, the con­struct seems to have orig­i­nated in a 19th-cen­tury French his­tory text in which it was ap­plied to Rus­sia.

In the wake of the mas­sacre in Las Ve­gas, a par­tic­u­larly hor­ri­fy­ing ex­am­ple of Amer­i­can car­nage that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, in his in­au­gu­ra­tion ad­dress, vowed would stop “right here, right now”, it’s tempt­ing to be­lieve the US is re­vert­ing to bar­barism. A man wheels 10 suit­cases packed with firearms and am­mu­ni­tion into a 32nd-floor ho­tel suite, knocks out two win­dows and pumps thou­sands of rounds into a crowd of concertgoers be­low, killing 58 and wound­ing nearly 500.

His mo­tives for do­ing so were un­known at the time of writ­ing. In all like­li­hood, he was re­spond­ing to the urges of a de­formed na­ture: no one of sound mind and with a core of hu­man­ity would for a mo­ment con­tem­plate such wicked­ness. Yet when the is­sue of Amer­ica’s no­to­ri­ously and in­creas­ingly lax gun laws is raised, the de­press­ing – and all the more de­press­ing for be­ing ut­terly pre­dictable – re­sponse from the White House is that now is not the time to have that dis­cus­sion.

Some con­ser­va­tive politi­cians and com­men­ta­tors went fur­ther, ac­cus­ing those who raised the is­sue of dis­re­spect­ing the vic­tims and seek­ing to ex­ploit the tragedy to ad­vance their agen­das. The im­pli­ca­tion that a mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion can be en­gaged in after a de­cent in­ter­val is spu­ri­ous since re­cent his­tory sug­gests that, be­fore the de­cent in­ter­val has elapsed, there will be an­other mass shoot­ing re­quir­ing an­other de­cent in­ter­val.

With any other tragedy in­volv­ing sig­nif­i­cant loss of life, the im­me­di­ate fo­cus is on pre­ventabil­ity: how do we stop this hap­pen­ing again or, if that’s not pos­si­ble, what can be done to re­duce the num­ber of ca­su­al­ties next time? But when mass shoot­ings oc­cur in the US, the gun com­mu­nity’s un­wa­ver­ing fo­cus is on en­sur­ing the preser­va­tion of the vir­tu­ally un­re­stricted right to own, in­deed stock­pile, in­stru­ments specif­i­cally de­signed to kill lots of hu­man be­ings in a short space of time.


In an ex­cerpt from his book Fan­ta­sy­land: How Amer­ica Went Hay­wire posted on Sa­lon, Kurt An­der­sen traces the gun lobby’s grow­ing mil­i­tancy in re­cent decades and the Repub­li­can Party’s con­se­quent ea­ger­ness to en­act pro-gun leg­is­la­tion. The up­shot is a vir­tual aban­don­ment of con­trols around gun avail­abil­ity and own­er­ship and an ac­cep­tance of firearms in pub­lic set­tings that not so long ago was un­think­able. In some states, for in­stance, it’s le­gal to carry guns in churches, bars and parts of air­ports and po­lice are for­bid­den from ask­ing gun­tot­ers to pro­duce their per­mits. Dur­ing the re­cent con­fronta­tion in Char­lottesville, the mil­i­tary-style hard­ware bran­dished by rightwing mili­tias caused demon­stra­tors and even po­lice to as­sume they were Swat teams. Last time I was in the US, the be­lieve-it-ornot story in the New York Times con­cerned a restau­rant in Ri­fle, Colorado, where the wait­resses were armed.

An­der­sen ar­gues this devel­op­ment is largely due to re­lent­less scare­mon­ger­ing and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism by the National Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion (NRA), the lob­by­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion that boasts 5 mil­lion mem­bers and spent more than US$30 mil­lion ($43 mil­lion) in­stalling a self-styled “true friend and cham­pion” in the White House. One of Trump’s first acts was to undo an Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion reg­u­la­tion mak­ing it harder for men­tally ill peo­ple to buy guns.

