America’s Tragedy Is Its Culture of Fear—That Happens to Be Armed With Millions of Guns newsusface


I’ve long avoided writing about anything related to guns—being both largely unfamiliar with firearms and not holding a passionate view on either “gun control” or “gun rights.”

Judging by national polling on the subject, I suppose you’d call me “middle of the road” on guns, believing citizens do indeed have the constitutional right to bear arms, but that the government can (and should) impose certain limitations on that right. (This is the view of both the average American and the average member of the NRA.)

I don’t have a legal background and don’t claim to be an expert on constitutional interpretations of the Second Amendment, though I suspect the word “well-regulated” is in there for a reason. And while I wish the Founding Fathers (or their near descendants) would have had the sense to be a little more specific about the rights of “the people” to own and carry instant gratification machines that are also instruments of death—I accept that this is America. We are a gun culture.

Still, I find gun abolitionists to be living in a fantasy world. You’re never going to ban guns in the United States. The country is too big, with too many wildly different cultures, and a federalist system that makes such top-down edicts essentially impossible. Guns outnumber people in this country, and probably always will.

Most Americans who feel strongly in their constitutional right to own guns will not give them up voluntarily, and if you think the government will someday go door-to-door demanding people fork over their weapons, please allow me to remind you of the fact that many Americans believed government workers going door-to-door to offer free, voluntary COVID vaccines was a harbinger of oncoming Stalinism (or Hitlerism). That should disabuse you of the notion that there will ever be a peaceful de-weaponization of the American population.

But after so many years as a gun policy agnostic, I’ve been moved by the right’s myriad culture war panics to wonder why the same tribes who provide U.S. gun culture with its intellectual and political heft have absolutely nothing to say about America’s heritage of gun death?

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Angry parents and community members protest after a Loudoun County School Board meeting was halted by the school board because the crowd refused to quiet down. Critical race theory was the topic at hand.

Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

UNITE BE AFRAID OR DIE

The MAGA flag-humpers, the DeSantis stans, the edgelord libertarians, to name a few—they’re all freaked out about something.

It could be Twitter’s pre-Elon Musk content moderation policies—“Worse than Watergate!” It could be temporary vaccine mandates in public spaces that mostly ended in 2021—“You’re never going to force me to take the New World Order clot shot!” And, of course, LGBTQ-themed books and biographies of civil rights figures in school libraries—“Keep your porn and critical race theory out of our kids’ brains, you groomer woke moralists!”

Yet, the roughly 20,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. last year (if you count suicides, it’s more than double that amount) don’t move the right’s culture war outrage needle. Not one bit.

Sure, they’ll wax poetic about the dangers of “Democrat” cities—the deteriorating public safety of San Francisco, the endless violent crime on the south side of Chicago, and the attacks on a federal building in Portland staged by antifa clowns that happened three years ago. These all still strike fear and loathing in the hearts and minds of Fox News viewers—but not the fact that America holds a unique and shameful place as the Western world’s capital of gun violence.

It’s a common mistake to confuse anecdotes with data. But drag story hour videos on Libs of TikTok, breathless talk by cryptic-speaking Joe Rogan guests of a vast conspiracy to hide countless COVID vaccine injuries, and Toni Morrison books in school libraries have all been used as evidence to prove Western civilization is in peril. (Or that Communist China, the World Economic Forum, and Bud Light are all aligned in a conspiracy to turn Americans into self-hating groomers with blood clots.)

Since we’ve established that anecdotes matter when it’s your point to be made, let’s briefly note a few uniquely American stories from the past week.

In a small town in Alabama, 32 people were shot (four killed) at a birthday party. Also last week, in upstate New York, a 20-year-old woman was shot and killed by a 65-year-old man after the car she was in mistakenly turned into his driveway. (Police said it was “a very rural area with dirt roads,” poor cell service, and “easy to get lost.”) And in another case of a “good guy with a gun” defending his castle—a 16-year-old boy in Kansas City, looking to pick up his siblings from a friend’s house, mixed up the address and was shot in the head by an 84-year-old man after mistakenly knocking on the man’s door.

