The recent shoot-out in Waco, Texas, prompts me to share some observations about the ubiquity of guns in America, and the near-religious fervor with which an unrestricted right to bear arms is defended. (I’m well aware that I may regret writing this; my only previous foray into the issue, on this blog, prompted responses that were by far the most uncivil and threatening I have ever received. And I used to run Indiana’s ACLU.)
A couple of caveats: Perfectly reasonable people may have different opinions about the purpose and reach of the Second Amendment, and what restrictions on gun ownership are both socially prudent and constitutional. Many responsible people own firearms, for a variety of eminently defensible reasons.
This blog isn’t about those people.
In fact, even though this post was triggered by the motorcycle gang violence in Waco, it isn’t intended to be directly responsive to that event, either; rather, you might think of it as a meditation on America’s inability to approach even the most reasonable discussions of gun rights and public safety with anything other than hysteria and hyperbole.
This hasn’t always been the case. In 1968, for example, President Johnson signed a sweeping national gun control law; in 1993, Congress passed the Brady Act. There have been others.
But during the past few decades, these federal laws have been substantially weakened and the gun lobby has advanced multiple state-level initiatives expanding gun “rights” well beyond what my generation considered reasonable– measures to permit concealed weapons, to allow people to take weapons into businesses (including bars and despite the objections of the property owners), and to invalidate campus rules against weapons. Iowa even passed a measure allowing people who are blind to obtain gun permits.
Perhaps the most troubling element of this landscape has been the growth of so-called “open carry” laws. Want to sling your AK47 over your shoulder when you go to the grocery? Sure thing! In the wake of passage of these laws, groups of heavily armed men have “exercised their constitutional rights” by showing up in the aisles of establishments like Target and Walmart.
These displays of machismo are not unconnected to the (increasingly bizarre) conspiracy theories that have mushroomed in the wake of President Obama’s election. “Obama is going to confiscate our guns!” “Jade Helm is a plot—Obama is planning to bring in the U.N. and take over Texas!”
Racism is clearly a factor in these and similar conspiracies being promoted in the more fetid precincts of the Internet, but racism doesn’t explain all of the paranoia.
We live in a time of dramatic and unprecedented social change, with a corresponding loss of what scholars call agency. Agency is personal efficacy, confidence that we are in charge of our own lives, the masters of our own fates, in possession of a measure of control over what happens to us.
Americans wake up every morning to a world that is less familiar and more disorienting; a world resistant to attempts at control. Meanwhile, the Internet inundates us with evidence that our social institutions—especially but not exclusively government—cannot be trusted. People who’ve been told their whole lives that they’ll do well if they work hard and play by the rules—most of whom have dutifully proceeded to work hard and play by the rules—have seen their wages stagnate and their life prospects dim.
Some Americans respond to this social landscape by “opting out,” by retreating from civic life. Others– frightened people trying to make sense of an unfamiliar world– take refuge in “explanations” for their distress: a War on Christians, welfare mothers, Sharia law… At the extreme, folks with paranoid tendencies believe their lives depend upon their ability to arm themselves against the “enemy,” the United Nations, immigrants, terrorists, the federal government….and especially, the terrifying unknown.
So they swagger down the aisles of the local Target with guns over their shoulders and strapped to their hips, and tee-shirts that say “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Sad. And very dangerous.