Assault Weapons and The Gun Crisis: A Primer
Before talking about assault weapons, the gun crisis, and what they symbolize, we have to understand the statistics. Annually, more than 30,000 people are killed due to gun violence in the US. However, gun violence is not on the rise. It has been steady since the late 90s. Gun homicide, like all crime, is down from the boom in the 80s. Gun suicides are ticking upwards slowly. The causes of gun deaths breakdown to 62% suicides (the majority white), 34% crime (the majority black), the rest are police shootings and accidents. Like all crime and violence, the majority of gun violence is intraracial, with 90% of all crimes being at the hands of a member of their own race.
Mass shootings comprise 2% of all gun deaths and, despite perception, are not on the rise. Studies which demonstrate their rise have either removed mass shootings that occur in urban areas, under the pretense that those are gang related, or simply miscalculate them. What is an assault weapon? Depending on who you ask, that is either an issue of cosmetics, mechanics, or efficiency. However, this piece will not become mired in that debate. It is a loaded, empty categorization meant to confuse the point.
Despite popular misconceptions, the effect of 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban on gun violence, according to various studies of 1994-2004, were so small as to be imperceptible. Why? The overwhelming majority of gun violence is not committed with assault weapons, not even mass homicides. In fact, the second worst mass shooting in US history used Glock 19s with extended magazines. Most gun crimes are committed with easily concealable pistols that are obtained illegally.
An assault weapons ban is practically useless at directly reducing gun violence. Uselessness aside, that is not the problem with the ban or the conversation surrounding it. Things that are practically useless often make for meaningful narratives and symbols. This is the case for the assault weapons ban. It is full of meaning and symbols. The problem is simply that the underlying meaning has horrifying implications.
And I Thought My Jokes Were Bad
There is an obvious discrepancy between what the statistics are telling us the crisis is and the definition of the crisis from the perspective of the media and politicians. To understand this disconnect, and its importance, let’s turn to one of our generation’s premier social philosophers. In The Dark Knight, The Joker encapsulates this phenomenon perfectly:
“Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan”.
The Joker is right on all accounts. There is a plan in the US when it comes to guns, violence, and crime. However, while that plan is indeed horrifying, it can teach us a lot about how social issues go from simply being realities of society to be accepted or ignored to problems worth national conversations and outrage.
The Plan. The Status Quo. Common Sense. Call it what you will. What The Joker refers to is simple. The social order dictates that certain communities and individuals (based on a Race, Religion, Class, etc.) have a right to live free of fear and certain ones do not. It is expected, acceptable, and even necessary for certain people to be the victims of gun violence, torture, and inequality. But for others, that reality, or potential reality, is enough to spark a national tragedy, conversation, or action.
The plan suggests that if one lives in the inner city, in poverty, or looks like they might, can they really be a victim? Are the people who take their lives due to depression, deprivation, or poverty really a victim? Certainly, they are a victim of the structures of inequality which result in unequal access to health care, education, and clean water.
Furthermore, are gun owners who die, or whose children die, as the result of accidents worth treating with respect or are they “stupid”? They are victims of fear, and the desire for freedom (from fear), that motivated the purchase in the first place. Okay okay, maybe they hunt. However, that inequality and fear is part of the plan. So their deaths are as well. Their lives and deaths erased from the conversation. They become a context-less statistic to use by those who seek to keep the plan going.
That is why we did not talk about guns, despite the 6000 gun deaths this year, until an event like Orlando occurred (I am unconvinced that the mainstream outrage is the result of the victimized belonged to the LGBT community). That is how the first “common sense” solution to the gun crisis proposed is not meant to address 98% of gun violence. It is not even meant to address the entirety of the 2% that are mass shootings. It is only aimed at the portion of the 2% which makes individuals whose fear is not a part of the plan, afraid. A fragment of that 2% is the type of gun violence that might happen to people whom we value. We only seek to assuage certain communities’ anxieties towards the part of the crisis perceived as affecting them. To assure them that it cannot happen to them. To assure them alone that when it happens to them, that it is special, the result of some inherent evil or anomaly.
We Are Not Australia and Other Hard Truths
We are not Australia. We can learn from them, but we should not pretend their problems are ours, or their solutions can be ours. The United States has its own unique social and economic issues at the foundations of our gun crisis. If we gave 330 million firearms to Finland, they would not have a proportional gun fatality rate to ours. More important, and more ignored, than any gun culture in the US, is that the United States has a culture which perpetuates unequal distribution of social and economic capital. The key here is being able to determine which problems are caused by the presence of guns and which problems the desire for guns is merely a one of many symptoms.
