Guns as Witchcraft

Over the holidays, after the shootings in Newtown, I was in a conversation on Facebook in which I reiterated my point from earlier in the year that in the United States, gun ownership and gun practices are culture, and as such, not likely to be quickly or predictably responsive to legislation or policy in any direction. I don’t say this to characterize guns (or anything else that falls into the big domain of “culture”, e.g., distinctive everyday practices and forms of consciousness) as something which should not be subject to official, governmental or institutional action, nor as something we cannot change. But as I said last summer, purposeful changes to culture towards a clearly imagined end are very difficult to accomplish.

In the course of that conversation, a colleague and I moved towards one of the comparisons I had in mind in making this caution, namely, the composite, complicated set of ideas and practices in much of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa that get somewhat misleadingly lumped together as “witchcraft”, “sorcery” or similar terms. Scholars studying Africa take great pains, for good reason, to offer nuanced, contextual accounts of witchcraft practice and discourse that among other things, argue that the label itself derives from European colonial ideology and racialized ideas about “primitive societies”–a history which shapes contemporary understandings both inside and outside of Africa. However troubled the history of the label, there’s still a living, contemporary domain of African practices and beliefs that needs a name, and it’s a domain that’s entangled with the history of European imaginings of Africa and Africans. So for the moment, with many cautions, sorcery or witchcraft it is.

At least in southern Africa, I think folks reach for a single word not because it’s all the same thing, but because there’s some connected “deep” ideas that express themselves in a wide variety of ways and contexts. In fact, not only is each manifestation of those ideas different, you can actually see the deeper thinking mobilized by antagonists in various struggles, pulling in different directions. Witchcraft is a way to talk about why things happen in the world, in particular (but not exclusively) why bad things happen. As I’ve come to understand it, there’s two particularly key propositions: that most of what happens to individual people, whatever changes their situation or status, stems from their social relations (both direct personal relationships and generalized sociality) and that such events or changes are worked or brought about through invisible spiritual means, whether that means personified or animate spirits or more abstract and generalized spiritual force.

So if I become ill or suffer misfortune (on one hand) or experience a striking positive change in my individual circumstances (on the other), the interpretation that refers back to witchcraft or sorcery assumes that either change is a consequence of my social relations, transmitted into my life through the mobilization of invisible, indirect spiritual power. This sounds very abstract, and it is, which explains to some extent why these views are so adaptable to varying circumstances. They’re assumptions that can’t be easily shaken or discarded even by people who don’t believe in any of the specifics. It’s extraordinarily difficult to comprehensively dissent from background ideas or interpretations that most people you know share in some measure. It is, on the other hand, very possible to shape these ideas to fit a wide variety of aspirations and circumstances. The underlying concepts can allow people to come together for community healing, or to create a powerful social consensus against the misdeeds of the few. “Witchcraft” lets people describe and condemn exploitation and tyranny, but it also can mystify and empower exploitation and tyranny. It can give malicious family members and community malcontents new languages and possibilities for hurting others, or serve as a way to imagine and explore one of the deepest puzzles of human existence: why bad things happen to good people. Invoking sorcery can be a way to stifle initiative and creativity, or a way to complain about stagnation and suffering.


In 1993, a man named Gian Luigi Ferri entered an office building in San Francisco, went to the 34th floor offices of the law firm Pettit & Martin and went on a shooting rampage, killing eight people and wounding six before committing suicide. It’s never been clear exactly why he chose the firm as his target. Materials he left behind were mostly incoherent, but he blamed law firms in general for the failure of his businesses.

At the time of the shooting, my father was the managing partner of the Los Angeles branch of Pettit & Martin. (The firm dissolved in 1995, which many outsiders attributed to the impact of the murders, but as I recall it, the firm had underlying financial and managerial issues that had little to do with the shooting.) I remember speaking with him not long after the killings. His emotions, understandably, were unusually raw and vivid. Though he was prone to verbal displays of temper, he was normally quite precise and controlled about how and when he allowed that to show in his professional and public life, and he was never physically intimidating either at home or work. On the other hand, as a former Marine, he was quite proud of his physical health and strength, and believed that if he were physically threatened he would be able and willing to defend himself without hestitation. As an adult, I once saw him unblinkingly and calmly stare down a man who was menacing the two of us with a knife, leading the other man to apologetically back away. As far as I know, he didn’t keep a gun in our house, though he was comfortable with and knowledgeable about guns. He had gone hunting with his father as a boy but told me a number of times that he had no taste for hunting as an adult.

