Understanding American Gun Culture | Charron Reis


Grief is a sinking sensation. Anyone who has mourned love or life lost will know very well the pull to the bottom. Before grief, before our hyper-developed brains have a chance to begin internalising a tragedy, there is a moment of disturbing pause, a kind of white-out, where one can feel only the most primitive processing attempts hit the nerves. Different tragedies provoke different sensations, but in regard to American school shootings, the feeling is universal. Always a shock but never a surprise.

Now firmly in grief for Uvalde, it is all too easy to feel resentment and rage toward American gun policy. What Americans regard as a civil liberties issue, the rest of the world sees, literally, as carnage. Having spent my entire childhood in America and my entire adulthood here in Britain, I can understand both the American mentality as well understand why it is incomprehensible to most Britons. This is an attempt to explain the American perspective on civilian gun ownership, not persuade. Your conclusions are your own to draw.

Connoisseurs of the school shooter genre can riff off a macabre greatest hits list with ease. If you think that’s a flippant characterisation, you’ll be stupefied to hear how perpetrators write of their motivations. I won’t patronise you with “The media did it” but the desire to be an even bigger bastard than the last guy, and garner commensurate attention, is worth noting. Columbine, Cold Spring, Sandy Hook, Red Lake, Virginia Tech, Santana High, and now Uvalde. In totality, these events mark the murder of 82 Americans, the majority of them children.

The typical initial reaction from Brits is something to the effect of “How do you put up with this?” School shootings in America are hardly the only area of the developed world where we have accepted deeply uncivilised behaviour as a part of our existence. Everyone in the west is aware that terrorist attacks could happen at any moment. No one, regardless of political affiliation, can pretend that we do not live under constant threat.

I do appreciate individuals like Sadiq Khan who are forthright in their apathy, the London Mayor remarking “Terrorist attacks are part and parcel of living in a big city.” Kahn having neither the will nor the ability to tackle Islamism is profoundly disturbing and the caviller brush off towards those with the ability to continue to terrorise the public at their leisure may be morally bankrupt, but at least it’s honest.

Americans put up with school shootings in much the same way. Resignation in the face of obviously feckless leadership makes up a great portion of the answer, but solving for incompetence isn’t nearly enough.

A total breakdown in trust between the Republican and Democratic parties is the sclerosis of modern politics. Every Democrat believes, and was proven correct, that Republicans don’t want to compromise on abortion rights but wish to end choice. Republicans are similarly convinced that if Democrats are entertained on legislative reform of the Second Amendment it will result in death by a thousand cuts; a fair inference. Washington warned of political factions before he left office, but the bicameral nature of the American structure means that if nuance does not come from within rival factions become the status quo.

In addition to the breakdown in trust between the two political parties, trust between the federal government and the people has also broken down. The federal government has proven time and again that it finds the Constitution tedious; an old bit of paper that gets in the way of ruling. To the largest extent possible they have tried to gut it. In this way, if in no other, both parties are more than capable of bipartisanism.

The Patriot Act was instantiated in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 – a time of ceaseless grief, paranoia, and fury. All understandable emotions, but nevertheless a terrible time to pass paradigm shifting legislation.  It is the contention of The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that the act wholly undermines the American project, inverting the power dynamic between the people and their public servants.

The ACLU outlines constitutional violations and provides analysis on the power to receive and record citizen activity held by third parties, perform secret searches, perform intelligence searches that violate Fourth Amendment privacy rights, and perform so-called “Trap and Trace” searches. They describe the consequences of the act as thus:

“The result is unchecked government power to rifle through individuals’ financial records, medical histories, Internet usage, bookstore purchases, library usage, travel patterns, or any other activity that leaves a record… The FBI does not even have to show a reasonable suspicion that the records are related to criminal activity, much less the requirement for “probable cause” that is listed in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

The American people were told not to worry, the legislation would only be used against America’s enemies to prevent another 9/11. But just four years later in 2005 the FBI demanded information to be stored indefinitely of around a million customers of Las Vegas based businesses including casinos and car rental agencies. The act forced business owners to hand over any and all information requests on their clients. The act further prohibits businesses from ever disclosing that information seizure took place. While the justice department has publicly stated that they would allow a business to contact a lawyer, there is no clear right to do so under the law. Even children are watched. The FBI has been collecting information on the reading habits of American kids in fishing expeditions by raiding public library records.