As An­der­sen demon­strates, the NRA’s strat­egy has been to in­flame US con­ser­vatism’s tra­di­tional dis­trust of the fed­eral Gov­ern­ment and ex­ploit its be­lief that a

The claim that “if the good guys had been armed, this wouldn’t have hap­pened” is trot­ted out after ev­ery mass shoot­ing.

gun-own­ing cit­i­zenry is the ul­ti­mate de­fence against tyranny by claim­ing “they” are hell­bent on tak­ing away the peo­ple’s guns. Ac­cord­ing to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent and pro­pa­gan­dis­tin-chief, “they” are the “jack­booted thugs” of fed­eral agen­cies such as the Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives. “They” are also the “tyrants and dic­ta­tors at the United Na­tions who will stop at noth­ing” to con­fis­cate law-abid­ing Amer­i­cans’ guns. And no roll-call of “they” would be com­plete with­out god­less com­mu­nism: last year, LaPierre warned of a “gath­er­ing of forces will­ing to use vi­o­lence against us – anar­chists, Marx­ists, com­mu­nists and the whole rest of the left-wing so­cial­ist brigade”.

This strat­egy is re­in­forced by end­less rep­e­ti­tion of folksy hom­i­lies that are read­ily adopted by those whose re­la­tion­ship with re­al­ity is ham­pered by ig­no­rance and a lack of com­mon sense. The claim that “if the good guys had been armed, this wouldn’t have hap­pened” is trot­ted out after ev­ery mass shoot­ing. An­der­sen points out, how­ever, that Jus­tice Depart­ment sta­tis­tics show only one in 6000 crime vic­tims fire a weapon in self-de­fence. The no­tion that some­one who has never been un­der fire and whose ex­pe­ri­ence of firearms is lim­ited to tar­get prac­tice will re­act like a Navy Seal if caught up in a Las Ve­gas-type sit­u­a­tion is a per­ni­cious, Wal­ter Mit­tyesque fan­tasy.

The most lu­di­crous of these hom­i­lies is “Guns don’t kill peo­ple; peo­ple kill peo­ple”. Even at its most lit­eral, this isn’t true. In 2015, 23 chil­dren were shot in Amer­ica ev­ery day; al­most 1500 of them died as a re­sult. Few, if any, were vic­tims of sand­box shoot-outs. They were ac­ci­dent vic­tims, such as four-yearold Yanelly Zoller, who was killed in Tampa, Florida, last month when her lit­tle fin­gers alighted on a loaded gun as she rum­maged in her grand­mother’s hand­bag in search of candy. On a Face­book page set up to raise funds for her funeral, a mourner posted, “the death of a child … leaves the unan­swered ques­tion of why? The only an­swer that half­way makes sense is that Heaven needed an­other an­gel.” A mun­dane an­swer that makes far more sense is that guns kill peo­ple. De­pend­ing on cat­e­gori­sa­tion, some­where be­tween 600 and 2000 of Amer­ica’s 33,000-odd an­nual gun deaths are ac­ci­dents. (About 12,000 are homi­cides and the rest – the ma­jor­ity – are sui­cides.)


In the wider sense, this ab­surd mantra ig­nores fun­da­men­tal ques­tions: what are guns for? What do they do? Why do peo­ple pos­sess them? What ef­fect do guns have on those who own and carry them?

The gun is an ac­cel­er­ant, a mul­ti­plier, ca­pa­ble of turn­ing fleet­ing de­spair into sui­cide and do­mes­tic spats, sim­mer­ing grudges, road rage in­ci­dents and rou­tine heists into blood­baths. Guns can turn losers into an­ni­hi­la­tors, can make the weak om­nipo­tent, can en­sure ig­nored or de­spised out­siders are no­ticed and never for­got­ten. Guns can be, and all too of­ten are, a trans­for­ma­tive tool for those who har­bour venge­ful ­fan­tasies of trans­for­ma­tion.

