I’m back from a hiatus due to COVID and I appreciate you sticking with me. Let me just say that COVID is no joke, and you should get your vaccinations and your booster. It’s rough out there.
I had plans to talk about academics and publishing and innovation, and I had even started on that episode, but then the world happened. Sometimes things occur that I just can’t let go.
I want to give some attention to Senator Chris Murphy who, on Tuesday on the Senate floor, asked “What are we doing?” He asked his fellow lawmakers why they bothered running for office and going through the hassle of seeking those positions if they weren’t going to do anything about this most serious issue. It seems to me a legitimate question to pose of our leaders. What ARE they doing? In the face of this, that has been plaguing us for so long, what are they doing to help us?
And the issue at hand is gun violence. And this week gun violence has exploded onto our screens and into our consciousness in the most insidious way. At least 19 children died at the hands of a gunman who invaded their school. The stories out of Uvalde are heart-wrenching. We’re all gutted. And angry. And we want to do something, but we don’t know what. As a friend of mine observed this week, the people who have the power to do something about this either won’t because they don’t want to or they benefit from not doing anything, and the people who want to do anything are systemically oppressed and CAN’T do anything. We keep being told to vote, but haven’t we already tried that? The Democrats have the House, the Senate, and the White House and haven’t moved an inch on gun control. Voting hasn’t done much for us.
I’m not going to list the stats on gun violence. We all know the situation is stark. If you have been paying attention at all you know how bad it is. And, to be honest, the statistics aren’t going to convince anyone. If they did the discussion would be over. We have listed the numbers and the facts over and over and the truth is, there are a lot of people who don’t care. They don’t care how many people are dying. They don’t care that guns are the number one cause of death of children in the US. There are too many people out there who just don’t care that scores of people are dying every year.
But let’s talk about guns and the Second Amendment for a minute. The idea that we have an individual right to firearms is relatively new. For most of American history, people, the Courts, and even the NRA took the view that the Second Amendment pertained to militias. That is, after all, what the Second Amendment says. This was back when the NRA was a sportsman’s organization and supported a wide variety of gun-control measures. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but the NRA at one point supported what we would today call “common sense” gun control measures. It didn’t start advocating for unlimited access to firearms until much later. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 70s that the NRA began to change positions on gun control – legal scholars and citizens started to adopt the individual rights theory and it would grow over the next 30 years. State constitutions recognized the theory in many places, but the federal government did not. It wasn’t until 2008 in the District of Columbia v. Heller case that the federal government recognized the individual rights theory of firearms.
However, in that decision the Court noted that there should be no doubt that it should be allowable to prohibit ownership of firearms in the case of felons or the mentally ill, or forbidding carrying firearms in places like schools or government buildings, or that there could be laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the sale of firearms. Heller radically altered our understanding of guns and gun control. It solidified the idea that a person, unless they fell into certain restricted categories, should have access to firearms. And the gun lobby has been working to expand that right ever since. At the state level this has largely been working, especially in red states.
Laura J. Collins, in “The Second Amendment as Demanding Subject: Figuring the Marginalized Subject in Demands for an Unbridled Second Amendment” in Rhetoric and Public Affairs described how gun rights are less of a political stance and more of an identity.
In 2013 there was this huge controversy surrounding Starbucks and guns – people were organizing open carry days; Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America were writing petitions – it was a mess. So CEO Howard Schulz wrote a letter and posted it online requesting Starbucks patrons not carry guns into his stores. He said, “The presence of a weapon in our stores is unsettling and upsetting for many of our customers.”
And customers responded! Gun owners came out of the woodworks claiming this was discrimination against the Second Amendment, and discrimination against Second Amendment rights. But the thing is, you can’t discriminate against a thing.
Gun owners cried that this was denial of the Constitution, anti-Constitutional actions, throwing the Constitution under the bus, and taking away something that doesn’t belong to Starbucks. Perhaps most interestingly, there were accusations of bigotry – Schulz wasn’t banning guns, he was banning people. The implication there is that, open carry isn’t a practice, it is a state of being. Carrying a gun isn’t something you do – it is a person that you are.
So if you feel uncomfortable in the presence of a gun you are prejudiced against the person. The people who felt uncomfortable around those who open carry are “random bigots.” They aren’t worried for their safety; they are prejudiced against people.
A person couldn’t come to Starbucks because she “happens to carry a gun” the same way she “happens” to be a woman.
A number of responses drew parallels between carrying a gun and immutable characteristics – asking people not to carry their guns in would be the same as asking black or gay people not to come to the establishment. And if that’s’ the case, no group is safe. Because bigotry comes in any number of manifestations.
Americans acknowledge racism is bad, the gun owners claimed– why don’t gun carriers have the same protection? The implication there was that owning a gun was an inherent characteristic, like race. Gun ownership is who you are, not what you do, and gun carriers were being disenfranchised.
The marginalization expressed here is less about the amendment or the rights itself and more about the identity connected with it. You don’t carry a gun; you ARE a gun carrier. It’s as essential as being black.
This is where advocacy for an unchecked Second Amendment comes from in many ways. Because it’s not about what you do, it’s about who you are.
In a second incident in 2013, Dick Metcalf, an editor of Guns & Ammo, wrote an editorial asking whether all restrictions were really such a bad thing. His “Backpage” column for the December 2013 issue of the magazine, entitled “Let’s Talk About Limits: Do certain firearms regulations really constitute infringement?” — which led to outrage among pro-gun enthusiasts and advertisers, Metcalf’s letter in Guns & Ammo wasn’t even as proactive as the Starbucks letter. It didn’t call for any action. It just made suggestions. But the response was so extreme two men lost their jobs.
