God, Guns, and Gold 

In the immediate wake of the horrific events in Texas eleven days ago, a friend said to me, “I take it you’re going to write about Uvalde this week.” I said, “Why don’t I just re-run my essay from the last mass shooting?” (There are several.) After all, it’s not even two weeks old.

Because, you may have noticed, this kind of gut-wrenching, mind-numbing, wholly avoidable tragedy happens with tedious frequency in our country. No one said it better than The Onion: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Proving once again that jesters are the best truthtellers.

When Uvalde happened we had not even yet processed the white supremacist mass murder in Buffalo of ten days before, also carried out by a disturbed teenaged gunman with an AR-15 variant and high capacity magazines. In the less than two weeks since then, there have been twenty more mass shootings in the US, including an especially horrific one in a Tulsa hospital

The cyclic rate of this blog is not as high as that of an Armalite. 

POST-MORTEM, AGAIN

I can’t add much to the points that have already been widely made across the mediascape in the aftermath of these two tragedies in quick succession—and just as readily ignored by the gun-fetishizing American right wing, which includes the mainstream Republican Party. But I feel compelled to hit a few lowlights:

Can we now bury forever the canard of “the good guy with a gun”? (First articulated, fittingly, by the odious Wayne LaPierre following the Sandy Hook school massacre ten years ago.) The shocking and unconscionable inaction of law enforcement officers on the scene in Uvalde speaks for itself, and it’s in a vomit of obscenities: violating two decades of SOP on how to handle an active shooter; cravenly refusing to confront a lone gunman for fear of their own lives; pepper spraying and arresting parents pleading with them to do something; ignoring the pleas of terrified 4th graders inside the building as they made desperate cellphone calls begging for help. 

Some—but not very much—attention has been paid to the fact that Uvalde is a poor community comprised largely of people of color. It’s hard to imagine a wealthy white suburb where the police response to an active shooter in an elementary school would be so lethargic. 

Absolutely vile, too, was the Orwellianism of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and his ilk, who subsequently praised law enforcement on the scene, saying those police officers kept the slaughter at Robb Elementary from being worse. “Be thankful, peons!” was the subtext. (Of course, the blood on the hands of Abbott & Co. goes far beyond that when it comes to culpability for these and many other gunshot deaths.) 

But as The Atlantic’s David Graham points out, a focus on the shocking malpractice of law enforcement in Uvalde—legitimate as that criticism is—misses the point. “Only a broken society would focus on the police failures,” as the headline of Graham’s piece succinctly puts it. Indeed, we should not be surprised that the gun-worshipping cult that is America’s right wing has already twisted that failure inside out, arguing that the cowardice of Uvalde’s police department is the very reason why private citizens need to be armed to the teeth. 

This utterly infantile myth about so-called “rugged individualism” and self-reliance is at the core of American gun culture. Texas is one of the most heavily armed states in the country per capita, and that didn’t deter the Uvalde shooter one bit, nor provide any recourse as events unfolded. Yet predictably, there were immediate calls on the political right for teachers to be armed. (One of the first calls to that end came from Texas’s Attorney General Ken Paxton—the same Ken Paxton who is under indictment for securities fraud, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of Trump to try to overturn the 2020 election, and who spoke at the Trump rally before the Capitol insurrection on January 6.) 

But the broader point is that the whole idea is asinine. In 2013, battle-hardened Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle was killed on a civilian shooting range (in Texas, natch) by a gun-wielding attacker, so—as some wag pointed out at the time—I guess all we need to do is to give our teachers just a little bit more extensive training in firearms than Chris Kyle had. 

The reality is quite the opposite, in terms of an armed citizenry. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb reports that a recent study by criminologists at Florida State University, published in the journal Justice Quarterly, found that gun homicide rates were 11% higher in states with more permissive carry policies than in those with stricter laws, while “the probability of mass shootings increased by roughly 53% in states with more gun ownership.”

