I asked my good friend who is hyper liberal in almost all ways (except for gun control) to write something explaining the argument why “guns are good.” To many who live outside the US (and many who live there as well), the prevalence of guns seems like a scary mistake, part of redneck culture and sign of a failed or failing state
But are there legitimate arguments for widespread gun use? Mr. Rober Swan, a former U.S. Marine and Professor of Community Policing as well as anarchistic muralist, marathon runner, and recovering academic currently living in Oregon., is here to explain the case for guns.
It’s a long read, but worth it. While I personally disagree with him rather vehemently, I do think he makes some interesting points and I’ve definitely gained a deeper understanding of the issue.
—by Robert Swan
“It’s controversial but, first thing is all of your, 95 percent, 95 percent of your murders and murderers and murder victims fit one M.O. You can just take the description and Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male minorities 15 to 25. That’s true in New York, it’s true in virtually every city in America. And that’s where the real crime is. You’ve got to get the guns out of the hands of the people that are getting killed.” —Michael Bloomberg speaking to a largely white, wealthy audience at the Aspen Institute (Colorado) [Ignoring the profound inaccuracy of his data, Bloomberg has since advocated the disarming of all minority males between the ages of 15 & 25, regardless of criminal record]
Guns. For many lefties in the U.S, the very idea (let alone the reality) of firearms evoke a great deal of concern, if not horror and outrage. Why? There are many reasons for the left’s generally profound aversion to guns but the most obvious and basic reason is that firearms are designed, exclusively, to kill other living creatures.
I get that.
But why is a white, male billionaire—with an abysmal policing and crime-control record in New York City and a clearly racist policy intent— telling us how to control gun violence? And, more importantly, why are we (lefties) listening? Admittedly, the left is not always aware that the prepackaged and recycled anti-gun message they subscribe to in the policy process today has become a uniquely Bloomberg product—complete with racist & classist characteristics and include a fairly vast expansion of the American penal and juridical system. Nonetheless, the fact that Michael Bloomberg—who, over the years, has identified as a Republican, a Democrat and an Independent (e.g., whatever works)—is the primary financial driver behind the current spate of new, state-level gun control policies should give us pause.
As a lefty myself (I am left…far left…of President Obama)—and as a former U.S. Marine and Professor of Community Policing—I understand all too well the horror that guns inflict upon our world. Whether we are talking about war, mass shooting events, suicide or neighborhood-level crime, the profound waste of life is paraded before us every night on cable news networks, and all day, every day on social media.
In addition to these distorted, for-profit visions of mayhem, some of us have actual (as opposed to vicarious) experience with gun violence. As a professor of criminal justice and policing living in central California for two years, my sleep was frequently punctuated by 3:00AM gun battles between the Norteños and Sureños, two ferociously combative criminal gangs that have made a battleground of California.
….and yes, they had weapons and ammunition magazines that violated California’s rigid firearms restrictions…but I digress….
I won’t delve into crime data too much here, since I think that we can all agree that guns are destructive and that people will, with some frequency, use guns for nefarious purposes. They always have and they always will. However, I think if we’re honest, we can also agree that most gun owners in America do not use their firearms for nefarious or destructive purposes—if we limit our agreement on that to strictly person-on-person violence. (e.g., I acknowledge that my vegan and vegetarian friends likely find hunting to be a destructive, if not nefarious, pursuit).
What I would like to address here is the political and social value related to one’s ability to possess firearms in a democratic society. Indeed, what is largely forgotten, misunderstood or intentionally neglected in the typical narratives surrounding guns is that the right to legally possess and deploy guns represent something much larger than a right to kill and maim. In fact, the right to own a firearm in the U.S. represents an opportunity for citizens to exercise a freedom usually reserved for military and law enforcement in other countries. This freedom has, traditionally, conditioned our sense of individual responsibility and efficacy in relation to individual and collective well-being. Importantly, the cyclical, distorted and heavily mediated national discussion over firearms has had a large impact on the many debates regarding the limits of freedom (more generally) in the U.S. It is through these hysterical media discussions—and resulting policies— that the moral entrepreneurs seeking to politically profit from gun violence are able to infantilize an entire nation. After all, if you can regulate the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, what can’t you regulate?
The fierce opposition to firearms restrictions is not—as the anti-gun internet trolls would have you believe—about gun-loving rednecks who want to stock-pile weapons for a zombie apocalypse or government overthrow. Rather, the ferocity of the gun debate is related to citizen resistance to a creeping fascism; a softening of our resolve to be responsible for our own actions. It is about fighting to remain a grownup in an increasingly childish and selfish society.
