Why the right wing clings to its guns

January 22, 2013

I APPRECIATED Danny Katch's sharp and very funny piece about the mad politics of guns in the United States ("Sticking to their Glocks"). He begins to touch on some issues that merit further exploration.

American "gun culture" is not, to my mind, primarily about the power of the gun lobby as such--it is about the politics of paranoia and race. That is the secret of its intractability, which is so mystifying to liberals; why even their most modest proposals, popular with the general public and inoffensive--even congenial--to big business, remain stuck in the shoals of the legislatures, or smashed by the rocks altogether.

As soon as one begins to address the nation's absolutely weird intercourse with guns, even in the technocratic, hedge-trimming mode of the modern Democrat, one dredges up a huge muck buried just under the surface of U.S. politics.

Gun ownership, in the sense of the number of households owning at least one firearm, has declined steadily in the U.S. for the last 30 years. Yet gun purchases seem to have increased sharply in the last decade. Thus, the distribution of guns has become extremely skewed, with the top 20 percent of owners controlling an amazing 65 percent of the nation's guns! In other words, a relatively small number of people are accumulating a relatively huge amount of weaponry.

Furthermore, gun ownership in the U.S. has become highly correlated with the political right. As Nate Silver writes, "Whether someone owns a gun is a more powerful predictor of a person's political party than her gender, whether she identifies as gay or lesbian, whether she is Hispanic, whether she lives in the South or a number of other demographic characteristics."

Indeed, the decline in gun ownership is due almost entirely to Democrats and independents--the percentage has barely moved for Republicans. A particularly notable statistic is the rate of gun ownership in the suburbs, where there is scarcely any rational reason to own a gun, given the paucity of wilderness or crime. The rate is 27 percent for Democrats--and 58 percent for Republicans.

CLEARLY, GUN ownership, and particularly the hoarding of weapons, has become an expression of the "paranoid style" in American politics, recently driven to a froth by reactionary and racist responses to a number of long-term changes that are more or less correctly perceived: the collapse of the "American Dream," the decline of U.S. global superiority, the decadence and treason of the elite, demographic shifts in the citizenry, etc. A stockpile is an individualistic (and infantile) means of symbolically "resisting" these phenomena without actually posing any particular threat, save perhaps to oneself and one's neighbors.

Furthermore, the paranoid constituency is inextricable from the Republican electorate as currently structured. For example, thanks to post-2010 gerrymandering and the general unfairness of district-based representation for the urban working class, the GOP enjoys a broad majority in the U.S. House of Representatives even though more people voted for Democrats in House races! (A paradoxical outcome is that the U.S. Senate is probably more representative in its political composition than the House.)

The GOP has always been sensitive to the moods of its right wing, but this is arguably more pronounced than ever: the average House Republican represents a carefully carved slice of hinterland, not any normal sample of the general public. This is surely true at the state level as well.

I believe that the traditional left-radical skepticism towards "gun control" is broadly correct; as Katch points out, the liberal notion that only cops and soldiers should carry guns is just a variation on the "good guy/bad guy" narrative of the right. Even more importantly, armed self-defense really has been important in progressive struggles, especially the labor and Black movements. It would be foolish to think that armed self-defense is somehow "played out" in contemporary times.

That said, I think that socialists ought to think through how people's genuine outrage and disgust over gun violence and crazy massacres can be channeled toward exposing and damaging the political right. This can even be expressed legislatively, given that much of the discussion is legislative (for better or worse). For example, banning of gun shows would be a very fine way to deprive the right wing of spaces to rally and network.

Whether such legislative ideas could pass or even be formally introduced is not critically important: the point would be to politicize the "legalistic" forms through which people tend to approach the question. (It goes without saying that we would also sharply oppose creepy and authoritarian proposals to militarize schools, keep registries of people with mental illness, etc.)

The socialist stance on gun control is principled, but not trans-historical. Our positions at any given time have to be worked out with reference to the concrete arrangement of class and political forces.
Shaun Joseph, Boston

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