Twinned with the “arm the educators” movement is the idiotic argument of Ted Cruz, Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, and others calling for “hardening” schools. Because we’d all relish living in an armed camp where our schools are built like prisons and everyone is strapped 24/7, right? Even if that idea was workable (good luck with the “one door” theory when the gunman takes control of that one door) are we also gonna harden our playgrounds, our parks, our supermarkets, our churches, our buses, our laundromats? So we’ll also need to put our doctors, and janitors, and playground supervisors, and grocery store clerks, and baseball umpires, and manicurists, and clergymen through Basic UDT/SEAL training at Coronado.

Wishful bullshit though it is, this harebrained idea would at least have more cred if the people crying for it were also in favor of taking action at the most obvious chokepoint in the crisis, which is the availability of guns in the first place. As the meme says, when my kid hits another kid with a stick, I don’t blame the stick. But I still take it away.  

Similarly, the right wing blather about mental health being the real issue is beneath contempt. It would have more bite if those folks did not also favor gutting social services and public health resources that would address mental health care in America. 

So what is the solution to this epidemic of gun violence? Maybe to change the laws so it’s not easier to get an AR-15 than it is to adopt a rescue dog, or buy a beer, or get into a nightclub? (Almost all mass shooters obtain their guns legally.)

Nah. Our solution is to train our children how to hunker down under their desks and try to keep quiet so a gunman stalking the halls of their elementary school doesn’t murder them with a legally-purchased, unregulated semiautomatic weapon designed for combat infantrymen. Good luck, kids!

A MODEST PROPOSAL

As of 2020, firearms are the leading cause of death for American children, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. 

Let that sink in. 

What makes this already somber fact even more appalling is that, unlike cancer, say, or even motor vehicle collisions, this plague is eminently preventable, and the cure well within our control, if only we had the courage to take action. 

For once we venture beyond the self-serving bullshit of the contemptible Ted Cruzes and Ken Paxtons of the world, there is a readily available menu of concrete solutions that would stop this wave of deaths by cutting off the easy availability of guns in the first place, the one distinguishing factor that separates the United States from every other advanced society when it comes to the prevalence of mass shootings. Simple as that.   

Why won’t we do that?

On the BBC Newshour, Art Acevedo, the highly regarded former police chief of Austin, Houston, and Miami, asked “How many more have to die before the Senate in this country does something and changes the law?” Good question, Chief. He went on to say that it is high time for the American people “to make gun safety reform a litmus test for every person running for office and demand that they do something or get ’em out of office.” 

Then he directly addressed the shamelessness of Cruz & Co:

One of the things I’m tired of is guys like Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell. Time and again, they show up at the scene of these massacres—I remember seeing him in Santa Fe high school—and they offer their thoughts and prayers and nothing else. At the end of the day, if, if all you want to do is thoughts and prayers, maybe you should resign and join the clergy, because you are there to lead, and to pass laws that make sense and are pragmatic. It is reachable and it’s time for the American people to demand the same.

Fuckin’ A. Because what we expect of our elected officials isn’t homilies, particularly not wantonly hypocritical ones, but robust and targeted legislative action to protect our citizenry, defenseless children above all. Call me a starry-eyed idealist.

But thus far we as a nation have consistently refused to implement that kind of action, and the reasons why speak to an even deeper sickness that threatens the entire well-being of the republic. 

HOSTAGE CRISIS

Recent polling by the Pew Research Center found that a jawdropping 81 percent of American support background checks, 64 percent support a ban on high-capacity magazines, 63 percent support a ban on assault weapons, and a majority opposes permitless concealed carry. These are numbers that a typical president gazing longingly at his sub-50% approval rating could only dream of. Even a majority of gun-owning Republicans support background checks and oppose permitless concealed carry (which is on the rise in GOP-controlled states).