The Symbolic Value of Gun Ownership: “Yup, Grownups Live Here”
“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”—The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
Before I address the practical value of legal gun ownership in the U.S., it is useful to trot out a few statistics, tropes, myths and symbolic realities related to gun crime and the legal right to own a firearm.
First of all—and though I (sort of) promised not to talk crime statistics—it is useful to point out a few, important gun crime statistical confusions.
Contrary to President Obama’s assertion that “mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency,” in fact, mass violence has been declining in the U.S since the mid-1990s and mass violence (and violence in general) does happen in advanced countries and, with some frequency. Of course, it all depends on how you define “advanced.” Russia, for example, has a homicide rate 2.4 times greater than the U.S. and Brazil’s homicide rate is almost five times higher.
That being said, one really shouldn’t compare crime rates between completely different rule of law systems. In comparing our system to a similar system like, oh say, Britain we might be able to make some assertions about gun crime that do not distort the issue. Even though the U.S. has the most guns (88 per 100 citizens), the gun homicide rate in the U.S is only 2.8 per 100,000. In England and Wales, the gun homicide rate is considerably lower at .07 per 100,000 and Northern Ireland is at .28 per 100,000 citizens.
Interestingly, both the U.K. and the U.S.—all in the name of promoting democratic freedom in developing countries— are major exporters of small arms, which means both are spreading the love beyond their own borders…but I digress (again)…
However, when factoring in all other crimes, Britain actually has three times as much crime as the United States. So, while we might argue that fewer guns means fewer gun crimes, we can’t say that fewer guns equals less crime. In fact, one might make the argument that more guns equals less overall crime. Some do make that argument, but that’s beyond the scope of the argument here.
Crime and statistical literacy is also a huge deficit when it comes to public discussions on crime. In fact, most people don’t understand how crime is distributed. For example, many foreign nationals appear to fear becoming a victim of a violent crime if they visit the U.S. Well, that may be a valid fear if you plan on vacationing in the shittiest parts of Chicago, L.A., Boston, Stockton or Cincinnati, but generally speaking, most people are not at risk for victimization at the hands of gun wielding thugs. In fact, most people in the United States are quite safe primarily because crime is unevenly distributed and tends to be concentrated in specific areas. Any simple internet crime mapping tool will tell you that (or a good travel agent).
So, now that the unequal distribution of risk idea has been sorted out, let’s talk about why the U.S. is prone to more aggressive types of criminal behavior. Gun-wielding criminal behavior in particular. The good news is that criminologists Stephen F. Messner and Richard Rosenfeld have already written a book about this (5th or 6th edition, actually) called “Crime and the American Dream.” In this macro-level criminological research, guns are not the primary villain. The economic system is.
In fact, it is our particularly virulent form of capitalism, combined with diminished social safety nets, our collective disconnect from the well-being of…well… the collective, and a culture of “winning at all costs” that has led us to where we are today. Recall (if you saw it) the movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” with Will Ferrell. In one flashback scene Ferrell’s father tells him that “If you ain’t first, then your last.” That’s America in a nutshell. Guns, then, are simply an efficient way to be “number one” when all other legal pathways to success have been blocked—typically through some kind of legal or economic subterfuge inherent in the American political and economic system.
In addition to comparisons between the U.S. and other advanced countries using Messner & Rosenfeld’s criminological ideas, we also know that more diverse countries have more conflict. Conflict, from a Marxist perspective at least, usually means more crime. Less diverse advanced countries have far less crime than the U.S. simply because there is more consensus on collective goals. In the U.S., we have an absolutely terrifying record of economic and political oppression by elites and almost no point in our history have we reached a consensus on anything (Hell, we’re still fighting battles over the confederate flag for crying out loud).
Do we need guns? In my opinion, we only need guns for symbolic reasons, though there are many other practical reasons to own guns (e.g., self-defense, hunting & etc.). For me at least, the symbolic Constitutional placeholder role is enough to keep gun ownership legal in this country. The question really is, do we want to do away with our right to own guns?
Yes, the right to own a firearm in the U.S. is firmly entrenched in the U.S. Constitution and recent U.S. Supreme Court cases (See: D.C. v. Heller). The courts have cited a number of practical and constitutional reasons for maintaining this right, but what does having this right mean in terms of symbolic value? Well, it means at least a few things:
1) It means grown-ups live here. Not only do we have the right (in theory) to speak, pray and associate freely (not to mention enjoy the right to a fair and humane justice system), but we also (in theory) have the right to carry and deploy firearms in order to defend those rights. For example, I would argue that the outcome in South Carolina would have been much different if at least ONE person in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had been packing heat. High capacity heat.
