Point Austin: The Gun Cult ... Again

Despite the persistent carnage, progress remains unlikely

Point Austin

So here we go again. Another major gun massacre, another session of national hand-wringing, another backlash from gun fetishists (as inevitably happens after one of these incidents, Oregon gun sales immediately spiked), another national convulsion of helplessness. We hear calls for "sensible gun regulation," and we hear the counterpoint of "only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun." (In fact, as often happens, the bad guy gets his quota, the good guys arrive, and the bad guy shoots himself.)

With nearly as many guns as people in the U.S. – and a militarized culture that considers gun violence inevitable – there is hardly a magic wand available to stem the bloody tide. But we can at least begin with the stark, sensible statements offered by President Barack Obama in the immediate wake of the Umpqua Community College massacre. "This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. ... When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer. When Ameri­cans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seatbelt laws because we know it saves lives. So the notion that gun violence is somehow different, that our freedom and our Constitution prohibits any modest regulation of how we use a deadly weapon, when there are law-abiding gun owners all across the country who could hunt and protect their families and do everything they do under such regulations, doesn't make sense."

Obama also raised the comparison of relatively few U.S. deaths by "terrorism" vs. the many thousands more by gun violence – while we spend trillions to address the former and virtually nothing to diminish the latter. "And yet, we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths," he said. "How can that be?"

A Culture of Violence

As I've written too many times before – also a refrain of the president's message – there is no easy, certainly no quick, solution to the ongoing U.S. gun frenzy. Despite popular outcry, and despite pleading from many local governments that bear the brunt of the daily carnage, the official political will to change does not exist. The headlines highlight sensational slaughters like this latest death of 10, but as the Gun Violence Archive (www.gunviolencearchive.org) documents, mass shootings (four or more people killed or injured) are routine. (The current tally for the year, 266, is 10 more than when I last checked, Saturday, Oct. 3. By the time you read this column, there will be more.)

That means that all the cant about "mental illness" as the root cause of the massacres is both inaccurate and beside the point. If people in the U.S. are shooting others or themselves in numbers greater than 30,000 a year, it's not because of mental illness or antidepressants or any of the other rationalizations designed to reassure those who haven't been shot (yet) that the people doing this are not "normal," or "not like us." The daily carnage goes on largely because of two factors: 1) a routine culture of aggression embodying the idea that personal problems – romantic, familial, social – can be reflexively addressed by violence; and 2) the ready availability of guns to carry out that impulse, whenever it occurs.

There's no ineluctable mystery about all this. As Obama noted, "We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings. ... So we know there are ways to prevent it." Yet we don't have the necessary political will – and despite polling to the contrary – it would seem that at bottom, we don't really wish to do much about it, at all.

Violence Is What We Do

It should not go unmentioned that our devotion to violence at home is inseparable from our devotion to violence abroad (a standard of "serious leadership" to which our institutional media holds every presidential candidate). If Sandy Hook (or Columbine, or Tucson, or Aurora ...) did not instigate an effective mass movement against gun violence, Umpqua Community College is not going to do so. I would like to believe we'll eventually reach a tipping point – but there is little evidence of that in the near future. If we're ever going to devise a way to diminish the irrational, murderous use of guns – especially by alienated, angry young men, the likeliest offenders – we need to find ways to reduce the reflexive resort to violence that infects our political rhetoric, our systems of law enforcement and justice at all levels, and our foreign policy.

We certainly need rational gun regulation – universal background checks, limits on outlandish, murderous weaponry, licensing and registration, restrictions on felons and the mentally ill, and so on. But we need as well a deep and broad cultural revulsion against the reflexive use of violence. That's a much more difficult – and much longer-term – project.

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