Gun Violence, Once More

The most common type of gun confiscated by pol...

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Mass murders, defined as four or more people killed, occur with unfortunate regularity in the United States. These murders typically involve guns—most likely for the obvious reason that guns make killing much easier. The latest incident to grab the public’s attention was a shooting in a Washington Navy yard in which twelve people were murdered. As with each such horrible event, the gun cycle has been restarted.

As always, some people demand that “something be done” while others rush to head off any attempts to actually do something that might involve guns. As with each previous cycle, this one will slowly spin down and lose the eye of the public. Until the next shooting.

I have written so many times about guns and violence that I suspect that I do not have anything new to say about the matter. From what I have heard, seen and read, it seems like the same is true of other people.

In defense of guns, people trot out the usual line about it being people that kill rather than guns. This is, obviously enough, a true claim: guns are tools that people sometimes use to kill other people. Guns do not engage in murder by themselves. Another way to look at it is that it is true that guns do not commit gun crimes—people do. Of course, the same is true about drug crimes: drugs do not commit drug crimes—people do.

While muttering about guns not killing sounds callous when bullet ridden corpses so recently lay on the ground, this approach does have some merit. After all, when people do kill people with guns, there is some reason (a causal chain) behind it and this reason is not simply that the person had a gun. Rather, they have the gun and use it for reasons (in the sense of there being causes).

In the case of the latest alleged shooter, there seems to be evidence of mental health issues, such as his allegedly telling the police about voices and attempts to beam messages to him with microwaves. He also had a police record that included “minor” gun incidents, such as shooting a coworker’s tire and discharging a firearm through his ceiling into the apartment above. Despite all this, he was still able to legally purchase a gun and even keep his security access to military bases.

Looking back at other shootings, some of them are similar in that the shooter had mental issues that were known but did not reach a level at which legal action could be taken. This, of course, suggests that changing the laws would be a potential solution. However, the obvious concern is that the majority of people who fall below the level at which legal action can be taken to deny them guns never engage in violence. I have written extensively about this before and hold to the same position, namely that denying people their rights requires more than just the mere possibility that they might do something.

It is interesting and disturbing to note that it is worth considering that our entire society is mentally deranged. This point was made quite some time ago by Emma Goldman in her essay on anarchism. She noted that we are like animals in captivity and our behavior is deranged by the conditions that are imposed on us by those who hold power. We face a society with grotesque inequalities, ethical problems, drug abuse (which is both a cause and effect), little social support and great stress. Most people who are ground down by this situation break down in non-violent ways, but it is hardly a shock that some people respond with violence. If this is the case, then the violence is a symptom of a greater disease and gun laws would fail to address the disease itself—although they could make gun violence less likely.

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  1. Your point about how a mentally deranged, stressful, uncaring society with incredible economic inequality leads people towards a violent breakdown makes sense to me.

    In the U.S. that violent breakdown often seems to involve an individual shooting others at random, while in Chile, where I live, that violent breakdown generally involves mass or group looting, vandalism and arson, but similar social conditions seem to be behind these upbreaks of violence in both societies.

  2. Mike LaBossiere,

    “I have written so many times about guns and violence that I suspect that I do not have anything new to say about the matter. ”

    I suspect you’ll find something, you’re just all out of low hanging fruit.

    “From what I have heard, seen and read, it seems like the same is true of other people.”

    Well, the tactic of the gun ownership advocates has been to repeat the same arguments ad nauseam, to deadlock the discussion. A deadlocked discussion isn’t a discussion.

    Though a mistake I think you’ve made in your arguments has been a generalization of the issues. The only thing in common between the massacre at Sandy Hook, and an unremarkable weekend of mayhem in Baltimore, is guns. If you take a country like Finland, which in economic and social terms is very different from the US, they don’t have the Baltimore experience, but they have had Sandy Hook type experiences.

    Two very separate issues. I was reading in the Baltimore Sun, an article that asked the simple question why can’t Baltimore be like Brooklyn. Brooklyn was once quiet violent, where it isn’t now. But the question has nothing to do with Sandy Hook. Though there is a connection.

    “This point was made quite some time ago by Emma Goldman in her essay on anarchism. She noted that we are like animals in captivity and our behavior is deranged by the conditions that are imposed on us by those who hold power.”

    I love anarchists. A central belief among optimistic anarchists, is that humanity is naturally uncorrupted, that it is the system and the power relations of the system that turns people bad. And if only we could change the power relationships we could live in a pre-lapsarian idyll – back to the garden of Eden. There is an element of truth in this – in that many of the power structures we have in society are deeply corrupting. But it presupposes a Garden of Eden did exist.

    Marxists reduce all their arguments to our relationship to capital. Again there is a truth in this, but taken to extremes it becomes a mystified anti-semitism.

    Social and economic problems are interesting, the individual actors tend to believe there is an outside force orchestrating the ills within the system – the group then compounds the issue with group mythologies.

    People often manufacture their own misery. I had an American friend, whose daughter wouldn’t speak to her – or only relay conversations to her through her husband. Her daughter suffered from depression, and blamed her mother. They made a peace pact, and the daughter visited for a weekend. And then I saw the relationship – my friend transformed into a psychotic nagger. I witnessed one of the most bizarre and pointless arguments I have ever seen in my life – over paper napkins. And pretty soon, her daughter was insisting that her mother speak to her only through her husband. (poor husband, but I suppose that’s what they for; for better or worse). These were very privileged people – any hardship or suffering in their lives was of their own making. They had all the upside of capitalism without any of the downsides. But there are probably happier and less troubled families living in central Baltimore – who have very little, and have to navigate what is very literally a war zone.