In short, (and to borrow from a right-wing trope for a minute here), the Second Amendment is not about the right to hunt or target practice (see: Tench Coxe, a contemporary of James Madison). That being said—and regardless of the internet “revolution” gossip surrounding the Bundy standoff with the BLM (e.g., armed insurrection)—an interpretation of the Second Amendment does not (with any seriousness today at least) suggest that a large-scale, armed revolt against the U.S. government should or could occur—especially given the size and capability of the U.S. military. But what it does mean is that the right to own guns is an individual right, a right to act in defense against violent attacks upon your person (or others) based on race, gender, ethnicity, political beliefs, sexual identity or sexual orientation. It is a tool that individuals can use when faced with unjust violence at the hands of unruly mobs or individuals. It is a tool that need never come out of the toolbox and serve only as a symbolic reminder that you are, in fact, a grown-up living in a free society (like the Swiss!). This is how the Second Amendment has traditionally been used, not as right-wing extremists have depicted…or the way it has been depicted in really nifty zombie apocalypse TV shows.
While there continue to be vigorous legal and political debates on the meaning of the Second Amendment (and appropriate restrictions), ultimately, being a grown-up in America is tightly coupled to the right to own and deploy firearms, as well as to all other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Eviscerating (or attempting to nullify) the Second Amendment seems to be less about increasing public safety than it is about decreasing public power. It is no accident that Bloomberg’s gun control policies and proposals seem to be guided by a patriarchal and infantilizing impulse—it is the general zeitgeist of all Sugar Daddies after all. Everywhere. Always.
“As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”—Tench Coxe writing to James Madison on the 2nd Amendment as an individual right.
2) The right to own firearms in the U.S. context also means that because you are a grown-up exercising your right to own and potentially deploy a firearm that you will be held accountable for your actions. In our system, “rights” also include “responsibility.” This, then, is the essence of the “freedom” trope found so often in pro-gun narratives. They have a point. If the rights of citizens are reduced through infantilizing public policy (e.g., reductions in the opportunity to be responsible for your actions though the evisceration of your right to act in the first place), then a key element involved in being a free person has been removed. Yep, in this country, it’s all fun and games until you yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater (or, alternatively, let a round fly accidentally from your concealed six-shooter while watching that movie). To try to prevent the misuse of a given right by removing that right is both tyrannical and, frankly, nonsensical (as evidenced by gun crime data…er, hem…Chicago!).
The Political & Social Value of Gun Ownership: Personal Efficacy and Political Action
Contrary to media portrayals of gun owners, most of us spend a fair amount of time thinking about the responsibility that comes with gun ownership—if for no other reason than our handling of firearms has the ability to significantly impact the lives of others. This level of responsibility is consistent with the other responsibilities people in a democratic society are given (e.g., paying taxes, driving a car, voting & etc.).
In my experience, people who live in states with heavy-handed and overly restrictive gun laws are the angriest, least efficacious, least trusting (paranoid, actually) and least mindful people I have ever met. What seems to be lacking in these states are feelings of trust (about anything); high levels of fear; and, importantly, low-levels of personal and political efficacy among the general population (though, interestingly, elites never seem to feel marginalized in these states. See: voting participation data for California, for example).
These may be false correlations but it is my opinion nonetheless. It is such a strongly felt opinion that after only two years I left a tenure track teaching job in California because of it. Indeed, I may have short-circuited my academic career over it. However, it is also my opinion that there is nothing more detrimental to human efficacy than a distrustful governance system emboldened (and empowered) by a coercive political culture.
The political cultures in these states tend to be fairly coercive across policy domains, not just in relation to firearms. This is an important cultural feature to be aware of because, as some criminologists have argued, coercive political cultures are usually related to citizens’ distrust in each other and in their government. Coercion (as a governing tactic) is the last resort in states in which voluntary, collaborate action is no longer possible—or perceived by the state to be no longer possible. Thus—paradoxically— the problem of gun violence goes largely unresolved in states possessing coercive political cultures because, as criminologists and political scientists are well aware of, effective crime control is a co-produced outcome achieved through the voluntary collaboration of citizens and a state’s penal and political systems (e.g., community building and community policing are effective gun violence reduction strategies that embraces the co-production idea. SEE: Boston Gun Project & David Kennedy’s work).
The social and political outcome described above are not due simply to firearms restrictions, of course, but, the over-regulation of firearms in these states tends to correlate with the over-regulation of everything else. California is a good case in point, and, as I stated earlier, the catalyst for my current thinking on the relationship between gun ownership and personal and political efficacy. What is interesting is that as ineffective as current gun control proposals and policies actually are (see: California, New York & Illinois for examples), they continue to dominate the interests of state legislatures—even in states that don’t have much crime at all. Why?
