The tragedy in Orlando this past weekend, in which 50 people died and another 53 were injured by a man with an assault rifle and a handgun (both purchased legally), has a lot of folks (like me) hoping to see Federal legislation limiting gun ownership and so on. The conversation around this has a tone of deep frustration, as everyone knows that it is virtually impossible to limit gun ownership in the US, on account of the Second Amendment, and the political power of the National Rifle Association. Personally, I think that assault weapons ought to be banned outright, and that firearms should be strictly and severely limited bythe law in general, but I also think that doing so would require an unthinkable quantity of violence on the part of the government. I want to go over some of the reasons why I think enacting gun regulations is so incredibly difficult.
First of all, gun manufacturing is big business – legal small arms sales are worth $4.1 billion annually, and growing. It’s really, really difficult to tell businesses to stop producing stuff that consumers want to buy, because the whole point of capitalism is to produce the stuff consumers want. And consumers want guns.
Secondly, there’s a subculture of gun owners for whom this issue is not at all reasonable, but rather emotional. I had an uncle who died a few years ago who was something of a gun nut (and my suspicion is that he was quite typical), and in the process of cleaning out his house, my father told me that numerous guns were found, along with thousands of rounds of ammunition. Thinking about all that firepower, I could imagine my uncle getting drunk in front of the television (he was also an alcoholic), feeling alienated and fearful, and buying guns and ammo as a response to those feelings. And let me just say here, I write this because I think of much of consumer behavior as driven by feelings and not by rational decision making. I remember once having an advertising expert tell me about how Revlon basically sells hope, not makeup. A great deal of consumption, in my view, is symbolic rather than practical. Buying guns is about fear – I am afraid, for whatever reason, so I buy a gun, for protection. Will the gun protect me? Probably not. Will there be an opportunity to defend myself using the gone? Almost certainly not. But it will make me feel safer? If I am a typical consumer of firearms, yes.
Guns make people feel powerful. I remember seeing a scene from a South Park episode wherein a character, while pointing a loaded gun at others, remarks how wonderful it feels to have someone really listen, and how firearms affect this par excellance. Essentially, a gun makes the possessor an authority, automatically. In a world where we are so often marginalized and alienated, the fantasy of guns – of being taken seriously – is powerful.
I remember a guy I worked with in Americorps in Oakland (back in 2003) told me that he had empathized with the Columbine killers. This particular guy had Moebius syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterized by facial paralysis, and had a really hard time socializing. He could relate to feelings of anger and frustration that come with being a social outsider within the context of high school. Feeling alienated by society is not all that unusual today – lots of people are angry, lonely, and afraid. Fantasies in which one is powerful, in which one is able to wield power over others, are appealing to a person who feels powerless and alone.
There is also another role that guns play (very well) within the symbolic order: the functional part in the citizen militia fantasy. Americans, especially white people with patriarchal proclivities, get really into the idea that the nation has to be defended from something or someone. It’s easy to think of folks like this as ridiculous, but I think it rather a plain fact of modern existance that we all believe ourselves to be part of some larger social structure, and as such, part of an “us” with a corresponding “them.” In that context, it is simply part of everyday life to desire to uphold what is right and to scorn what is wrong, and to defend the right and the good as ably as possible.
If we wanted to stop selling guns, or restrict gun sales, it would be really difficult, because people like buying guns, they like the fantasies engendered by the purchase of guns, and the people selling the guns are making a good (and honest) living doing it. This is a capitalist country. If willing sellers cannot sell to willing buyers, then what are we doing, anyways? If we restricted gun sales, they would go underground, and become more profitable than ever. If we regulated gun ownership, it would simply make the fearful gun owners more paranoid. If we tried to take guns away from people, it would like a low level civil war.
A great many Americans do not trust the government – for them, America is an idea, not a nation or a state or a country, not a place or a group of people with diverse views. Guns often represent a method of defense of that idea. The government is not trusted to carry out that defense. What would have to happen for serious, effective gun regulation to be set in place? We would have to consciously choose to have the government take guns away from people, which would mean a) the government would have to enact violence great enough to overcome resistance to said regulation, and b) enough people would have to trust the government enough to allow them to carry out such violence.
Let me put it this way: there are hundreds of thousands of paranoid, angry Americans with guns. If you want to take those guns away from them, you’d have to kill a bunch of them, and put a bunch more of them in prison, and then you’d have to deal with the underground firearms market that would inevitably spring up to meet demand for guns. And we’d have to choose that violence. Put money towards it. Reward people for carrying it out, and honor their memory when they died doing it. What happened in Orlando was tragic and fucked up, but at least its not really anybody’s fault.