Not just about guns

Note: I have modified this entry to clarify what Thomas Frank wrote regarding conservative perception of victimization. (December 21, 2012)

Is this time different?

There’s ample reason for skepticism. The National Rifle Association remains . . . the National Rifle Association, whose “deep-pocketed efforts to oppose gun control laws have proven resilient.”[1] Yet, according to the Associated Press,

The nation’s largest gun-rights organization — typically outspoken about its positions even after shooting deaths — has gone all but silent since last week’s rampage at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that left 26 people dead, including 20 children.

Its Facebook page has disappeared. It has posted no tweets. It makes no mention of the shooting on its website. None of its leaders hit the media circuit Sunday to promote its support of the Second Amendment right to bear arms as the nation mourns the latest shooting victims and opens a new debate over gun restrictions. On Monday, the NRA offered no rebuttal as 300 anti-gun protesters marched to its Capitol Hill office.[2]

President Obama, at an interfaith prayer vigil for the shooting victims, declared,

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?[3]

According to the New York Times, “After each of three other mass killings during his tenure, Mr. Obama has renewed calls for legislation without exerting much political capital, but the definitive language on Sunday may make it harder for him not to act this time.”[4] But of course, time will tell.

There is an aspect to the gun control debate that remains masked. It is not simply that “an armed society is a civil society” or that guns are a guarantee of freedom. Indeed Firmin DeBrabander knocks down these arguments effectively, pointing out in effect, that guns—like any other form of violence, implicit, potential, or real—are a form of domination, that domination is the opposite of freedom, that a fearful society is not a civil society.[5] Rather, this is about a sense of empowerment, the sense of empowerment that possession of a gun offers, in many ways the only sense of empowerment that is available, in a society that profoundly disempowers its citizens[6] and largely denies them the opportunity to improve their lives.[7]

While Obama has yet to do anything about gun control,[8] we should not forget the image of gun-carrying protesters outside Obama speech venues shortly after his inauguration. Indeed, some of the most hysterical opposition, comparing Obama to Hitler, has centered on the threat he has purportedly posed to presumed Second Amendment rights.[9] This opposition, according to Thomas Frank, writing of conservatives more generally, is an opposition that sees itself victimized by a “liberal” Washington, D.C., elite.[10] These are people who feel profoundly disempowered, especially since the November election.[11]

I am not a psychologist. I make no claims as to the motivations or the pathologies of the shooter in Connecticut. But it seems self-evident that to impose gun restrictions will fulfill some people’s worst fears, that it will exacerbate the polarization in this country, that it will push white supremacists—some who acknowledge that they are white supremacists and many who do not—further on the path from potential violence to real violence.

Postscript: It does appear that there is some reason to suspect a relationship between the grievances of conservatives, as seen by Frank,[12] and those of suicidal mass killers:

The second factor is a deep sense of victimization and belief that the killer’s life has been ruined by someone else, who has bullied, oppressed or persecuted him. Not surprisingly, the presence of mental illness can inflame these beliefs, leading perpetrators to have irrational and exaggerated perceptions of their own victimization. It makes little difference whether the perceived victimizer is an enemy government (in the case of suicide terrorists) or their boss, co-workers, fellow students or family members (in the case of rampage shooters).[13]

In this case, the oppressor would not be an enemy government, as most people understand the term, but rather the “liberal” Washington, D.C., elite.

  1. [1]Philip Elliot, “NRA goes silent after Connecticut school shooting,” Salon, December 18, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/12/18/nra_goes_silent_after_connecticut_school_shooting/
  2. [2]Elliot, “NRA goes silent after Connecticut school shooting.”
  3. [3]Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at Sandy Hook Interfaith Prayer Vigil,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, December 16, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/12/16/remarks-president-sandy-hook-interfaith-prayer-vigil
  4. [4]Mark Landler and Peter Baker, “‘These Tragedies Must End,’ Obama Says,” New York Times, December 16, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/us/politics/bloomberg-urges-obama-to-take-action-on-gun-control.html
  5. [5]Firmin DeBrabander, “The Freedom of an Armed Society,” New York Times, December 16, 2012, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/the-freedom-of-an-armed-society/
  6. [6]C. Wright Mills, “The Structure of Power in American Society,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  7. [7]Claude S. Fischer, Michael Hout, Martin Sanchez Jankowski, Samuel R. Lucas, Ann Swidler, and Kim Voss, “Why Inequality?” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005); Joseph E. Stiglitz, “The Price of Inequality,” Project Syndicate, June 5, 2012, http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-price-of-inequality.
  8. [8]Landler and Baker, “‘These Tragedies Must End,’ Obama Says.”
  9. [9]Eric Etheridge, “Godwin’s Law Comes to the Town Halls,” New York Times, August 13, 2009, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/13/godwins-law-comes-to-the-town-halls/; Barton Gellman, “The Secret World of Extreme Militias,” Time, September 30, 2010, http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2022516,00.html; David Weigel, “At Gun Show, Conservatives Panic About Obama,” Washington Independent, April 7, 2009, http://washingtonindependent.com/37511/at-gun-show-conservatives-panic-about-obama
  10. [10]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005). Frank appears to be writing of conservatives who hold a mix of capitalist libertarian and social conservative views.
  11. [11]Dirk Johnson, “Symbol of Pride, Inverted, Is Now Symbol of Political Dismay,” New York Times, December 17, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/us/politics/upside-down-flags-mark-conservative-anger-on-obama.html
  12. [12]Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?
  13. [13]Adam Lankford, “What Drives Suicidal Mass Killers,” New York Times, December 17, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/opinion/what-drives-suicidal-mass-killers.html

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