Purchasing a Firearm in California:
- Generally, all firearms purchases and transfers, including private party transactions and sales at gun shows, must be made through a California licensed dealer under the Dealer’s Record of Sale (DROS) process. California law imposes a 10-day waiting period before a firearm can be released to a purchaser or transferee.
- Purchasers of handguns must provide proof of California residency, such as a utility bill, residential lease, property deed, or government-issued identification (other than a drivers license or other DMV-issued identification), and either (1) possess a Handgun Safety Certificate (HSC) plus successfully complete a safety demonstration with their recently purchased handgun or (2) qualify for an HSC exemption. (Pen. Code, § § 26800-26850.)
Purchasing a Firearm in Oregon:
- Buying from an FFL (Guns store/ dealer):
- A person must be at least 18 years of age to purchase a rifle or shotgun. To purchase a handgun, a person must be at least 21 years of age.
- Must be Oregon Resident.
- Pay $10 background fee. Wait 10-30 minutes.
- Leave store with firearm once background check clears.
- Until August 9th, 2015, Oregonians are still allowed to privately buy and sell firearms to each other with no background check.
The Left is Taking Marching Orders From a Scoundrel…whaaaat?
Both the political left and political right in America seem alarmingly oblivious to the nasty history of gun control and seem equally oblivious to the positive role firearms have played in America’s historical fights for equality. Indeed, gun control has profoundly racist roots (see: “Negroes and the Gun: A Tradition of Black Arms by Nicholas Johnson). How else do elites (government and business) cling to political power than by disarming disgruntled populations? In the case of African Americans, gun rights have traditionally been denied (often violently) because political and economic elites correctly assumed that an armed, marginalized population would be dangerous to their interests (see also: “slave catchers,” black resistance and the origins of modern law enforcement).
Michael Bloomberg has continued the tradition of stripping African Americans of their guns, first in New York (e.g., “Stop and Frisk”) and now, nationally through his shell groups, Mom’s Demand Action & Everytown For Gun Safety. Admittedly, not all liberals understand the relationship that Bloomberg has to current gun control policies. Most people aren’t even aware of his abysmal racial record in New York City. But Bloomberg understands them. He is well aware of the left’s dogma surrounding gun control and has used it, I would argue, against them.
Today, Bloomberg’s policy ideas are designed—at least implicitly— to limit firearms access to all people of color as well as to members of the poor and working class, regardless of race. These are the most marginalized populations in America and, thanks in part to America’s general “war on crime,” and specifically, to America’s nonsensical “war on drugs”, many people in these groups have become legally disenfranchised for low-level drug felonies (which of course, makes them ineligible to either vote or own firearms). The public safety messages broadcast by Bloomberg and his cynical crew are, really, thinly disguised calls for racial exclusion that pander (shamelessly) to the always poignant fears of the white middle class. The left—to my chagrin— is particularly gullible to Bloomberg’s message. But, in their defense, it is a message that is typically cloaked behind the image of self-actualizing mom’s trying to “save the children.” The King of Sugar Daddy’s has actually coopted the very notion of motherhood (e.g., Mom’s Demand Action) and put it in service to elite interests! It’s pretty fucking clever, actually.
By most accounts, Michael Bloomberg is a clever scoundrel. For the lefties (like me) who pay attention to these things, Bloomberg’s “Stop-and Frisk” policies in New York City were touted as effective crime control but, in fact, were both ineffective at reducing gun violence and horribly destructive to communities of color and police legitimacy (see: ACLU New York). For ten years Bloomberg stubbornly forced his cops to engage in this behavior, and for ten years communities of color were oppressed and marginalized by these race-based stops, searches & seizures. So, then, one has to ask: “Why are left-leaning groups taking marching orders from Bloomberg and his well-funded shell groups, Every Town for Gun Safety and Mom’s Demand Action?” Well, there are a number of factors at play here, but I’ll start with the theoretical.
Some critical sociologists have hypothesized that the way elites control the general population in a democratic system is “by proxy”, rather than directly (as is the case in true dictatorships, usually though the use of terror campaigns, mass incarcerations, executions, mass torture and arbitrary arrest). It is also, for some sociologists, a gender and class issue. To fit the Bloomberg Plan into a theoretical framework such as this, is not difficult: 1) Billionaire White Dude; 2) Empowers (through money and political support) upwardly mobile white women (Mom’s Demand Action); & 3) …to divide the working class and poor on the issue of guns. More importantly, as Mom’s Demand Action recruitment messages indicate, this strategy also divides the poor and working class by gender, as the MDA appeal to poor and working class women is pretty simple: “Do something about violence against children.” Certainly, it seems to be true that if you want to push an agenda all you need to do is trot out dead children… in this case, it is not designed to “save children” but, rather, to divide the households of the poor and working class by offering a false sense of efficacy to women who otherwise possess very little (if any) power.
