Two mass shootings in 24 hours with a body count over 50. A third shooting two days later in Baton Rouge, Louisiana after an argument between two customers erupted into a shooting match inside a Wal-Mart. No one was killed there, but an innocent bystander took a bullet and landed in the hospital. Guess America really is exceptional.
I wish I could say this series of events shocks me, but it doesn’t. Maybe that’s cruel, but it’s the way many Americans seem to react to these incidents. When an average of 47 days passes between killings of four or more people, you start expecting such news as much as the morning’s weather report. More citizens report feeling anxious in public spaces and spend time plotting what they would dive under if a killer packing a hot piece entered the town square. Texas Monthly magazine’s Pamela Collof said it best in an article written after the 1966 incident at the University of Texas when a student climbed the campus clock tower and fired on people below with a sniper rifle: “…any group of people, anywhere — even walking around a university campus on a summer day — could be killed at random by a stranger.” That event seemed unprecedented at the time and drew national attention. Fifty years later it’s another annoying link in the news feed that we express brief distress over on our way to our cousin’s vacation update.
The inevitable political battles that follow these shootings stick to the same fundamental script: thoughts and prayers, blaming a scapegoat like violent media or psychosis, hollow statements from the commander-in-chief, calls for legislation, etc., and then the news cycle continues its usual pattern and the fire dies a few weeks after the event.
Citizens all over the world cannot fathom how this is still such a pervasive problem in the United States, especially since these shootings have spared no demographic. Concerned Americans ask the same questions. The age range of known victims spans from eight months old all the way up to 98 years. Every color and creed imaginable has been caught in the bullet storm at some point. What will it take to stop the ongoing massacre of our fellow Americans? If young children perishing in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School rampage in Newtown, Connecticut didn’t change minds, what more needs to happen? Why the stagnancy in solving this epidemic?
Maybe in answering these questions, we’re looking for the wrong solutions.
Imagine a coffee table in your house. You bang your shin on the table every week and it leaves a deep bruise on your leg. Your friends and family suggest moving the table to an area with less foot traffic where you’re less likely to hit it, but you insist on using concealer makeup to cover the bruise. This may take care of the unattractive stain on your leg, but it won’t stop you from banging your shin again a few days later. Rather than address the root problem, you’re addressing a minor factor that doesn’t break the cycle. This is the flawed approach to the gun safety problem in the U.S. We look at this as a political problem instead of a systemic one.
Gun violence is framed as a legislative problem and therefore one that requires legislative solutions. Even the most well-intentioned and knowledgeable advocates for greater gun safety measures fall into this trap. We think the primary problem is access to weapons or we look at organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA)’s massive lobbying power and conclude it must be the influence of the domestic arms industry that prevents policymakers from changing anything. These are true to an extent, and legislation can have its place as a supplementary solution, but it’s worth remembering the NRA is at its weakest during Republican administrations and Congressional majorities. Journalist Mike Spies of The Trace shows that the NRA’s financial support and lobbying power correlates with the political climate yet the number of mass shootings does not fluctuate in significant ways regardless of partisan makeup of the federal government. Gun violence in the United States is grounded in deeper causes, some of which return to the earliest days of the country’s statehood, rendering legislative solutions as helpful as that bruise cream we keep applying.
Understanding the true origins of the 2nd amendment to the constitution is necessary here. Indigenous American scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s 2018 book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment deconstructs the dominant narrative of oppressed colonists breaking their chains and enshrining the ability to revolt against another tyrannical government in the founding of their new nation. The comprehensive historical review paints a somewhat different picture that grounds gun rights in white supremacist causes of conquest and extermination.
History scholars often refer to settler colonialism in the establishment of what Dunbar-Ortiz calls “settler states.” The origins of such states hinge on displacement of indigenous people through expansion of territorial control and replacement with a new society of people. Think the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and almost every Central and South American country. Israel serves as a more modern example. The concept reaches back to the ancient Eurasian world, but American expansion across the North American continent under concepts like Manifest Destiny are the most famous examples, at least in the United States.
