Let’s stop talking about guns and gun control.
Guns and gun control in America function as an intensifying signifier of cultural division. They amplify the idea that this historical moment is a division of rural white ‘traditional’ communities vs. urban diverse educated communities. For every responsible rural gun owner who has a rifle as a tool, for every home owner who keeps a gun out of a belief in self-protection, for every collector who is just interested in guns, using the gun itself as the totemic object that we believe is causing these shootings is a confirmation of an antagonism, of a sociocultural distance, of an us and them. The more we understand, accurately, the cultural depth of America’s attraction to guns, the more helpless we feel–because deep cultural formations are exceptionally hard to instrumentally change from above.
Yes, gun ownership in this country is a fetish; yes, strictly controlling the availability of weapons that are intended to kill many people as fast as possible would be transformative. Yes, guns in the home lead to many tragedies, from toddlers shooting family members by accident to depressed men committing suicide because of the availability of a convenient means for doing it. Yes, we need sane gun laws–licensing and permits, mandatory training, restrictions on manufacture, sale and ownership, and so on.
But guns are a distraction from what’s really going on.
What’s really going on is a slow-motion uprising by white men who feel lost, enraged and confused by the gradual ebbing of their unchallenged social, political and economic power. Most of the men who’ve joined this uprising and committed terrorist acts in its name don’t even quite know or reflexively understand their deeper sources of their rage and alienation. They’ve nearly invariably beaten or hurt women in their lives, they’ve felt confused or wounded by the world around them. They’ve sometimes understood themselves to be mentally unhealthy or lost. They’ve cut themselves off from social ties or never been able to make them in the first place.
But most of them are not mentally ill as we commonly understand it, any more than an alienated young man from London or Berlin or Detroit or Istanbul or Kano who goes to join ISIS or Boko Haram. Those insurgents are leaving because they feel there is nothing for them where they are, because they feel powerless or lost, because they want to make a new world that is also somehow an old and sanctified world where they are the powerful ones. They often know almost nothing about the Qu’ran or Islam.
So it is with America’s mass shooters: virtually all of them white and male, sensing that the safety of a world where mediocre, ordinary white men could still count on being bosses, on being in charge, is fading away.
This goes all the way back to James Huberty in San Ysidro in 1984. We are not in a fight with guns, any more than other societies trying to cope with insurgencies are in a fight with guns. The guns are a necessary but not sufficient condition of those insurgencies, but ordinary people don’t get blown up by an IED while travelling by bus because there are IEDs. They get blown up because insurgents and terrorists are mining the roadways. The IEDs are what allow buses to be blown up and many people to die: if insurgents just had butter knives, they’d kill very few people. But here, in some sense, the mantra of the gun owner is almost right: without the terrorist, the gun sits on the shelf, the IED never gets made.
Ordinary Americans don’t get shot because there are guns, and they don’t get shot because somehow we have the world’s worst mental health crisis. They get shot because there is a decentralized, distributed movement of white men who want their supremacy back. It’s always been visible to us but it is more apparent than ever now because there are open terrorist sympathizers in the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, in governors’ mansions and state legislatures. It is time to call them what they are and to understand truthfully that we the people are under attack.