And because this is America, the anecdotes can go on and on—like the two cheerleaders shot in Texas for accidentally opening the wrong car door in a parking lot, and the 6-year-old girl and her dad in North Carolina who were shot by a neighbor, reportedly after an errant basketball rolled into his yard.

That’s five different states, in just a few days.

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Women express excitement over handgun merchandise during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas.

Brandon Bell/Getty Images

GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE, TERRIFIED PEOPLE WITH GUNS KILL PEOPLE

Again, the plural of anecdote is not data. And as the right is wont to note, the vast majority of gun deaths are not in mass shootings, they’re killings of the everyday American variety—with handguns.

It wouldn’t be hard to scrape local news sites for even more anecdotal evidence, but there’s no need, because the hard data is devastating enough. To cite just one piece of such data, over the past two years gun deaths for people under the age 18 are up 50 percent.

Still, the right-wing fearmongering culture warriors have nothing to say. However, I don’t have any doubt that had any one of the aforementioned shootings been committed by an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim fundamentalist, the “Don’t Tread on Me” right would be calling for the suspension of all kinds of liberties, so precious is even a single American life snuffed out by “the other.” And if these deaths had been attributed to COVID vaccines, Joe Rogan’s guests would be lining up to demand their Nobel Prizes.

But when it’s Americans killing each other, the enormity of the numbers don’t resonate. Neither does the evidence that points to a culture of fear being the driving force in a lot of these killings.

The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis—a gun-owning conservative who lives in West Virginia—last weekend tweeted a story about a time he got lost in North Dakota and had to convince a would-be vigilante posse that he meant no harm when he pulled into the wrong driveway. Here’s how The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson described the phenomenon: “More guns -> more deadly civilian violence -> more total paranoia -> more unjustified shootings -> more paranoia -> more shootings,” adding, “Fear, protectiveness, anger, revenge-seeking…these aren’t American emotions. They’re human emotions, and America has made the decision to arm [people] with deadly machines through which these inevitable emotions can be expressed.”

Daily Beast contributor Nicholas Grossman cited data that showed even with the brief spike in violent crime nationally in 2020, levels are markedly lower than they were at the start of the 2010s, to say nothing of previous decades. Grossman wrote, “An info environment that calls the bottom of this graph a terrifyingly massive crime wave, lies that cities burned down, lies that prosecutors don’t charge, insists we’re on the verge of collapse, and tells people they need guns to take matters into their own hands isn’t healthy.”

Gun culture is, in many ways, a fear culture.

YOU’LL PRY MY CAR FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS

As previously stated, I don’t believe gun abolition is possible, or even advisable in a country forever awash in deadly weapons. But anarcho-capitalists and gun fetishists alike both believe in private property, which requires certain protections from the government, which requires obeying laws that infringe on certain freedoms.

For instance, to operate a car, you need to be licensed by the government, your car must be registered with the government, and you’re even obligated to buy insurance for your car.

Why?

Because you or someone driving your car might kill someone. Therefore, the government requires you to be able to pass the most rudimentary of operating tests and correctly answer a few basic questions about traffic laws. It also requires a record of your car’s ownership and compliance with the state’s registration requirements—including insurance in the event your car damages people or property.

‘There’s no connection between having a gun and shooting someone with it, and not having a gun and not shooting someone…and you’d be a fool and a communist to make one.’

But where in the Constitution does it say the gubmint can impose on my right to own and drive a dangerous shitbox? It doesn’t. But you comply anyway.

It’s a cliché, but the same basic requirements mandated of vehicular enthusiasts should also be made of gun owners.

Will it immediately solve the scourge of gang crime in the inner city? Will it cut down on suicides—which are dramatically fewer in countries without instant murder machines so readily available? Will drivers who make a wrong turn be less likely to be mowed down by trigger-happy suburbanites?

