, December 27, 2007
(view all comments by jgeneric)
I believe in the right to self-defense, and the right to carry weapons, and on the left, I find myself very alone a lot of the time in the US. In much the same way that the government wages a war of prohibition against drugs that continues to swell our prison system but doesn't do a thing to fix violence in our society, I also believe the rush to ban guns is also a power ploy that doesn't stop violence but merely disarms people and makes them even more vulnerable to attack. Any individual or group under attack deserves the right to defend themselves from unjust harm, especially against military or police or thugs. More right wing groups like the National Rifle Association, however, defend the right to keep guns from an entirely different prospective. They define it as a way for "law-abiding citizens" (usually white) to defend themselves against criminals (usually black), and a way for patriots to defend their country from the UN or immigrants or whomever, and I don't really see it that way. I see guns as a way for groups or individuals to keep themselves safe as they act as a deterrent from attacks if others know that the gun-carrier can fight back. In fact, it carries to other weapons and martial arts forms that people ought to know to defend themselves against attack, but I digress. I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania (Susquehanna County) until I was 14, a place where we got the first day of hunting season off from school because of how many people hunted. It might not make much sense to urban and suburban dwellers, but I knew a lot of people who supplemented their income by shooting animals and selling them to butchers, or just eating the stuff they shot. Now, in Philadelphia as violence and murder escalates, there is a call to give Philadelphia its own gun laws instead of trying to tackle poverty and joblessness.
All this aside, the gun debate in the US is one where both sides are damned in my opinion. I picked up the book "Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy", by Joan Burbick, hoping that it might be a breath of fresh air. Burbick, a shooter herself, explores the culture of the gun show and the "gun nut", and the underlying politics of the NRA, as well as explaining their view of the world. It takes a few chapters to realize her points of view, but she also sees the right-wing "2 nd Amendment" movement as a cover for white-supremacist and male domination and an attempt at trying to maintain the status-quo, convincingly so. She argues that the gun was used by the right-wing to roll back some of the gains of the Civil Rights era in the US. In effect, the gun issue was used by conservatives as a Trojan horse issue to fight back against what they saw as an attack on their traditional family-oriented values and way of life. She also argues that all-white rifle clubs in the 1800s were used by Southern white supremacists to keep blacks "in their place" during and after Reconstruction.
Groups like the John Birch Society get along very well with the NRA in that they see the federal government as taking away people's right to defend themselves (which sort of makes sense), yet they are in favor of a strong and large military at the same time (which doesn't make sense). In the pages of the "American Rifleman", the magazine of the NRA , throughout its 80 years of existence, they glorify the model citizen as a "rugged frontiersman" dressed in buckskins, independent, and strong, with a strong work ethic. Always implied, of course, was that this citizen was also white . This played into the Cold War image against groups working together such as unions or civil rights groups or Communist collectivism. The NRA's literature was peppered with mentions of fighting against Communist infiltration, though it tried to stick to hunting and sport fishing. Only in the late 1970s, when Charleton Heston and Bill Loeb took over the NRA and ousted the moderates, and indeed started targeting the Republican Party as did a host of other groups like the Christian Coalition (much the way labor unions and civil rights groups targeted the Democratic Party). The 1980s and the rise of the Reaganites to the government also brought movies like Terminator and Rambo with muscle-bound men shooting up entire armies by themselves. This is the atmosphere in which Charleton Heston said his famous "From my cold, dead, hands" while holding up an old flintlock. Thus guns became the issue for white guys who wanted to fight back from the gains of women and people of color.
In doing research for her book, Joan Burbick went to hundreds of gun shows and spoke to lots of different people. She encounters all sorts of people obsessed with guns, and learns quickly that gun shows are a multimillion dollar business. During the Cold War, military surplus made guns both cheap and available, and the international arms trade boomed. The UN draws special ire from gun show enthusiasts for trying to clamp down on this trade. Burbick also notices that most of the crowd at gun shows are white guys, and that confirms my suspicion when I had a subscription to "The American Rifleman", in which I can rarely ever remember seeing a person of color in its pages. It should be noted that the NRA has it's base in rural places, in which the vast majority of which are white, but it doesn't even seem like they're trying to outreach to people other than whites (though they do reach out to white women.)
One aspect of the book I seriously disagreed with is when Joan Burbick recounts an incident in the 1873 at Colfax, Louisiana, when a black militia was massacred trying to defend themselves from a white mob. She states that "Easter Sunday, 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana would prove once and for all that African Americans could not defend with arms either their lives or their right to vote even if they were members of a local militia" (referring to the fact that whites often formed militias) In stating this, she isolates this one incident in a time period where blacks were particularly vulnerable to attack. In the 1950s, wide-spread chapters of the "Deacons for Defense" not only defended blacks from attack during the civil rights organizing, but forced government officials to deal with groups like Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee and Martin Luther King's Southern Leadership Conference (the pacifist activists). In the late 1960searly 1970s, the Black Panthers for Self-Defense Party took inspiration from them and carried weapons around regularly, though they were encouraged not to use them unless attacked, as well as organizing free breakfast meals, education, and health services. The American Indian Movement did similar things and also believed in the right to self-defense. Granted, the last two groups were targeted by the government COINTELPRO repression for being "violent" even though they were simply advocating for self-defense, but that's not really surprising given the history of the US government (and most other governments.) But to leave these examples out of her critique of gun culture really amazes me. While I suppose she was trying to focus on the "gun-nut" people like the NRA and gun shows, the history of weapons and guns in this country is not as black and white as it is painted by either side of the argument.