Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Illusion of Control, the Fantasy of Violence

I’m still thinking about the gun issue today, after the March for Our Lives yesterday. Technology theorist Langdon Winner tweeted this today, and I find it fits my perspective perfectly:

My suggested revision for the Second Amendment: A well regulated Militia, being no longer necessary to round up runaway slaves or kill Indians, the right of the people to keep and bear arms and shoot their fellow citizens whenever, shall now be reasonably infringed.
First, I wanted to note a couple of articles that do a good job of presenting statistics on how people who keep guns are not safer than those who don’t.

1. Scientific American, 2017, More guns do not stop more crimes, evidence shows. I linked to this one yesterday, but it bears repeating and will be easier to find here in the future. From this I learned:
  • Firearm assaults were almost seven times more common in states with the most guns versus those with the least.
  • People who had access to firearms at home were nearly twice as likely to be murdered as people who did not.
  • The odds of a suicide or suicide attempt are between 3.5 and and 5.8 times higher in homes with a gun.
  • For every time a gun in the home is used for self-protection, there are four unintentional shootings, seven assaults or killings, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.
  • The big crime rate drop of the 1990s and 2000s was by far most significant in states that have tighter gun laws. States with lax gun laws saw only small declines (though their crime rates were lower to start with).
2. Vox, 2018. Poll: most Americans say gun ownership increases safety. Research: nope. In which I learned:
  • The number of Americans who think having a gun makes you safer has flipped between 1999 and today: 20 years ago, 52 percent said no and 41 percent said yes. Today, 38 percent say no, while 58 percent say yes.
  • Mass shootings account for only 2 percent of U.S. gun deaths. But they’re still significant globally: with only 5 percent of the world’s population, we account for 31 percent of mass shooters, worldwide.
  • Crime rates and violent crime rates don’t excuse our high gun ownership levels: we’re actually only mid-pack on overall crime rate among 15 OECD countries, and more than a few countries have higher violent crime rates as well. But we have more lethal crime, and that’s because we have so many guns. Here's that last point in a graph from Vox:
All of that provides a backdrop to two other articles on why there has been such a huge expansion in the number of guns in this country over the past several decades, almost all of it among a small segment of the general populace. As the articles say, 50 percent of guns are owned by 3 percent of the population.

Who are those 3 percent?

This more recent Scientific American article gives the answer: they’re white men who are “anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market and beset by racial fears.”

Some key facts and quotes from that article:
  • “For the most part, [the gun owners] don’t appear to be religious—and, suggests one study, faith seems to reduce their attachment to guns. In fact, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisis in meaning and purpose in their lives.”
  • According to Angela Stroud, Northland College sociologist, “When men became fathers or got married, they started to feel very vulnerable, like they couldn’t protect families…. For them, owning a weapon is part of what it means to be a good husband a good father.” That meaning is “rooted in fear and vulnerability—very motivating emotions.”
  • But they also feared “Obama’s presidency…would empower minorities to threaten their property and families.”
  • “For many conservative men, the gun feels like a force for order in a chaotic world.”
  • From Paul Froese, Baylor University sociologist: For economically insecure, nonreligious white men, “the gun is a ubiquitous symbol of power and independence, two things white males are worried about… Guns, therefore, provide a way to regain their masculinity, which they perceive has been eroded by increasing economic impotency.”
  • Froese also found these men think they are patriots who love “the nation” but hate “the government.” He says, “On that point, I expect that many in this group see the ‘nation’ as being white.”
  • “Put simply, owners who are more attached to their guns are most likely to believe that guns are a solution to our social ills…. For them, more ‘good’ people with guns would drastically reduce violence and increase civility. Again, it reflects a hero narrative, which many white man long to feel a part of.”
The article concludes by circling back to the question of whether all those guns make their owners (and their owners’ loved ones) safer. As we already know, the answer is no: For every homicide deemed justified by the police, guns are used in 78 suicides, for instance. A recent JAMA study is cited: “restrictive gun laws don’t prevent white men from defending themselves and their families. Instead, those laws stop them from shooting themselves and each other.”

Which brings us to historian Walter Johnson's recent essay in Boston Review, called Guns in the Family, in which he recounts his personal experience as a child growing up in a hunting family. His father, he writes, hugged him once, at age 13, when he killed his first deer, and it was the only time he was hugged between the age of 6 and when he finished graduate school.

Both his father and his closest neighbor’s father had fully automatic weapons, sometimes hidden with a porn stash, which Johnson sees as related: “the lonely pleasures of fantasizing about mastery and violence.”
My memories and my stories…lead inevitably toward the machine gun hidden in my friend’s father’s study, or lying next to my father’s easy chair. The heady and uniquely American blend of martial culture, white paranoia, and toxic masculinity — which makes stories of so many U.S. families and childhoods illegible without guns — possesses...a sense that all this perceived threat is leading us to someplace inevitable, a battlefield on which one will not stand a chance of surviving without a gun.

When I hear the NRA people going on about how guns are just “tools,” I think, absolutely, you are right, guns are tools: tools for making emotionally stunted men feel whole; tools for guiding lonely boys along the bloody pathway to becoming violent men; tools for spreading the fearful fantasy of the coming race war; tools for enflaming urban areas in rural states, and making the argument for more cops and more prisons; tools for reproducing male dominance and white supremacy; tools for white male parthenogenesis.
Johnson recommends a new book on the Second Amendment, Loaded, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. In it, she
shows that the history of gun owning and use in the United States has always been connected with imperial genocide and racial slavery. Notably, the constitutional provision for the keeping of a “well-regulated militia” was (contrary to the ahistorical reading prevalent today) not about defending the country from outside threat but rather aimed at arming white men against Native Americans and the threat of slave insurrections. In other words, the defense of gun ownership has always been rooted in anxieties about the need to defend white homesteads and households against a racialized, gendered threat: blacks, Indians, women who threaten their husbands’ masculinity, kids who won’t obey their fathers.
So now I have another book to add to my pile, and something a bit more authoritative to cite on the origins of the Second Amendment. And to back up Langdon Winner's new version of 2A as well.

1 comment:

Gina said...

One thing I learned when I was writing "Perceval's Secret," and it really surprised me -- the POWER Evan felt when he was holding a gun. He felt powerless because of his background in America, and while conducting an orchestra can be a powerful experience, all the conductors I spoke with talked about conducting being more collaborative than dictatorial, i.e. being on the podium didn't give them a sense of power in themselves. But holding a gun, aiming it at someone or something, and firing it DOES give a power rush to someone who feels powerless inside. It is that Illusion of Control. I hope the NIH can do a research study soon on the personality and psychological traits of gun owners compared with the same traits in mass murderers. That would be interesting, indeed.