I don’t know. It’s possible none of this makes any difference. And I’m very wary of the instinct to “Do something, anything!” in the face of a crisis. Such panic-driven policy-making is how you end up with the Patriot Act, or “Papers, Please” laws to crack down on undocumented immigrants in Arizona, or do-gooder progressive schools forcing kids to wear masks outdoors in 2023.

But this is more than a crisis, it’s part of the fabric of American society‚ and it should be a national shame. Yet it’s met with a shrug by libertarians who are great at diagnosing societal ills but too often run for cover in culture-war bullshit when asked to propose a solution. And for much of the rest of the right, gun violence is the self-fulfilling prophecy to demand even more guns in more public places—the “good guy with a gun” fallacy.

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A demonstrator holds a sign referencing calls for legislation to address gun violence outside the U.S. Capitol.

Tom Williams/Getty Images

HOLLOW PATRIOTISM

Along with drag story hours and “genocidal COVID vaccines,” the activist right has really been up in arms over America’s supposed declining patriotism.

It’s true that there is a loud and prominent subset of the academic and activist left that considers America an irredeemably racist and unjust place, and who inexplicably believe communism will totally work this time around and won’t immediately descend into an authoritarian police state.

But there are a lot of people who think their country is pretty swell, and are grateful to have been born into it, but also don’t think of their country as a delicate and jealous lover that needs to be constantly reassured.

It’s OK to be ashamed of your country when it launches wars of choice that are morally indefensible and politically counterproductive. It’s OK to be ashamed of your country when it arbitrarily locks up its own citizens during a racist panic. It’s OK to be ashamed of your country when a defeated president allies with neo-fascist street gangs to sack the Capitol—and then hours later 147 congressional Republicans cast their votes in favor of the coup attempt.

…when it’s Americans killing each other, the enormity of the numbers don’t resonate. Neither does the evidence that points to a culture of fear being the driving force in a lot of these killings.

I consider myself a patriotic American—I pay my taxes and to quote Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, “I go to court when I have to.”

But I’m ashamed of the undue political influence held by gun fetishists whose only answer to our culture of gun violence—be it tied to the inner-city drug trade, hotheads popping off at a party, or panicky homeowners living in terror that the BLM/antifa/fentanyl blob is going to show up at their front door disguised as a teenager looking to pick up his siblings—is for easier access to guns.

The late comic Bill Hicks, in 1991, performed a routine about the disparity between gun deaths in the U.S. and the U.K. (where it is rare even for police to carry handguns, and all but unheard of among the public). With savage irony, Hicks surmised: “There’s no connection between having a gun and shooting someone with it, and not having a gun and not shooting someone…and you’d be a fool and a communist to make one.”

Again, the data is there. While there are outliers—like heavily progressive Vermont—that have high gun ownership rates and relatively low gun death tolls, for the most part there’s an obvious correlation between states where a lot of people own guns and states with a lot of gun deaths.

As of 2021, Montana ranks highest among states in percentage of armed citizens, and 7th overall in per capita gun death rates. Five other states are in the top ten on both lists: Wyoming, Alaska, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. But you’d be a fool and a communist to make any connection between the two.

Guns are more American than baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet. They’re not going anywhere. But what if…hear me out…proponents of gun culture actually demonstrated some patriotism for our bleeding country and some responsibility to our fellow Americans?

If we’re talking data, and not anecdotes, there is no argument that guns are making Americans safer. We’d be better off without them—or at least, a whole lot less of them. But since we’re stuck with them forever, and the current methods are not working, maybe we can experiment with something different?

We’re a country of pioneers and innovators, and sometimes we even unite to undo historic wrongs committed by our government. There’s no reason we can’t look at our culture of irrational fear, tied to our culture of firearm worship, and say “Let’s do just a little better than this.”




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