While this is reassuring proof that we are not, as a nation, as batshit crazy as it seems when it comes to guns, it is also alarming evidence that we are trapped in a dysfunctional political system where we cannot pass common sense gun laws even when they are supported by huge majorities like these

That is because, like abortion, gun control is an area where a small minority of fanatics have been able to foist their radical views on the rest of the country in defiance of the fundamental principles of representative democracy. In that regard, Buffalo and Uvalde are inextricably connected to the shock of the leaked Alito draft overturning Roe.

It is no coincidence that those fanatics are often religious in nature, with their “faith” offering both a cult-like, all-purpose self-justification for their crusade, and a blind, Reason-defying commitment to it. It is also no coincidence that the two demographics largely overlap, in a Venn diagram that approaches a perfect circle. 

The same people who would force a teenage victim of incest (which is to say, rape) to bear her attacker’s baby magically lose that concern for human life once said child leaves the womb. Access to medical care, maternal leave, childcare for working families, good nutrition, public education, even security from deranged killers toting battlefield weaponry as they hunt defenseless victims in the halls of our elementary schools—sorry, kid, you’re on your own. 

We are in this position because, beginning in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, one of our two major parties—the one that has historically been sympathetic to that John Birch-y mentality in the first place—made a conscious decision to cultivate an alliance with extremist elements to help promote its longstanding plutocratic agenda. The GOP was happy to bed down with gun nuts, and precious-bodily-fluid obsessive anti-fluoridation freaks, and snake-handling tongue-speaking religious fanatics, so long as it brought tax cuts for the rich and helped reverse the trajectory that American governance had been on since the New Deal, and the advances in prosperity, justice, and equality that progressivism had brought. 

It worked brilliantly. Over the past four decades America has lurched rightward politically, even as sociological trends are pulling it in the other direction, as the Republican Party has gotten the tax cuts and Darwinian economic policies it craves. And all it had to do was sign on for a little gun-totin’, woman-hatin’ theocracy. 

But now the monster has Dr. Frankenstein waiting on it hand and foot. 

A CULTURE WAR, WITH REAL GUNS

In a recent column, the historian and Boston University professor Heather Cox Richardson ably tracked the Republican exploitation of the “cowboy myth,” dating back at least to the 1950s—that of the self-reliant rugged individualist who didn’t need no stinkin’ government—as a means to mobilize white male grievance against the civil rights movement, feminism, and the New Deal in general. (Even as the New Deal vastly benefitted that very demographic….precisely why the GOP needed to undermine it.) 

Behold some of the poisoned fruits of that effort:

In 2004, a ten-year federal ban on assault weapons expired, and since then. mass shootings have tripled….

(T)here were about 400,000 AR-15 style rifles in America before the assault weapons ban went into effect in 1994. Today, there are 20 million.

For years now, Republicans have stood firmly against measures to guard Americans against gun violence, even as a majority of Americans support common sense measures like background checks. Notably, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, when a gunman murdered 20 six- and seven-year-old students and 6 staff members, Republicans in the Senate filibustered a bipartisan bill sponsored by Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) that would have expanded background checks, killing it despite the 55 votes in favor of it.

There is a reason that “God, guns, and gold” go together as the holy trinity of marauders, from the conquistadors, to religious zealots who first settled the Plymouth colony, to the pioneers who murdered the native peoples and took their land as the US expanded westward. America is hardly the only country ever to have suffered under the pernicious influence of greed and a suffocating religious oppression. But the addition of widespread availability of lethal firearms is like gasoline poured on a greasefire. 

Once again we see the enduring accuracy of Barack Obama’s widely criticized—but 100% correct—comments from 2008 about bitter Americans left behind by the global economy who, not surprisingly, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Yeah, it was an impolitic thing to say for a man on the campaign trail, but he was quite right, and refreshing in his candor, especially for a man on the campaign trail). Above all, Cassandra-like, he perfectly predicted the trajectory of the next 14 years of American politics, and counting, with no end in sight. 