The NRA’s at­tempts to de­flect blame onto Hol­ly­wood are widely de­rided but here, per­haps, it has the ves­tige of a point. Is the claim that “Hol­ly­wood makes bil­lions pro­mot­ing and glo­ri­fy­ing gun vi­o­lence”, made post-Las Ve­gas by an NRA op­er­a­tive, en­tirely base­less? To take an ex­am­ple, in the two in­stal­ments of the mas­sively prof­itable John Wick fran­chise, star­ring Keanu Reeves as a “re­tired” hitman whose de­fault set­ting is overkill, the pro­tag­o­nist kills 205 peo­ple, most by gun­fire, in 223 min­utes of screen time. And as I’ve ar­gued be­fore ( Lis­tener, July 1), Hol­ly­wood of­ten pan­ders to the con­spir­acist no­tion of the fed­eral Gov­ern­ment as the en­emy within, an NRA sta­ple, and alt-right para­noia over the Deep State.

But ev­ery­thing pro­ceeds from the Sec­ond Amend­ment. Rat­i­fied in 1791, it says, “A well-reg­u­lated mili­tia be­ing nec­es­sary to the se­cur­ing of a free state, the right of the peo­ple to bear arms shall not be in­fringed.” Not a sin­gle in­vader has set foot on main­land US soil since the An­glo-Amer­i­can war of 181215, in the course of which the Bri­tish torched a fair swathe of Washington DC, in­clud­ing the White House. Fur­ther­more, the fact that the US pos­sesses the might­i­est mil­i­tary ma­chine ever as­sem­bled would seem to ob­vi­ate the need for an armed cit­i­zenry.

Al­though many con­ser­va­tives would hap­pily re­visit some as­pects of the con­sti­tu­tion on the ba­sis of that was then and this is now – for in­stance, the 14th Amend­ment, which guar­an­tees US cit­i­zen­ship for any­one born in the coun­try, re­gard­less of cir­cum­stances and parent­age – it won’t abide any tam­per­ing with the right to bear arms.

Not only that, the NRA and many Repub­li­cans in Con­gress and state leg­is­la­tures have em­braced an ex­treme in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Sec­ond Amend­ment that holds vir­tu­ally any at­tempt to re­strict or reg­u­late firearms – ban­ning mag­a­zines that hold 100 rounds, for in­stance – to be un­con­sti­tu­tional. Thus, a mea­sure en­acted in the era of the mus­ket and the cit­i­zen-sol­dier on the ba­sis of what was ap­pro­pri­ate for a small, scat­tered, mainly ru­ral so­ci­ety with­out a stand­ing army now en­ables Or­di­nary Joes in a highly ur­banised, heav­ily po­liced ­coun­try of 323 mil­lion to equip them­selves with a sim­i­lar level of fire­power to spe­cial-forces com­man­dos op­er­at­ing in a war zone.

Barack Obama said the June 2016 mass shoot­ing at the Pulse night­club in Or­lando, Florida, in which 49 peo­ple died, pro­vided a “fur­ther re­minder of how easy it is for some­one to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot peo­ple in a school or in a house of wor­ship or in a movie theatre or in a night­club. We have to de­cide if that’s the kind of coun­try we want to be. And to ac­tively do noth­ing is a de­ci­sion as well.”

After a de­cent in­ter­val, the peo­ple who run the US will do noth­ing, thereby reaf­firm­ing their de­ci­sion that a coun­try in which vir­tu­ally any­one can eas­ily and legally ac­quire the means to shoot hun­dreds of peo­ple in a mat­ter of min­utes is the kind of coun­try they want to be.

The gun can turn a fleet­ing de­spair into sui­cide and do­mes­tic spats, sim­mer­ing grudges, road rage in­ci­dents and rou­tine heists into blood­baths.

Un­der at­tack: concertgoers run for cover in Las Ve­gas.

Keanu Reeves in his role as assassin John Wick.

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