Gun culture, for the most part, is a scapegoating tactic. One intended to create a visible menace population to avoid talking about the structural issues present. The intention in separating out a “gun culture” is to absolve the majority of people from their complicity in causing the current gun crisis. A refusal of the fact that the United States is just a culture where that makes sense. However, gun owners are not subject to any “counterculture”, i.e. one meant to rebuke our normal values.
They are subject to the same stereotypes, values, and education we all are. Yes, they have chosen a different solution to the problems our society identifies. In reality, we all share a hand in forming the structural inequalities that cause the “gun crisis”. We create them in the things we say, do, and watch. The people we dislike and distrust on sight. The infrastructure, both material and legal, that we build to reflect and perpetuate those prejudices and inequality.
We are a country that has also allowed large segments of cities, whole populations, to fall into poverty, deprivation, and isolation. One that does not invest in certain communities because it values their lives and deaths as inherently less valuable. We say their suffering is not a structural issue, but a personal, biological, or cultural failing. We demonize the mentally ill, make seeking help harder, and do not provide it. Then we make access to weapons easier. While the NRA shares some of the blame for why we have guns, they cannot take all the blame for why we feel we need them, who we use them on, or who we do not care if they are used on.
In doing so, we have created a society where it makes so much common sense for certain people to die, that it seems reasonable that when a more Liberal party talks about the gun crisis, they are a footnote. As opposed to the focus, they are part of the “larger” conversation that we can have later. It does not make enough common sense to focus the conversation on the suicides or other homicides. Our society’s plan can usually account for those people’s deaths.
We assume they are just gang members, militia men, or crazy people. In displays of victim blaming that always goes unchecked. To help them, we would have to acknowledge the problems with and change the “plan”. Shake up the social order, correct the social and economic disparities which shuttle them into literal and metaphorical shadows of society where poverty, depression and crime are most likely to occur. What is worthy of note though is that their lives, and deaths, are mobilized when people discuss gun violence.
When pundits and commentators say “30,000 people were victims of gun violence”, then turn to Colorado as an example, the victims of suicide and inner city gang violence are being simultaneously used and erased from the conversation. Their unique narratives and concerns are gone, along with the chance of a solution, in favor of those that fit better with the status quo. This is not unique to gun violence. This is a pattern whenever we talk about crime, criminals, prejudice, social problems, and victims, especially on the mainstream “Left”. The totality of an affected population, and its problems, defined by the people who belong to the religions, classes, and races within it that we value most highly.
We use the narratives of RICH ELITE black MEN to define Racism. ELITE WHITE women to define Sexism. We pretend they can act as analogies for the entire group because their stories challenge the whole plan least. We ignore the lessons of intersectionality, while we liberally use the word. Now we have the narratives of WHITE, MIDDLE CLASS, PSYCHOLOGICALLY “NORMAL”, and ELITE citizens defining the gun crisis for the Left. Their perception of the crisis is the crisis. The solution to their anxieties is the “common sense” ones.
This means that mass shootings in the strictest sense, i.e. shootings that injure 3 or more people, are not the issue. Those are more common in inner cities and are usually committed with pistols. More accurately society is concerned with shootings occurring in places that symbolize good American values and populations of worth. Ones in white, middle-class communities, school shootings, and workplace shootings preoccupy our news because it preoccupies the minds of the privileged, elite, middle class, and largely white groups in societies.
They are the shootings that do not make “common sense” to us. They deviate from the plan. The willingness to separate them out from other mass shootings in research studies is demonstrative of that feeling. They trouble the minds of suburbanites, Harvard students, and politicians. Those are the shootings that occupy our media because our media is composed of those people.
It is also not simply misplaced priorities or distraction. It is indicative of the homogeneity in the background of those dominating the conversation on the mainstream Left and the plan they have for certain communities and peoples. Whether an assault weapons ban is reasonable is not the point. Meaningless changes always appear reasonable (after all, a one dollar raise to the minimum wage would be reasonable). An assault weapons ban is an unreasonable starting point for Progressives if they are serious about gun violence and the equal worth of all lives.