  3. JMRC:

    Why and how does Marxism, taken to extremes, become mystified anti-semitism?

    Unless one assumes, quite mistakenly, that capitalists are all Jews or Jews are all capitalists…..

  4. Doris Wrench Eisler

    There is no doubt that society is insane in various aspects. Purporting equality,
    it’s a system where everyone is expected to contribute in labor, talents, and taxes and even lives, but the lucky and/or rich are the main beneficiaries. At the same time, this is the group that complains the most about its alleged societal “burden”. Used to be bad in the old days of lords and barons, serfs and peons, and then symbolic democracy slowly expanded but also involved big wars, death and destruction, the largest burden falling naturally on ordinary people.
    Because we live a relatively short while our personal experience is limited and many of us don’t see the patterns that have always been – the rich and powerful always winning and by any means, and we hope and believe this time it will be different.
    Things have only become more complicated since Emma Goldman. Bigger and less justified expectations, threats of various types of widespread destruction
    with insane buildup of WMDs, and dangerous environmental conditions getting worse – plus instant communication. It isn’t an environment conducive
    to calm.
    Guns and the gun culture are an aspect of individual and societal disease
    and anonymous victims, a symbolic hitting out at society. Most mass murderers have no history of unusual violence in a society where road rage, bar fights etc., are common. The extreme use of prescribed drugs, tranquilizers, and antidepressants makes identifying “mental illness” a challenge. The goal of pre-identifying potential mass murderers will amount to another insidious type of injustice, invasion of privacy and intrinsically violent influence on society. Such efforts are already underway in Britain and perhaps elsewhere, and bode only evil.They will tend to stigmatize on the basis of genetic inheritance even against the evidence that genetics, as we understand it, has nothing to do with much of anything.

  5. swallerstein,

    “Why and how does Marxism, taken to extremes, become mystified anti-semitism?”

    It can lead to personification. Capitalism is a mechanism, it’s not a person. It doesn’t have a personality. Though its’ capriciousness can make it seem like it.

    “Unless one assumes, quite mistakenly, that capitalists are all Jews or Jews are all capitalists…..”

    The Jew in anti-semitism is never a real Jew. There’s a peasant logic at play. If the crops fail this year it must be because there is some evil witch somewhere. When capitalism fails, or does something particularly destructive, then there must be a witch. But even Jews have had their scape goats. They invented the scape goat. There was an old tradition on Yom Kippur, of taking a goat outside the limits of the village and throwing it over a cliff. Maybe whoever was behind the original idea believed the people needed their scape goat, or they would throw real people over the cliff.

    The Holocaust was a mass witch burning. But it wasn’t unprecedented. Millions had been burned as witches in Europe in the preceding hundreds of years. What shocks us about it, is the belief that we were in the modern age. And how modernity was used – IBM computers calculating the train timetables. The cutting edge of technology.

    Capitalism is explosive. When it blows up in peoples faces they go on a witch hunt. Populations, especially the middle-classes, who are in fact the real power though they always feel so hard done by, are generally so narcissistic, they can’t or refuse to see that many of the crises are of their own making. This is the argument for the independence of central banks – that when governments have control, they tend to game the rates in line with their election cycles – to please the middle-classes – this isn’t good. But bankers tend to game the rates for their own interests too.

    In Marxist/Leninist theory, communism is the next stage after capitalism has exhausted itself. So when the Russians were building their communist society, they looked to the most developed capitalist societies – America in particular. They based all their industries on big capital American versions. The collective farms were based on large scale American industrialized farms. Ostensibly the collective farms belonged to the people of the collective, but they found themselves with as much ownership as if they were workers on a large American farm. They were just employees. Even the dreaded argument right-wingers made against communism – that everyone was paid the same regardless of how hard they worked, this was imported from American capitalism. A system where there is uniformity in pay scales, and the only way in, up, down or out, in the system is through politics and favouritism. So the Russians did have different pay scales just like they do in American corporations. Their society was class ridden and hierarchical. This wasn’t an accidental byproduct.

    You have right-wing and left-wing anti-capitalists. Franco was an anti-capitalist, and he had his witches; the Freemasons, of whom he had thousands killed. You will have those on the left who oppose capitalism because they believe it creates and reinforces grinding and oppressive hierarchies – and then on the right, the opposition to capitalism will be that it breaks down these same oppressive hierarchies. And strangely both arguments are true.

    I’m suspicious of anyone defining themselves as capitalist. Or what it means, if it means anything. Does the accusation of capitalist, get mixed up with anti-semitism, even in this day and age, it does.

  6. Time for a farm story. The thing that I’ve noticed about a few pig farmers is that they can work in the farm-stench for 10 to 16 hours on any given day; and live in a farmhouse that is near the pig barn and even sleep in the stench. It’s ‘Normal’ to them.

    So it is with Americans and guns. The American desire for and ownership of guns is highly unusual for an advanced industrial society. At least with a pig barn, there are ways of mitigating the unhealthy atmosphere, and protecting the piglets from dangerous exposure to ammonia etc. But there’s no mitigation for guns in the Excited Sates of America. No hope at all.

    Y’all bubbas got so many guns and so much ammunition that the stench of gunsmoke and death will hang on y’all like a bad smell forever.

    God help America. Especially since Americans don’t know how to help themselves or one another.

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