Artist Steve Kurtz was charged via a Patriot Act expansion of section 175 of the US Biological Anti-Terrorism Act for using benign bacterial cultures in his artistic work – pieces that happened to be critical of the federal government. Heavily armed agents from the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies carried out a raid on his home. No evidence of the material posing a risk to the public was ever found. Nevertheless, he was charged with criminal mail fraud and wire fraud, facing a potential 20 years in jail. Public outcry contributed to the feds dropping charges, but nonetheless civil liberties campaigners insisted the attempts at prosecution were based on political persecution, not national security.

Recent reports of American parents at school board meetings being treated as domestic terrorists for having the temerity to question the legitimacy and morality of teaching Critical Race and Gender Theory to children were met with appropriate criticism by Republicans, but there was no desire to curtail the power of the state.

These are a few of many examples, but what is even more concerning is the potential for cases of abuse that have not reached the public. The entire framework created a secret parallel court and surveillance system that exists outside the bounds of a fair and open process. Whistleblowers face the potential of being charged under the act for merely disclosing the existence of a case. The result has been that the very legislation designed to keep Americans safe effectively stripped them of essential liberty and privacy which had been the birthright of every American since 1776.

Civilian gun ownership in the US provides only a tiny check on governments ability to commit overwhelming violence. Still, the government retains a monopoly on legalised violence, it only cedes a monopoly on the ability to use force.

In a country where lawmakers don’t seem to have much issue with citizens being treated as terror suspects, and therefore potential enemy combatants of the US government, with all of the legal and law enforcement implications that brings, the American people are increasingly concerned that their government has gone too far in it’s efforts to “protect” the people. Indeed it is the government itself the American people are increasingly afraid of.

To add insult to injury, neither Republicans nor Democrats believe in bodily autonomy. Both are convinced the state can and should insert itself in the doctor-patient relationship; be it with vaccine mandates for the left or anti-choice abortion policy for the right. The American people of right and left respectively view these policies as an existential threat to freedom and a personal violation of the highest order. With the government in possession of the power to collect medical records on a whim, enforcement isn’t a question of the ability to secure compliance, it’s a question of the will.

In the absence of protection from the government, when it is the government itself attempting to oppress the individual, the American view is that of radical self-reliance. The belief is that unjust legislation must be resisted even if the enforcement arm of the law is violently brought to bear. Martyrdom, however, is not American. The American way is to hold and defend your ground until your oppressor puts you under it. That is America’s origin story, its cultural inheritance, and its heart. The only people in America who don’t understand this are American politicians.

Joe Biden’s gaffe-prone nature is infamous, but his all-time greatest explosion of verbal diarrhoea was one for which he received little attention. He said:

“If you wanted or if you think you need to have weapons to take on the government, you need F-15s and maybe some nuclear weapons.”

Nuclear weapons? That is as stupid a statement as it is appalling. 

Even if we had found Bin Laden hiding in Montana, a state comprised of 6 human residents and a billion deer, we still wouldn’t have nuked ourselves. Even if our government went full Tiananmen Square at scale, F-15s would be ludicrously gratuitous. The risible idiocy is vintage Biden but the casual reference to the scale of violence that the government is capable of inflicting on its people makes it art.

What isn’t remotely funny however is that the weaponry he referenced would be entirely unnecessary if it wasn’t for the ongoing militarisation of law enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels. In a cozy arrangement that hugely benefits defence contractors, the Pentagon and Department of Defence via the 1033 program are authorised to give surplus military equipment to domestic law enforcement. Since the instantiation of 1033, 7.4 billion dollars of equipment has been reallocated. Putting aside for a moment the question of how it is even possible to unintentionally spend an extra 7.4 billion, one has to consider the inherent ethical quandary of using tools designed to make America a more effective kill force at war and use them on the people at home. DoD and The Pentagon try to play it off as if it’s some great tax saving manoeuvre regarding effective distribution of office supplies and the like, but the “surplus” redistribution includes rifles, night-vision goggles, and armoured vehicles. By comparison, the majority of British law enforcement only possess a ‘can-do attitude’ and a stick.