Once More, With Feeling
However, allow me to be the bearer of bad news, the conversation surrounding assault weapons and mass shootings is not a symbol of more to come. Had a new assault weapons ban passed, we would have never had a larger conversation about gun violence. Not even from the mainstream Left, because that is dominated by those for whom the status quo is beneficial.
After all, we never had a larger conversation in the 90s. To the contrary, Democrats removed some of the programs meant to tackle the structural inequalities that contribute to both crime and mental illness. That is the reason why I will never understand how people can say the Clintons were “good” on guns. At the same time as the passing of the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill, more fuel was added to the flames of racial animosity and fear. One of the key contributors to gun ownership and the devaluation of the deaths of certain individuals.
The Clintons (super)criminalized black youths, then racialized and dehumanized criminals, creating a permanent group to serve as potential threats. Where it used to be “Criminals”, now it is “Terrorists”, which only furthers the justification for guns in the general population and a surveillance state. Leading citizens to be afraid and spurring the need to buy weapons. Fear of crime, as code for brown people, is one of the biggest motivating factors for legal gun sales. The boom gun sales experienced during the Obama Presidency is a good indication of the roles xenophobia, racism, and anti-state feelings play in selling guns.
They fed into the Neoliberal narrative that “big government” was scary, using it to pass Welfare Reform, which increased poverty and mortality rates. Poverty being one of the biggest factors that sustain crime and mental illness in America.
Now, instead of Democrats pushing for new social policies, they are engaging in empty theatrics while demonizing two more groups. Muslims, of course, with the same racial implications as Blacks in the 90s. Less acknowledged is the vilification of gun owners and advocates. Who, along with the NRA, are viewed as those responsible for maintaining this crisis. Another group whose place in the conversation, along with their, lives have been devalued based.
The Crime Bill failed because you can not wage a War on Crime by increasing the punishment and prohibitions. That is how you wage a War on the Poor, Afraid, and Persecuted. You wage it by making all crime, robbery to terrorism, no longer attractive from an economic or social perspective. You create a series of social conditions that make engaging in crime no longer make as much sense within society. Honestly, if we cannot pass a national 15 dollar minimum wage or expand Medicare, we cannot address the causes of gun violence, crime, or mental illness.
Born To Die
This is not solely about Race, Freedom vs. Security, or Gun Control vs. Gun Rights. At heart, this is an issue of representation on the Left and domination of a small majority over the bounds of a problem. This is about who gets to define Freedom and whose Fears do we acknowledge as rational. What groups does one have to belong to (racial or otherwise) for their deaths to be considered meaningful enough to cause change, even on the Left. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, the notion that we are defining a crisis that affects 30000 people annually, by 2% of that number should make you question how we define all problems. There is no homogeneity among the Left, in gun owners, nor are they mutually exclusive categories. So as Progressives, we need to ask ourselves whose narratives are being lost here and whose are being over represented, and why?
See. I am a selfish person. I am not afraid of living in a society where there are assault weapons and mass shootings that make no sense at all. I am afraid of living in one where certain mass shootings make common sense. That speaks to the way we value each other’s lives. I am also not afraid of the possibility that 20 people will be shot next semester at Duke or Harvard or Stanford or Yale. I am aware that likely hundreds will die over the summer in Chicago, some in mass shootings, as they do every year, and that we will not even discuss it. Heck, in June alone, Chicago saw 73 gun homicides.
Sure, I think it is problematic that we live in a society with all these guns. However, I think it is horrifying that we live in one where people feel as though they need them. I also think it is gross that when a gun owner injures themselves, words like “stupid” are thrown around in a way that you would never see for anyone else who puts themselves in a dangerous scenario. I think it is weird that people like and fetishize military hardware, but I think it is horrifying that people feel as though they are preparing for war. A feeling bolstered by our media.
I am Black, broke, and from Brooklyn. It is much more likely that I will be shot by a person left desperate by poverty. Or a cop who views me as a threat because I am just a little too dark skinned. Or maybe myself. After all, society views me as being of inherently less worth. So the chances of me being in poverty are higher. Thus my mental health is likely to be more at risk and since mental illness is stigmatized, it will be hard for me to seek help. A task only made harder by the unequal access to healthcare.
In most of those cases, it would not even make the news. In all of those cases, an assault weapons ban would not help. We would not even talk about my death, as it would fit within the plan. Ultimately, John Lewis would not sit down for my death. Not even to send out fundraising letters. Would he sit down for yours?