The myth of an American ‘gun culture’
Why the constitutional enshrinement of guns as a check on tyranny really terrifies the liberal elite.
The deadly shooting in Tuscon, Arizona on Saturday is re-energising gun-control advocates. But the debate has changed over recent years and now, alongside the familiar cries of ‘let’s rid our society of guns’, there is widespread condemnation of America’s alleged ‘gun culture’.
Of course, after the Arizona shootings many have brought up the question that appears to be mandatory for the BBC and other European news outlets: when will Americans learn? The United States has insanely lax controls on weapons, many are saying. Now, Arizona has become the target for this sort of questioning, having fewer gun controls than almost every other US state.
Others are attempting to push through new legislation. Democrat congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed and son was injured in a 1993 shooting on the Long Island Rail Road, hardly waited for the Arizona victims’ bodies to cool before announcing a bill that would ban the sale of high-capacity magazines such as the one used on Saturday by shooter Jared Lee Loughner.
The extended magazine on the Glock 19 that Loughner used would have been illegal had he attempted to use it before the ban on assault weapons expired in 2004. Gun-control advocates hope the tragedy might provoke fresh discussion on the ban, and on the ability to buy weapons that appear designed for mass murder. ‘He had an additional magazine capability. That’s not what a hunter needs’, congressman Mike Quigley told Politico. ‘That’s not what someone needs to defend their home. That’s what you use to hunt people.’
However, most of the discussion centres not so much on Loughner’s weapon as on his allegedly political motivations. Shootings like the one on Saturday are products of a gun culture, it is argued, a violent ethos that means people will resort to extreme measures to enforce their interests. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the most important campaigns for gun controls, said he was ‘deeply concerned about the heated political rhetoric that escalates debates and controversies, and sometimes makes it seem as if violence is an acceptable response to honest disagreements.’
The fact that Democrats, too, engage in gun metaphors seems to have passed Helmke and others by. As every right-wing pundit rushed to point out, it was one Barack Obama who used what is perhaps the most violent metaphor heard so far. In discussing what he would do to counter Republicans, Obama once said: ‘If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.’ But besides aiming their vitriol at the Tea Party and Sarah Palin, gun-control enthusiasts have targeted the culture that apparently spawned such metaphors.
Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, saw a political meaning in inveighing against political hyperbole and extremism. He then noted, without a hint of irony, that ‘To say that America’s gun laws facilitated these murders…would be an understatement’. But it is not really gun laws that Horwitz and others have in their sights. They see the Arizona shooting, not as a random act of violence by a deranged individual, but as the ‘latest tragic incident in a purposely-designed effort to inject violence into our political process’.
Part of the problem, as Helmke notes, is that ‘it is too easy for dangerous and irresponsible people to disrupt and destroy the lives of innocent Americans’. And as pundit Charles Davis noted, ‘Heated debate is not lethal. Even heated debate plus guns is not necessarily lethal. Inadequate people ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of the modern world plus guns, now that is dangerous.’
Yet both Helmke and Taylor stressed that America’s ‘gun culture’ was at the heart of the problem. Does such a thing exist, though? The term is of recent provenance, first introduced in a bad-tempered article by historian Richard Hofstadter in 1970 to describe what he thought was a historical fixation with weapons in America.
Many identify gun culture with the prominence of firearms in US history. The frontier ideal promulgated largely in the 1930s celebrated the gun as the chief tool used by settlers to tame the wilderness and Native Americans. It is true that the gun has played a much bigger role in the US than in western Europe, but the true purpose of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right to keep and bear arms, is to enable citizens to resist tyranny. It is about preserving the right of ordinary people to participate as equals in the political system.
The connection between Republics and an armed citizenry goes all the way back to Machiavelli. Elites have always disarmed those they feared the most. In the antebellum period of American history, slaves and freed men were denied arms. The Supreme Court, ruling that African-Americans could never be citizens in the infamous Dred Scott decision in 1856, noted:
‘If black people were entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which Southern states considered to be necessary for their own safety. It would give the persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union…the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went. And all of this would be done in the face of the subject race of the same color, both free and slaves, inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the state.’
But even after slavery was abolished, the experience of African-Americans should convince liberals that armed resistance is sometimes appropriate. Robert F Williams, a black civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s, debated non-violence with Martin Luther King at the 1959 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) conference. Whereas King’s non-violence tactics are widely celebrated, they were not effective in getting local ordinances changed. On the other hand, after some members of Williams’ 200-strong black militia traded shots with KKK nightriders, KKK cavalcades were promptly banned from the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, something the NAACP branch had been requesting for years.
As Williams said, guns were essential for those at the bottom of society as ‘racists consider themselves superior beings and are not willing to exchange their superior lives for our inferior ones. They are most vicious and violent when they can practice violence with impunity.’ Williams made the case for armed self-defence in a book chapter aptly titled ‘Self-Defense Prevents Bloodshed’.
It is also worth recalling that the Black Panther Party – immensely popular among liberals in the mid-1960s to early 1970s – began by protesting proposed gun controls, marching armed into the California legislature to make their voices heard. ‘Grab a gun’, they advised, ‘before only pigs have them’.
Today’s attack on the so-called gun culture is actually an attack on the constitutional rights of American members of the public. After all, campaigners for gun control do not protest the rights of police and security officers to use deadly force when necessary. Instead, they want them to have a monopoly on guns. It brings to mind the British woman who was arrested for taking photographs in a shopping centre that was filled to the brim with surveillance cameras.
The attack on gun culture is built on a deep suspicion of the motivations of ordinary citizens expressing political opinions. In fact, it is not so much about the Second Amendment as the First, which reads: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.’
The right of Americans to disagree with the political elite instead of instantly deferring to the opinions and ideas of their betters is what is really at stake here. The attack on gun culture is an attack on democracy, on ordinary people (or the ‘dangerous people’, as Helmke put it). As Thomas Jefferson said:
‘Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1) Those who fear and distrust the people [and] 2) Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe . . . depository of the public interest.’
Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).
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