What I remember as we talked about the shooting in San Francisco is that he believed, ardently and sincerely, that if he had been in the San Francisco offices that day he would have found a way to stop the gunman. He would have tackled him or disarmed him or found a weapon. I don’t think this was empty chest-thumping on his part: he was serious and sincere and very willing to concede that maybe he would have died in the attempt. But he maintained that he would have tried.

My father was speaking the language of American witchcraft. And in saying this, I do not for one minute mock or dismiss him or his counterfactual imagining of that horrible day. Gian Luigi Ferri was one kind of American sorcerer, and my father was another. The two deep cultural ideas that we hold to that manifest around guns and gun control alike–and around many other things besides guns–are as follows: 1) that individual action focused by will, determination and clarity of intent can always directly produce specific outcomes and equally that individuals who fail to act when confronted by circumstances (including the actions of other individuals) are culpable for whatever happens next and 2) that there are single-variable abstract social forces that are responsible for seemingly recurrent events and that the proper establishing structure, rule or policy can cancel out the impact of that variable, if only we can figure out which one is the right one.

I’ll come back to #2 in a bit, because as I’ve put it here, it may not sound like a generalized American belief, but instead just the institutionalized faith of social scientists and policy-makers. #1 is probably easier for most Americans to recognize. Some of that is a generic liberal, Enlightenment idea about the sovereign individual, but the idea has a peculiar emotional and cultural intensity in the United States, a historical rootedness in a wide variety of distinctively American experiences and mythologies: the gunfighter in the West, the evangelical who saves both self and community, the engineer who finds a way to keep failure from being an option, the deification of the Founding Fathers as extraordinary individuals, Thoreau’s call to disobedience. It goes on and on. It’s a deep and abiding idea that expresses itself in otherwise antagonistic ideologies or very different local cultures across the country. That each of us can act as independent individuals, of our own accord, with deliberate intent, and change what would have been. Or in failing to act, be held responsible for what actually did happen. That idea can come to rest on very different moments and practices–or on fetish objects of various kinds.

Including guns. This is what it means to engage “gun culture”, and why that is such a difficult thing to do. Because there are other men (and women) like my father who believe as he did that if they were present at a moment of violence or trauma, they would find a way to stop it. For many of them, a gun provides that assurance. And while you can say that it probably would not turn out that way, or that there is just as much possibility of an intervention making things even worse, this is just going deeper into the weeds. Because it’s not just the people imagining that they would save everyone who are the issue, but the killers, who are just as affected by a faith in individual action, often after a life in which they’ve been comprehensively denied any other way to believe in the consequentiality of their personal agency.

Maybe it’s possible to surgically remove guns from this latticework. But maybe it’s the bigger weave that’s the issue. Look at all the ways we acknowledge, encourage or make affordances for this deeper belief about ourselves, about why and how things happen in the world, and you begin to see a different challenge. There’s a reason why contemporary Africans who would just as soon defect from anything resembling witchcraft discourse find it hard to do. If I wanted to offer a different view about why anything, everything happens in the world, to explain that causation and consequence flow from accidents, from unmanageable interactions, from partial or dispersed forms of personhood and subjectivity, from systems and institutions, or many other similar formulations, I would be up against not just gun owners but gun control advocates, in general. Up against most Americans in their most intimate experiences and understandings of daily life and self-conception. Indeed, up against myself. Not only am I as much affected as anyone else, like many Americans (and others around the world), I rather like this way of understanding causality and consequence. I like it both intellectually and romantically, as an ideal and a structure of feeling. Even as I know that it is in some sense defective as an actual explanation and as an aspiration, and that it generates and sustains many practices that I dislike or oppose.

This is where idea #2 kicks in. The one problem with a pervasive belief that what happens to us is the consequence of our individual actions (or failure to act) is when we see in our larger national or global culture that some of what we attribute to the willful actions of individuals seems to be recurrent, patterned, widespread. This is a common problem for every deeply vested local or particular cultural vision of selfhood and society. Witchcraft discourse in southern Africa talks about both individual acts of sorcery and about the question of whether (or where) sorcery is systematic or generalized and how to relate the two. What I’d argue is that Americans work out this distinction by believing that recurrent or patterned actions are the result of the relationship between a single social variable expressed as individual actions and a single particular political design that permits or encourages that expression. That sounds modern and bureaucratic but its American roots lie in constitutionalism, in the proposition that concretely correct social designs or covenants can express–or suppress–any given will to act. That respect for religious freedom, for example, can arise from William Penn setting that as an initial condition of his colony rather than, as Peter Silver and other historians point out, an emergent result of many social interactions that did not have religious freedom as an objective, including settler mobilization against Native Americans. This can be a secular vision or a religious one, or both and neither. The Devil can serve as as an explanation just as well as guns or video games or lack of mental health care or media attention.