Like abortion, the debate over guns has ceased even to be about guns, and is now simply a tribal signifier, a wedge issue where Big Lie Republicans compete to prove their far right bonafides and “own the libs.” Witness the deluge of GOP campaign ads (and family Christmas cards) featuring candidates displaying—and firing—combat-grade weaponry that would be the envy of Rambo.  

Even Scalia, in his disastrous DC v. Heller decision of 2008, reinterpreting the Second Amendment as guaranteeing a private individual’s right to own firearms outside of a well-regulated militia, made a point of saying that the government still had the right to regulate those firearms. And that is as it should be: we rightly regulate almost everything in our culture, from aspirin to yogurt to motor scooters to Pilates instructors. But not access to state-of-the-art killing machines specifically designed to slaughter human beings as rapidly as possible on the military battlefield? Today, the Republican Party treats the very idea of any restrictions on firearms as what Ronald Brownstein, writing in  The Atlantic, calls “a sign of disrespect to the values of red America.” In other words: sheer self-serving political theater, paid for with the blood of our children.

Republican politicians and pundits blamed Uvalde on everything from trans rights to critical race theory to the COVID lockdown—everything but the ready availability of combat weaponry.   

Meanwhile Tucker Carlson has overtly told his millions of viewers that Joe Biden’s true intent in pushing for gun control in the wake of this tragedy is that he knows he is an illegitimate president and fears an armed uprising by the people. That is despicable on so many levels I can’t count, but more than that, it is incredibly, incredibly dangerous. Yet night after night we let this sort of incitement go on and we act like everything’s going to be OK.

ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL

It is in that regard that the gun crisis is really a crisis of governance, or what Brownstein calls the “growing crisis of majority rule in American politics.”

A “commanding majority” of Americans supports universal background checks and an assault-weapons ban. But “gun control is one of many issues in which majority opinion in the nation runs into the brick wall of a Senate rule—the filibuster—that provides a veto over national policy to a minority of the states, most of them small, largely rural, preponderantly white, and dominated by Republicans.” Brownstein believes that only reform or elimination of the filibuster can solve this problem…..which goes for abortion, for voting rights, for action on the climate emergency, and for protection of a fair presidential election as well, to name just a few.

Otherwise, the basic rules of American politics will continue to allow Republicans to impose their priorities even when a clear majority of Americans disagree. The hard truth is that there’s no way to confront America’s accelerating epidemic of gun violence without first addressing its systemic erosion of majority rule.

Brownstein notes that “Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections, something no party had done since the formation of the modern party system in 1828. Yet Republicans have controlled the White House after three of those elections instead of one, twice winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote.” Matters are even worse in the Senate, where “Republicans have represented a majority of the US population for only two years since 1980….But largely because of its commanding hold on smaller states, the GOP has controlled the Senate majority for 22 of those 42 years.”

A 2020 Rand Corporation study found that the 20 states with the highest rates of gun ownership had elected almost two-thirds of the Senate’s Republican lawmakers (32 of 50) and comprised about two-thirds of the states that President Donald Trump carried in the 2020 election (17 of 25). In an almost mirror image, the 20 states with the lowest rates of gun ownership had elected almost two-thirds of the Senate’s Democratic lawmakers (also 32 of 50) and comprised about two-thirds of the states Biden won (16 of 25). 

Those 20 states represent more than two and half times as many residents (about 192 million) as the states with the highest gun-ownership rates (about 69 million), but carry equal weight in the Senate.

And this imbalance reflects only the inherent, built-in disparity of our Senatorial and Electoral College system. It will get even worse as the GOP continues to carry out its ongoing campaign to gain an irreversible countermajoritiarian chokehold on American politics

Brownstein again:

As with gun control, polls consistently show that a majority of Americans support acting on climate changeoppose overturning Roe v. Wade, and back comprehensive immigration reform, including offering legal status to undocumented immigrants (especially young people brought into the country by their parents). The House has passed legislation reflecting each of those perspectives. The Senate’s inaction on these issues again reflects the outsize influence of those states with the highest gun-ownership rates—which also tend to be those enmeshed in the fossil-fuel economy, with high shares of culturally conservative white Christians and low shares of immigrants.

