Despite what feels like weekly mass gun outrages, I worry that even as leftist politics has begun to move beyond narrow, technocratic fixes for issues of economic inequality, health care, and climate, on the question of guns and gun violence, the politicians who represent liberals and the left remain mired in the idea of a narrowly tailored fix.
Since the beginning of this year, there have been more than 100 mass shooting incidents in the United States. And these are only the mass shootings. They do not include the vast majority of the more than 14,000 gun homicides committed every year, mostly with handguns. They do not include the more than 20,000 annual gun suicides. They do not include the little girls who survive being accidentally shot by their own incompetent, gun-hoarding parents. They do not involve the killings — mostly of black men and boys — by the police.
It is hard to overstate what an outlier the U.S. is in this regard. Only one other country in the world, Brazil, has a higher rate of civilian gun deaths. Compared to other high-income countries, the U.S. suffers from an extraordinary rate of gun violence: more than seven times the gun homicide rate of peaceful, second-place Canada; more than 600 times the gun homicide rate of South Korea. American suicide rates are more middle-of-the-pack, although they are very high in raw numbers and much more likely to involve guns. In fact, the only machines in American life that kill more people than firearms are cars. I’d be perfectly happy to ban those, too.
When it comes to gun control, the politicians who represent liberals and the left remain mired in the idea of a narrowly tailored fix.
The Federal Assault Weapons Ban, part of Bill Clinton’s massive 1994 crime bill, expired in the early 2000s and was never renewed. In retrospect, it was probably ineffective, as it contained too many loopholes and workarounds to effectively prevent the manufacture, sale, and purchase of high-capacity weapons, nor did it have any effect on the sale of handguns, which are the disproportionate tool of gun violence in America.
Renewing it may not have mattered anyway. In District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, the Supreme Court discovered a theretofore unnoticed individual constitutional right to possess firearms, and the combination of that ruling and the huge Republican success in the 2010 congressional elections made the prospect of legislative action on gun control effectively nil. Congress did nothing after the 2012 attack on Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. It did nothing after the 2018 attack at Parkland High School.
But in last midterms and in the current run-up to the 2020 elections, Democratic candidates seem to have shaken themselves out of the mistaken believe that gun control is a losing issue. Proposals may never make it through a Republican Senate; new laws may not survive an increasingly radical rightwing judiciary; but, the optimist in me says, at least we are talking about it.
The pessimist in me says this is going to be inadequate, not because of these legislative and judicial barriers to regulation, but because I am convinced that American society suffers from a deeper pathology of violence and militarism of which endemic gun violence is a symptom, not a cause.
That is not to embrace the hoary gun-advocate cliché that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Well, yes, but they do it with guns. You can kill people with a two-by-four, a screwdriver, or a heavy object tossed off the roof of a building, but a gun is a tool specifically for killing. It is what guns were invented for and designed to do.
But a current of violent fantasism runs right under the surface of life in the world’s global empire and military hegemon. It courses through the popular cultural reproduction of heroic violent vigilantism. There is a weird fusion of a rightwing rhetoric of anti-government, insurrectionary fervor — the idea that private gun ownership is a bulwark against tyrannical government, which would be met with some kind of armed resistance — and right-wing affection for the police and military, the armed agencies of that same government. The far-right militiaman and the warrior cop both just love The Punisher, for example, the fictional masked crimefighter who just loves killing tons of people with his many, many guns.
There is the intense valorization of the military itself, the post-9/11 fusion of the national identity with “the Troops,” hose goodness and centrality to the moral life of the nation absolutely cannot be questioned. There is, in particular, the heroification of fabulist psychopaths like the so-called American Sniper, Chris Kyle, or of the most brutal military kill squads. Even the mannered, even-keeled Barack Obama joked about being “good at killing people” and murdering people with military drones.
The proliferation of “stand you ground” laws and the insane efforts to arm teachers, too, are reflections of a culture that is intensely eager to kill, a society that accepts chaotic violence not just as endemic but as inherent, and which desires to meet it with a righteous violence of its own. The fantasy of being “the good guy with a gun” is a fantasy of homicide, even if in the dream that homicide is a justified one. It is a longing for an exculpating reason to kill.
A left position on gun violence must therefore move beyond a narrow fixation on guns as implements and to a broader, moral argument about militarism, imperialism, and acceptable violence, just as the left is trying to move beyond narrow fixations on “good jobs” or health savings accounts or tax incentives to think in very broad terms about economic equity.
So far, candidates and officeholders have done and said very little in this vein. Among major Democratic contenders, Sen. Bernie Sanders has talked about “gun safety,” and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has talked about using something other than our “military might” in constructing a foreign policy. Many of the well-known candidates have, as yet, avoided policy altogether. And while former Vice President Joe Biden has professed his support for greater measures on guns, the task force to which President Obama appointed him after Sandy Hook failed to accomplish anything meaningful. Only Sen. Cory Booker has outlined a gun-control proposal in any detail, issuing today a 14-part plan to ban assault weapons and establish a gun-licensing program.
Among new congressional stars, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has focused on economic and climate issues, but has rarely spoken about foreign policy except in defense of colleagues like Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has been an admirable voice for peace, but has also failed to draw direct connections between imperial violence abroad and a culture of domestic violence at home.
Perhaps the only Democrat who has spoken somewhat plainly in this regard is the novelty candidate and former Sen. Mike Gravel, who has said that a national cult of militarism causes more violence than simple access to guns, and whose current campaign issues include such preposterous-that-they’re-preposterous positions as establishing a Department of Peace.
A country in which a sitting senator can publicly fantasize about the rape and assassination of foreign bad guys is a country whose psychoses are more profound than its resultant affection for firearms. I suppose that what I am saying is that a word I would like to hear more often in the expanded moral rhetoric of the socially democratic left is: peace.