We believe that we can fix problems that we describe and perceive as singular issues. We tinker endlessly with machinery that seeks to identify the single establishing rule, the single malformed covenant, the single enabling policy that expresses or stifles individual action. That produces killers who mass murder children or produces saviors who would protect them. How quick we are to rush to our snipe hunts, running through dark woods. We’re told, often, that we break apart conjoined, messy problems temporarily, so that experts can study and understand, so that policy can be made, but that somehow we will reassemble it all at some point.

That point never comes because just as with our faith in our individual action, a successful reassemblage hits us hard in our deeper cultural understandings of why bad and good things happen. We don’t have a good language for intentional social or political action to achieve progress that bows to a messier, more partial, more complex-systems understanding of the world and all the things in it. We may have an intellectual vocabulary for that, but not yet (maybe not ever) a deeply felt, emotional experience of it. I feel sometimes as if I’m groping for that new sense of self and society, trying to get it to take root in myself, but just for myself, I have to figure out how to speak it and imagine it in a way that doesn’t sound like fatalism or resignation, and in a language that has everyday resonance. (Which this essay certainly does not.)

So we go on thinking that when the moment comes, we’ll do the right thing, and that in between, we’ll someday find the law, the policy, the rule, the Constitutional amendment that will keep individuals from doing some particular wrong thing, that will push some abstract force or some Satanic provocation under the national rug once and for all. Just as witch-finding and healing, condemnation and consensus, never somehow seem to prevent or check either the personalized force of sorcery or its pervasive spirit.

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6 Responses to Guns as Witchcraft

  1. Nord says:

    Very well put. I think this debate works well, whether guns or alcohol during prohibition … every age has its scourge ….

  2. Withywindle says:

    I feel a vague urge to argue that you should pay greater attention to the truth value of beliefs under discussion. E.g., in the last analysis, I would take witchcraft to be balderdash and the efficacy of individual action to be at the very least endlessly disputable, with a strong case for indisputable. So, you might disagree–but your comparison only works if the truth value of the beliefs in question is comparable, and I think that requires a bit more argumentation.

    Rephrased: your tactical argument for caution about treating people’s beliefs does not require a judgment of the truth value of beliefs–but there is a larger imperative toward action/inaction which requires such a judgment. I think your polemic is aimed toward people who only consider the imperative, and not the tactics/respect for belief, irrespective of truth value–but I think you might add a sentence saying, “This is only half the story.”

    Rephrased again: “Make haste slowly”–but don’t delete any one of those three words.

  3. Withywindle says:

    And then, it is one thing to be complaisant about sorcery elsewhere; another if the witchburners are coming after you. What if I think the gun control people believe in a bunkum witchcraft, a juju that will abridge my freedom and endanger my life? Perhaps I will emphasize resistance over comprehension. You can put the case in reverse, but the same point holds.

  4. Withywindle says:

    Ah, still wanting to comment … yes, you did say, “I don’t say this to characterize guns (or anything else that falls into the big domain of “culture”, e.g., distinctive everyday practices and forms of consciousness) as something which should not be subject to official, governmental or institutional action, nor as something we cannot change.” Digging at this: I take this to be only a partial move toward the awareness of folly, insufficiently reflexive. I.e., you go so far as “they are fools; let us tread softly”, but not quite so far as, “we are all fools”–we mandarins of the God-State are High Witches too, moving the levers of the Great Machine so that the rains may fall. I do think you should complete the journey, proceed from “those fools” to “we fools.”

    I blame a cruel God for the fact that I am up so early on a Saturday morning.

  5. Doug says:

    The folly of doing nothing is as clear as 20 fresh graves with first graders buried in them.

  6. pxib says:

    As individuals, in dangerous situations, limited action is frequently safest.

    Obviously if Adam Lanza had chosen to do nothing, those first-graders would still be alive. The only one who lived did nothing: laid completely still in the blood of her friends until she was sure the “angry man” had gone. The same is true of teachers who successfully saved their own students not by organizing a charge and tackling the shooter, but by hiding kids in classrooms, bathrooms, and closets.

    Yes, there is a non-zero chance that any person might have made a difference by attacking rather than retreating, but they also might simply have died. And failed to more capably protect others as they did so.

    In terms of government action, doing nothing doesn’t have to be better than doing the best thing, it only has to be better than doing the wrong thing. There exists a real threat that serious gun control measures may lead to more angry, desperate people feeling that they have no hope in their lives, and deciding it’s time to show the government, the legal system, and the world that they are not going to go quietly.

    As a society, in dangerous situations, limited action is frequently safest.

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