The Gun Debate Deserves More Nuance

Following every mass shooting, a polarized and contentious media frenzy debates gun control, with one side responding to tragedy with a celebration of rights, and the other finding the continued inaction of Congress disgusting. The Democrats are homogeneously in favor of any measure to reduce gun prevalence they can pass, while the Republicans are universally 2nd amendment proponents, holding it as dear as their God.

After the latest incident, Obama called for the no fly list to also become a no gun list. The no fly list is a travel ban imposed on 47,000 names (resulting in many false positives) picked by the government, often as “predictive judgments,” without a trial or even notification. This post-9/11 policy has been declared unconstitutional by courts for lacking due process, notification and explanation of charges, and the ability for blacklisted people to clear their name (ACLU).

The right, backed by the NRA, cites again and again that “guns don’t kill people, people do,” and believe in their right to protect their families and private property with a firearm.  They argue that removing guns from lawful people will leave them to black market buyers, which has some merit. The oft-touted quote, “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” is arguably false, with just 3% of shooting cases between 2000 and 2013 curtailed by an armed vigilante, compared to the 13% by unarmed civilians, and 56% by the shooter’s own initiative (suicide or surrender) (FBI). The now-famous 1993 study in New England Journal of Medicine found people in gun-wielding homes were 2.7x more likely to be murdered. However, the 2.7x figure comes with guns as a risk-factor, as a controlled experiment would be nearly impossible. The murder rates of a group of gun owners is compared to a group of non-owners, so conditions of existing danger that might lead someone to buy a gun must be considered. All murders are included in that 2.7x, not just ones related to the victim’s firearm. The same study found being a renter as a risk-factor of 4.4x, yet we don’t blame the concept of renting, but rather the crime rates in wealthy suburbs compared to diverse cities, and the centuries of racist, inequality-spawning public policy behind that divide. I don’t mean to completely dismiss the studies, as cigarettes were found to cause cancer using the same method, and it’s the only realistic option to study the subject, but what they tell us is more nuanced than a snazzy headline can convey. (Kellerman)

Besides tightening gun show sales that avoid background checks, the Democratic Party’s efforts have focused on banning assault weapons, which are used in most mass shootings. These weapons aren’t materially different from others, as Eugene Volokh at the Washington Post explains:

To begin with, note that assault weapons are not fully automatic weapons (which is to say machine guns). Fully automatic weapons have long been heavily regulated, and lawfully owned fully automatics are very rare, very expensive and almost never used in crimes. As you might gather, bayonet mounts, barrel shrouds, pistol grips and the like don’t make guns materially more lethal. Guns that fit these categories may look more dangerous; but they aren’t more dangerous. Caliber does, because wider bullets are generally heavier bullets, but assault weapons aren’t defined by caliber size. The amount of gunpowder in a round does, because that too affects muzzle velocity, but assault weapons aren’t defined by this. For instance, the .223 rifles that are often labeled “assault weapons” have a much lower muzzle energy than familiar hunting rifles such as the .30-06. These days pretty much all semiautomatics and revolvers (and even other guns) fire quickly enough for any criminal’s needs; and again assault weapons aren’t defined by rate of fire.

All 462 mass shooting deaths in 2015 were undoubtedly tragic. However, accidents killed 130,557 in 2014, and suicide took the lives of 41,149 in 2014, half using firearms. These are the far more likely things to happen to any given individual, yet receive little to no political and media attention. In terms of other heavily publicized and contentious tragedies, 1,138 people were killed by police in 2015, 223 of whom were unarmed (The Guardian).

There are many issues relevant to guns in America that are completely ignored by both sides of the debate. The gun control laws we do have were largely racially charged, and even promoted by Reagan and the NRA. John Blake at CNN examined:

Before the Civil War, Southerners passed laws to keep guns away from slaves and free blacks because they feared slave revolts. After the war ended, Southern states passed laws that made it illegal for blacks to possess guns or ammunition.

The Klan’s rise was driven by the fear of blacks with guns, Kopel says. He quotes one 19th century lawyer who said that when the Klan took control of an area, “The first thing done was to disarm the Negros and leave them defenseless.”

These racial fears may seem like they belong to another era, but sometimes the present looks like the past, one historian says.

Later, gun control was passed to weaken the Black Panthers and civil rights movement:

The fears of black people with guns resurfaced during the 1960s. After a group of armed Black Panther members invoking their open-carry gun rights barged into the California state Capitol, lawmakers there passed the Mulford Act, banning the open carrying of loaded guns in public in 1967. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed after race riots rocked the nation.

Guns are one of the most effective methods of suicide, and used as one more often by men than women, leading to a gender discrepancy in attempt/success rates. A gunless society exactly like ours may have fewer deaths from suicide attempts, but just like the nets put under the windows of Chinese factories, this ignores solving the issues that cause people to become suicidal. There are other equally effective suicide methods, too. While countries like the UK and Australia that passed sweeping gun control legislation indeed have fewer mass shootings than the US, their suicide rates are comparable, with the UK’s at 11.9 per 100,000, Australia’s at 11, to the US’s marginally higher 12.1. Firearm homicide rate in Australlia went down by 59% following their policy change, and though it’s difficult to extrapolate the policy’s direct effect on overall homicide rate due to external variables, overall homicide rate has declined by about 30% from 1.6 to 1.1, compared to the US’s 40% fall from 7.4 to 4.5 per 100,000. Though not to be directly attributed to the recent gun control laws, homicide rate actually had a peak in both Australia and the UK during the early ‘00s. Still, the discrepancy between 1996 and current UK or Australia pales in comparison to that of the US and other countries. Before and after legislation, Australia and the UK had both far fewer guns and a far lower homicide rate than the US.