God, guns, and gold indeed.

THE CHOICE IS OURS

The famous maxim about American fascism arriving wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross—, erroneously attributed to Sinclair Lewis, and worn out by now, given its regular, and apropos deployment since 2016—ought to be modified to include “and wielding an AR-15.”

Even as I write this, news comes that a retired Wisconsin judge was taken prisoner and executed—by firearm—in his own home on Friday by a disgruntled constituent found to have a “hit list” that also included Governor Tony Evers of that state and Gretchen Whitmer of neighboring Michigan, both Democrats, and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (Not the first time Ms. Whitmer has been targeted, by the by.) 

Get ready for more of that, as Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and the rest of the malevolent clown car of Seditionist Republicans continue to scream incitement. 

Nobody has said it better than Jessica Winter in The New Yorker:

Republicans, as we know, get what they want. It is their best feature. They have vacuumed up the state legislatures, gerrymandered much of the country, stacked the Supreme Court and the federal judgeships, turned back the clock on LGBTQ rights, paralyzed entire school districts with engineered panics over critical race theory and “grooming,” ended (or so it seems) reproductive rights as a constitutionally guaranteed freedom, and blocked all attempts at gun-control legislation. 

If the leaders of this political movement, which in Texas managed to ban most abortions and criminalize health care for trans kids in the space of a school year, took real offense to murdered children, they would never simply accept their deaths as the unfortunate cost of honoring the Founding Fathers’ right to take up muskets against hypothetical government tyranny. They would act. 

If America were not afraid to know itself, we could more readily accept that gun-rights advocates are enthralled with violent sorrow. This is the America they envisaged. It is what they worked so hard for. Their thoughts and prayers have been answered.

So while it is true that we the majority have repeatedly been stymied in our attempts to institute common sense firearms regulations, our culpability remains. When the GOP filibusters the next attempt at even modest gun control, are we going to shrug and say, “Oh well, we tried”? The same goes for voting rights, for abortion access, for reform of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, for accountability for the January 6th coup attempt, and for other seminal issues. Or will we insist on reforms—major and tectonic though they may be—to redress these wrongs and create a functioning democracy that is equitable, safe, and secure for all?

We are indeed at the mercy of fanatics, but only as long as we let ourselves be. If we submit, then we have no reason to complain, and history’s withering judgment will be rightly upon us as a country that loved its guns more than it loved its children. It will duly record the sickening indifference that we have shown over the routine mass murder of our countrymen as one of the most damning examples of our cowardice and barbarity in what will surely be the twilight of the American experiment.

To that end, we are also, it seems, in danger of going down in history as a country too effete, or too self-destructive, to save its embattled democracy, even when it is drenched in that blood. 

Here’s an alternative idea, if you’ll indulge me:

We can stand up and say “No more.”

**********

Illustration: Being Jesus, he can get by with just a shotgun. 

I found it on the web, and I dunno if it’s ironic or not. What’s worrying is that both possibilities are equally likely.

2 thoughts on “God, Guns, and Gold 

  1. This comment truly scares this New Yorker: “the probability of mass shootings increased by roughly 53% in states with more gun ownership.” The unsupreme court is about to strike down an over 100 year old gun law in New York that will make it easier to carry a concealed, unlicensed gun here. Time to put bars on my windows and doors and become a hermit – in order to live a few more years.

    Like

    1. Absolutely. I am a New Yorker too, and the recent subway shootings—in my neighborhood—have me and everyone I know jumpy to say the least. This is not a disease confined to the red states…..

      Like

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