The earliest justifications for arming everyday citizens revolved around clearing out troublesome indigenous collectives that thwarted U.S. plans for westward expansion. From the federal government’s perspective, it costs a pretty penny to mobilize a professional army to clear out untold numbers of indigenous nations who know the land better than any general, so why not empower ordinary settlers to do it themselves and save the government a fortune? This approach differs from other settler states such as the Israeli occupation of Palestine where the state security apparatus assumes primary responsibility for territorial expansion and the establishment of settlements.
Civilian use of firearms carried a white supremacist dynamic of using force to control or purge people of color from the beginning. The notorious practice of scalping became such a lucrative venture that people could make their entire living as a pro scalper. As tensions between the northern and southern states heated up in the antebellum years, these militias took on the additional role of state-sanctioned patrols to return escaped slaves to plantation owners. These gun owners were entirely white, as the notion of arming Africans was one of the most contentious political issues of the day even when more bodies were needed for military campaigns.
Some might cite black regiments in the American Civil War or the existence of several black cowboys in the American West as counterexamples, but a few instances does not a trend make. If second amendment rights are not regarded as primarily a white right, why did the NRA back gun control legislation in the 1960s when the Black Panther Party exercised their second amendment rights by open carrying firearms in the California statehouse? Future conservative darling Ronald Reagan became a loud supporter of the legislation, which became some of the strictest gun laws in the country at the time. The Black Panthers killed nobody, but no such bill ever passed in the wake of a mass shooting by a white perpetrator.
A second major cause of widespread gun violence in the U.S. surfaced in the 20th century as the country moved beyond its continental borders and embarked on its first imperial adventures abroad. Use of open military force to control populations declined with the fall of the European empires after the Second World War, replaced by the diplomatic principles of internationalism and rule of law crafted by Elihu Root, Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt. But military occupation and intimidation still plays a central role in United States influence around the world. The Defense Department now acts as the main diplomatic office in many interstate negotiations and the national budget reflects ambitions of unparalleled military dominance. The Pentagon devours so much cash that its first ever audit last year revealed trillions, yes trillions, of dollars that could not be accounted for by anyone in Pentagon leadership.
Domestic gun violence is one of the less obvious consequences of running the most militaristic society in history. Hundreds of military bases abroad, constant war, us vs. them rhetoric, the replacement of the State Department with the Defense Department as the primary diplomatic office, handing off military surplus equipment to city and state police forces, etc. When you spend half a century using military force and bullish diplomatic tactics like economic sanctions as your primary way to conduct international relations, you send the message to your own citizens that violence must be the best way to solve problems. After all, if a country’s highest leaders behave as such, why shouldn’t its citizens? Are statesmen not role models on some level? Turns out bombing a bunch of brown people nonstop for thirty years and keeping everyone in constant fear of “terrorists” conditions citizens to see threats in their fellow brown Americans. Shocking, isn’t it? Add onto that the lack of emotional support for males to cope with negative emotions in productive ways and you’ve got a deadly cocktail brewing on every street in America.
Gun violence apologists often throw out “it’s a complex issue” to punk out of finding real solutions, but it is true that the origins of gun violence are not as simple as even progressives sometimes believe. The white supremacist origins of arming settlers and the connection between gun violence at home and U.S. militarism abroad is often missed in these discussions. It becomes much more difficult to address gun violence as a crisis when we fail to confront these truths. As African-American historian Gerald Horne said, “if you can rationalize genocide and you can rationalize enslavement, well, you can rationalize anything!”
Gun safety legislation does have its place in this epidemic. You can even make a case for the mental health angle if you focus on the need to better support men who need emotional support and design more empathic intervention-type approaches to racist tendencies. But those policy measures won’t go far without evaluating our troubled past, our image as a country on the world stage, and how we project our principles. A country whose identity hinge on jingoistic muscling to get what it wants will never be at peace at home.