Civilian gun ownership in the US provides only a tiny check on governments ability to commit overwhelming violence. Still, the government retains a monopoly on legalised violence, it only cedes a monopoly on the ability to use force.

Scenes like the ones presently unfolding in Shanghai where residents have been captured being dragged out of their homes by government officials and police, taken to mandatory isolation camps, or alternatively barricaded in their homes with little or no food, would be hard to accomplish in America generally, and impossible in Dixieland. They would, as the phrase goes, “Shoot your ass off”.

It would not be difficult to imagine the increasingly authoritarian American government and their unelected health Czars wishing to behave as badly. Dr. Anthony Fauci, in relation to a District Court striking down a mask mandate, had this to say “This is a public health matter, not a judicial matter… But one of the problems that we have there is that the principle of a court overruling a public health judgment by a qualified organization like the CDC is disturbing in the precedent it might send.” The highest-paid federal employee, who is thoroughly unaccountable to the people by any democratic process, is “disturbed” that courts retain the right to overturn bad law. With $417,608 reasons to stay relevant, to say nothing of the book deal and media cash, we should be disturbed that he still has his job.

While, of course, there is a significant difference between barricading people in their homes and enforcing lower levels of behavioural compliance, they are exactly the same in the total disregard of, and contempt for, judicial review. Absent such review, there is no check on governmental over-reach. Such a world is one where government can do as pleases with your property, your liberty, and your very life. Still, I doubt very much the people of Uvalde are thinking about Shanghai tonight, though a great deal of thought is likely being given to the ubiquity of guns. 

It is an accepted talking point that if a society is as heavily armed as the American population, instances such as these and the frequency with which they occur, are inevitable; making pro-ownership views intrinsically vulgar. Switzerland disproves this. Just as in America, Switzerland has a long relationship with guns that is inextricably linked to national identity. The initial consecration began with the post-Napoleonic Restoration of the Confederacy and remains strong today.

Estimates of guns in circulation in Switzerland are around 3.4 million, working out to a national average of 41.2 guns per 100 people. This is inclusive of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, the firearm of choice of most school shooters. That number is less than in America where there are an estimated 393 million guns or 120.5 for every person, but it is, in theory, still more than enough to cause a considerable amount of damage. In practice, Switzerland has not had a mass shooting of any distinction for 21 years. While gun crime in Switzerland does exist, the rarity of instances of gun death in personal altercations and at scale means that, unlike the US, gun ownership in Switzerland is largely uncontroversial.

Why the Swiss are better behaved than their American counterparts would be the work of a team of anthropologists and shrinks, but it does throw into sharp relief the simple truth that guns can’t kill innocent people unless a human is willing to pull the trigger. With more guns than people in the US, it’s hard to sell mentally stable, moral people on the idea they should give up their rights to personal protection. Criminals and the criminally insane are a varied bunch but are definitionally united in their unwillingness to comply with the law. Of the 393 million guns, those owned by gang members, murders, and rapists are unlikely to be willingly turned in. 

Furthermore, police forces in the US, particularly in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, are functionally unable to tackle the rise in crime. What has emerged is a sub-genre of disaster porn with large accounts on Twitter dedicated to sharing videos of violent criminals and the mentally ill terrorising the public. This is to say nothing of the “mostly peaceful protests” (violent riots) that have rocked American cities and towns in post-Ferguson America; with tacit endorsement coming from every corner of the American left. 

Overwhelmingly the American people, of all political affiliations, do not trust their government. It is objectively difficult to counter that view when it has become all too obvious the American government neither trusts nor respects the people. Americans still see their political leaders in Jefferson, in Hamilton, in Washington – but they see little leadership in Washington DC. They do not simply have a desire for self-protection from tyranny, but rather believe it to be a need.

Whether or not you think it is right – morally, functionally, or politically, we do a disservice to ourselves when we treat American gun culture as a nutty oddity. The question is one, fundamentally, of trust. How much trust do you believe government is allowed to demand of you? Should you be able to retain a hedge against their monopoly on violence?

Just as with school shootings, the American people are always shocked when the government begins a new attempt to strip them of more liberty, but they have long ceased feeling surprised.


Photo Credit.

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