Readers said it was inflammatory and unconscionable. It was disrespectful and a direct threat to the Second Amendment. Others said it “willfully misrepresented” the Second Amendment and another called it treasonous. Metcalf was a traitor – a “Judas” and a “Benedict Arnold.” Most importantly, Metcalf had shown his TRUE identity, He had been fooling his readers all along. He did not believe in an unchecked Second Amendment which meant he was a fake. It was not a matter of what he believed; it was a matter of who he was.
This was framed in terms of family – he was a member of the family that had turned on them. People were forced to disown him and the magazine, now. There was no space for him and his ilk. This was a matter of people and identity.
There are two groups of people, according to responders: those who are in opposition to guns and the Second Amendment and those who unconditionally support guns. Readers deny the existence of a third category – those who support guns AND some gun control, because that problematizes identity that is rooted in the Second Amendment. That would suggest that gun owners and/or the Second Amendment supporters do not exist as this unified, marginalized, reviled minority group, and that’s important to identity (see Starbucks).
So the Guns & Ammo readers drew strict boundaries – the REAL supporters and the REAL readers and the fake ones.
With identity and movement rooted in opposition and rights as ends, the right and its protectors are always vulnerable. There is always a possibility of infringement, a complaint to make, a demand that cannot be met. But this tension keeps the movement going.
This is all personal to me. I have kept my kid home from school because of gun threats. When rumors circulate online that there is a threat of gun violence at school, I cognitively know the chances are it is just a hoax. But I also know that I was a kid when Columbine happened. And I have lived through Sandy Hook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas and now Uvalde. There are times when these things are real.
After the Uvalde shooting schools across the nation sent out emails to parents assuring them, they take precautions to keep their kids safe. They detailed the protocols and procedures to keep children safe. But the truth is, kids aren’t safe. And parents know it. We know that when we send our kids to school, we’re sending them into the lion’s den. Parents know more than anyone that this place is fundamentally broken. When we do send them to school, they have to deal with these traumatizing shooter drills that scare some kids to death and do nothing to make kids any safer but are just safety theater. They’re like the old duck and cover drills. No right-thinking person thinks these will do anything to keep anyone safe. But they make some adult somewhere feel better.
We’ve all heard the same arguments over and over – this is a uniquely American problem. We could fix it if we wanted. But these arguments have been falling on deaf ears for years.
The truth is that the major premise for any argument against guns is life. The lives of our children. Our arguments against guns are founded on the value of our kids. But the problem is, the people we are arguing with have made it abundantly clear they do not value that life. So our arguments ring hollow. It’s the same reason the stats don’t work. There is this disconnect somewhere. Other people’s lives aren’t a convincing premise. They don’t have value. If other people’s lives had value, then this would be a non-issue. The oppositional argument is that this is about rights. That what hangs in the balance isn’t just a gun, but an ideal – a right, and that is why it is equivalent to life. But that’s why understanding the history of that right is so important. This right, as we understand it, is new. It’s a new creation. It’s not well-established in the law or the Constitution in any real way. So it kind of puts groups at odds. The folks who usually argue for traditional or original meanings of the Constitution are fighting for new and quite frankly, creative interpretations of the Constitution, while those who usually accept a “living Constitution” model are more inclined to cleave to older, less interpretive meanings of the Second Amendment. So what is this right that is supposedly as valuable as human life? Which version?
So if life isn’t convincing, what argument will make any difference? We can’t appeal to money, power, or property, because the gun lobby has all of those things.
I honestly don’t know. But I am terrified of a scenario in which the life of my child is not valuable enough to keep a simple piece of metal out of somebody’s hands.
So much of who I am is bound up in being a parent. I am not saying that’s the only way to be. You don’t have to be a parent to be whole, and you don’t even have to invest your whole identity into parenthood if you are a parent. But for me, being a mom is a big part of who I am. My family is the reason I work as hard as I do, and I make most of my decisions based on what is good for them. I am invested in my kid. I want to know about their life, and I am concerned about their future. I enjoy their company and I worry about them. They are a big part of who I am. I worry about being a good mom. Part of that worry is concern for my child’s safety. And it kills me that that includes worry about basic safety at school. There is so much to worry about at school. Bullying, social ostracization, drugs and alcohol. Safety should be a given. But it’s not.
It’s been almost ten years since Sandy Hook. And nothing has been done about the proliferation of guns in America since then. It seems like we lost the battle at that point. If we weren’t going to do anything about guns after our little children were slaughtered, then we when were we going to do anything? If Sandy Hook wasn’t the tragedy that spurred us to action, what could possibly be the thing that will?
What kills me is that something COULD be done. Democrats have the power, but they elect not to because they value cooperation with the Republicans. So it’s not even just that the Right doesn’t value our kids’ lives, it’s that plenty of rank-and-file Dems don’t, either.
So the best we can do is support those lawmakers who actually seem to want to do something and let the ones who refuse to take action know that they can go fuck themselves.
The tragedy in Uvalde should be shocking because it is unique. But Uvalde is just the continuation of America’s long running pattern of violence and death.
There’s something wrong with us. We are so violent. We are obsessed with guns. Other stable countries don’t kill each other indiscriminately the way we do. Which of course, makes me question how stable a country we really are. I keep thinking of Bernadine Dohrn, of the Weather Underground, who said she was not committed to non-violence in the midst of the most violent society in history.
So is it going to take violence from us to stop the violence? That’s awfully hard for me to accept.
But so is the death of 19 school kids.
So I don’t know what to do.
I saw where someone there other day prayed, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our rage.”
And honestly, no prayer has every sounded more righteous.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.