Implementing gun control to solve violence ignores any structural problems. With domestic terrorists being overwhelmingly white men, we must consider white supremacy and patriarchy as factors, and work hard to end them. Our society’s economic system is hyper-competitive, stressful, and requires forever increasing output from each person, with any attempts for individual control over this process (via unionization) being considered a violation of the sacred “invisible hand”. Italian theorist Franco Berardi posits that neoliberalism is the true issue in Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide. Jérôme Roos analyzed the book, finding:

What has been established at the level of the collective psyche in the last 30 years is “a suicidal form of the neoliberal will to win”: a relentless drive towards an ever greater need to reaffirm ourselves through self-destructive deeds. The supposedly “successful” become absolute workaholics; the “ordinary” are subjected to unrelenting stress and self-doubt; and the “failures” grow dependent on anti-depressants and sleeping pills, or systematic substance abuse as a form of self-medication. The weakest, most tragically, quietly slip away on their own.

A white young male co-pilot with no criminal connections deliberately crashed Germanwings flight 9525, killing all crew and passengers. The perpetrator suffered anxiety, stress, and depression from his work at Lufthansa’s budget subsidiary. Entry-level piloting is an incredibly competitive, poorly paying industry. One pilot remarked, “There’s a long queue of desperate young pilots looking for a first step on the career ladder and happy to take my place. If I don’t turn up for work one day, I might not be called again.”

The suicide-murderer had eyesight problems, and often received, but didn’t execute on doctors notes to excuse him from work, possibly afraid of the career ending consequences that can come even after going into the typical $75,000 of debt from training. That’s not to say we should excuse or humanize mass killers, just that we should understand they weren’t created in a vacuum of evil, but rather within a system of power, a system that idolizes people with the most power over others. As Roos puts it, “When pushed to its extreme and forced upon the mental lifeworlds of hundreds of millions of people, this anxious and disgruntled subjectivity of permanent stress and hyper-competitiveness is bound to produce monsters at some point – at least among a small, mentally vulnerable sub-section of the overall population.” The pilot was in a position with little power over the course of his own life due to failing health, and took many lives to maximize his power.

Guns are used as tools for the following:

  • Maintaining authority in hierarchy
  • Gaining authority/decreasing someone else’s
  • Taking private property
  • Stopping own private property from being taken
  • Changing the political or social order of world
  • Hunting for food
  • Sport
  • Suicide within this society
  • Working for someone else above you that wants to do any of the above

In a system with no unjustified hierarchies that put some individuals above others, most of these reasons are deprecated as being solely malicious. In a system like ours, using them to change the order of the world can result in the destruction of unjustified hierarchies, as we see the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (a libertarian socialist and feminist militant organization) attempting against the oppressive powers of Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and ISIS.

Suicide rates have risen over 60% since the beginning of the deregulation, anti-union, trickle-down economic policy era known as neoliberalism. This coincided with Reagan’s stripping of our flawed public mental health services, dropping patients in need of help on the streets. Republicans love to say the issue with gun violence is mental health, but never address the cause, initiate solving it, or admit that their policies exacerbate it. Obama has blamed Congress for inaction in response to mass shootings. In a culture that cherishes 303 million guns, mostly owned by the privileged, gun legislation akin to the United Kingdom’s is not going to happen. Narrowly focused, the democrats have been just as uncommitted to funding mental health.

Reddit user Cymbalstack stated:

Gun rights were for a very long time advocated by the radical left, seen as the primary way of combatting the capitalist state’s monopoly on violence. The irony is that now the most fervent gun supporters are the property-owning, white cis men who benefit the most from state violence.

Why do today’s liberals and progressives so readily appeal to the authority of law for protection? Why do so many assume that the capitalist state, which regurgitates media apologetics for white supremacists, turns a blind eye to physical and sexual assault of gender minorities, finances terrorists abroad and thrives off the murder and imprisonment of black and brown people, has any genuine ethical interest in the safety of its own population?

I’m not here to fetishize gun ownership, or claim that NRA lobbyists and open-carry wingnuts aren’t awful pieces of shit. But if we authentically care about social justice, we have to recognize that people of color, trans people, queer people, homeless people, and people with physical or mental disabilities do not have the privilege of being able to rely on the police for their safety. We need to support the right of oppressed and marginalized people to defend themselves. We need to acknowledge the the critical importance that armed, militant groups played in the Civil Rights movement, workers’ movements and indigenous resistance. And we need to stop conceptualizing state violence and the violence of individual reactionaries as two mutually exclusive categories, because they are part of the same oppressive force. There are no easy answers, least of all the ones handed down benevolently from above.

The same liberal folk that call out the police for killing 223 mostly minority unarmed civilian beg to hand them exclusive and authoritarian access to violence. Gun-supporters are predominantly the people that benefit most from state violence, and therefore believe those unable to feel safe in the presence of cops brought it upon themselves and deserve any consequences. The reformist action plan is an overhaul of the mental health care system, rejecting anti-union “right to work” legislation, stronger labor laws, and a slow shift in culture to teach-out white supremacy and patriarchy. Like many issues, reform alone is not enough, but improving people’s quality of life is always a worthy effort. Gun violence is a deeply complicated issue that cannot be distilled to accurate infographics supporting either of the dominant sides.

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