Universal Background Checks and the Politics of Trust
In what world are policies designed to increase the number of restrictive laws—while simultaneously decreasing public safety and public trust—acceptable? Well, the world in which wealthy elites seek to control increasingly unhappy and marginalized populations (see: John Irwin & “rabble management”). As scholar Donald Black has asserted over and over again for decades, the best way to disable a society is to increase the distance between individuals by increasing the amount of formal law that separates them in the first place. Simply, law is a barrier to personal efficacy and collective action. In some cases, this is a good thing (see: “Crime as Self-help, by Donald Black). However, too much law is coercive to healthy social systems. In criminal justice and political science, this translates in to the evisceration of informal social control (e.g., collaborative social networks) while simultaneously increasing the importance of formal social control (e.g., police and prisons). Welcome to Bloomberg’s world, where more law means more cops, more courts and more prisons (but not necessarily less crime or healthier communities).
As Bloomberg’s moral and political entrepreneurs know all too well, adding more restrictions on gun ownership is a good way to go if you want to diminish the health of a given political culture. Recently, in Oregon—a political culture that has traditionally enjoyed strong, left-leaning libertarian impulses— Senate Bill 941 (with generous financial backing from Bloomberg) was fast-tracked (as “emergency” legislation) through the Oregon legislature and signed by the governor this year. In simple terms (though the law is anything but simple), SB 941 requires police background checks on the private transfer of firearms. Traditionally, Oregonians have been trusted to conduct these transfers on their own. Not anymore.
The emergence of SB 941 was especially confusing given that Oregon has enjoyed a declining violent crime rate for some time, to include gun homicides and robberies (UCR, 2013). My confusion was resolved once I realized the role that Bloomberg (and his “astroturfing” strategy) played in pushing his agenda in Oregon. “Astroturfing,” in a nutshell, is a fake “grassroots” effort designed to manipulate public opinion for private gain. In particular, “astroturfers” try to manipulate public opinion by using false or misleading data and marginalize anyone who disagrees with them. It is an effective trick, especially among a largely media-illiterate population.
Unfortunately, the astroturfing efforts by these Bloomberg-backed groups are not true efforts to do anything about crime, but, rather, are efforts to radically change our political culture. The resulting culture of control (Garland, 2001)—as is the case in California and New York, for example—will become increasingly punitive and coercive. In short, the politics of trust (or distrust, as the case may be) has come to Oregon. While Bloomberg’s rhetoric may assert that the “NRA is resisting positive change in Oregon,” the truth is that many Oregonian’s are—without any NRA influence at all (they contributed nothing in defense of SB941)— resisting Bloomberg’s effort to foment distrust among the poor and working class. Simply, Bloomberg’s effort to eviscerate informal social control and divide the poor and working class in Oregon did not go unnoticed. The four State Senators currently enduring a recall effort can attest to that.
Back to being a grown up….
My argument is that the right to own guns is an essential right and responsibility in the American democratic system. Primarily, this is because it is through the preservation of this right that citizens maintain their sense of individual efficacy; their sense of gravitas; their basic sense of responsibility for the well-being of others. Smart phones and video games won’t do it (unless what we really want are a nation of distracted children). You don’t need to own guns in order to appreciate the contribution the right to owning them has conferred on the nation as a whole. Though admittedly, it is hard to see that through the fog of mediated mayhem.
Of course, my argument may not resonate with some, and may, in fact, create feelings of hostility in others (Hello internet trolls!).
I get that.
However, as a lefty, non-hunting, non-criminal, non-violent progressive person, I have found myself defending this right more and more, which puts me at odds with the people with whom I usually agree (hello social progressives!)… and in bed with folks I don’t (hello angry rednecks!).
The issues surrounding gun ownership and gun violence have become too dichotomous, too polarized, too distorted. “Balancing” safety concerns has come to mean eviscerating a key Constitutional right. Anomalous gun crime events (which are declining) have become overemphasized and the role that a healthy government—fueled by a critical, efficacious citizenry—has been minimized or ignored altogether. Unfortunately, our collective fear of guns is greater than our fear of bad government—a perverse and paradoxical outcome for citizens who think themselves freedom-loving, independent thinkers. Right now the dangers to our democratic system do not originate from the barrel of a gun but, rather, from Bloomberg’s wallet and the misplaced middle-class white fear he panders to.