The White Privilege of Guns

In the ongoing protest movement against racist police brutality, there have been white right-wing individuals and groups showing up with guns, often military-style guns that are designed to kill humans. Many of these people don’t have ill intent and certainly perceive themselves as the good guys. When asked, more than a few of them would say they are there to protect peaceful protesters, as they will protect all members and businesses of their community, and there isn’t necessarily any reason to doubt them. Still, some of the gun-toting vigilantes are crazed Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists listening to Alex Jones, and general right-wingers riled up by Fox News while others have been identified as members of white supremacist groups, militias, gangs, etc. One can’t assume peaceful results from armed groups of people seeking to violently stop the violence they fear in their over-active imaginations. Bringing a gun to a protest you disagree with is sending a clear message.

It’s true there hasn’t been many confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters, in that the protests nationwide have remained largely peaceful. But the mere presence of guns as a potential threat of violence — similar to when police show up in riot gear ready to rumble — understandably makes many people feel uncomfortable and unsafe, including some local business owners and local officials (Kip Hill & Chad Sokol, Armed presence in North Idaho towns questioned by some politicians, business owners; Adam Shanks, Elected officials condemn ‘armed vigilantes’ attending Spokane protests). Certainly, it hasn’t always been peaceful. “People wielding everything from bats to firearms have appeared at protests in Philadelphia, San Antonio and other cities. At times, their presence has led to confrontations with protesters. Sometimes there has been gunfire: In Boise, an 18-year-old white man was arrested after allegedly firing his rifle into the ground during a protest outside the capitol” (Isaac Stanley-Becker & Tony Romm; Armed white residents lined Idaho streets amid ‘antifa’ protest fears. The leftist incursion was an online myth.). It’s hard to see how mobs of intimidating whites bringing heavy-duty weapons to largely black protests against racism promotes a shared and communal experience of peace and safety, free speech and democratic engagement.

Look at the news reporting on various protest events over recent years and these kinds of white right-wingers are what one finds, but it rarely gets the same kind of attention or framed in the same way. It’s racist bias that is regularly seen in the news, such as how studies show black criminals are more likely to have their photographs shown on tv than white criminals, even as most crime is committed by whites. When there is a black gang violence in Chicago, it’s national news as part of an ongoing narrative of those kind of people in Chicago, despite violence in Chicago actually being low compared to other large cities — Chicago is far down on the list of violent cities with Beaumont and Houston in Texas having higher violent crime rates than Chicago (Andrew Schiller, NeighborhoodScout’s Most Dangerous Cities – 2020). Yet white biker gangs in Waco, Texas had a shoot out where 9 died, all charges were dropped against those involved, and it disappeared from national news and public memory as if it never happened. Then the next event in Chicago is obsessed over in the news cycle. Everyone knows that an equal number of weaponized blacks in similar military-style gear or gangster-like outfits as seen with these right-wing ‘concerned citizens’ would not get the same treatment by the media or by the police. Everyone knows this is true and it is the precise issue of racism motivating the protests that we can’t publicly, honestly, and fairly talk about as a society.

This is not anything new (Anti-Defamation League, Small But Vocal Array of Right Wing Extremists Appearing at Protests). Armed whites is pretty much the totality of American history going back long before the Klan, whether violence by militant groups, lone actors, or the police. There has been generations of homegrown terrorism from white right-wingers — besides the Klan and similar groups: kidnapping, attacks, and murder of family planning nurses and doctors, not to mention bombings and arson of clinics; Oklahoma City bombing, Charleston church shooting, Charlottesville car attack, and on and on. Even during the Bush administration when Republicans gained support for their War on Terror, two FBI reports specifically warned that terrorism was likely to come from U.S. citizens who were right-wing militants and veterans, as that has been the demographic of most terrorism in this country. In terms of numbers of groups and their membership, there is no equivalent history of violently radicalized left-wing groups. Even the Black Panthers, the most famous left-wing group, never came anywhere close to being as large, powerful, and violent as the Klan. And the most notorious left-wing terrorist group in the United States was the Weather Underground whose members strove to avoid harming life. Left-wing activists when violent have tended to target property, not lives. Right-wingers, on the other hand, haven’t always made a distinction between lives and property, sometimes going out of their way to intentionally target people so as to enact punishment, create terror, and set examples.

In general, white militant groups on the political right when not committing violence are often threatening it or implying such threat. Think of the Bundy gang and religious death cult that committed armed protest and revolt over many years, in having repeatedly challenged the Federal government in the hopes of forcing a firefight and becoming martyrs. This included the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff in Nevada where supporters pointed guns at federal agents, the 2015 armed conflict with the U.S. Veteran’s Administration in Priest River, Idaho, and the 2016 armed armed seizure of the federal building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. These altercations ended peacefully, but only because the police and federal agents treated these dangerous white people with kids’ gloves, in a way they never would have done for Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, or Arabs. Also, these aren’t minor events for major figures were involved such as the veteran and Republican D.C. politician Matt Shea who was charged with domestic terrorism in his direct involvement through militarily training some of the individuals for what he said was a Holy War, and yet Representative Shea remains in power.

This same pattern of white right-wing violence has been seen during the coronavirus pandemic, such as the terrorist plot by Timothy Wilson (Anti-Defamation League, White Supremacists Respond to Coronavirus With Violent Plots and Online Hate). The fact of the matter is that COVID-19 was more likely to infect and kill poor minorities and poor people in general, but it was whites, largely middle class, who protested the shutdowns (Coronavirus Protest Rallies Draw Extremists, Conservative Activists and Guns; & Boogaloo Supporters Animated By Lockdown Protests, Recent Incidents). Consider the white gunmen in bulletproof vests who occupied state capitols to demand the end of lockdowns. These were white people complaining about tyranny while, in one case, being given full cooperation from the government in their armed takeover of a government building. They acted tyranically in refusing to tolerate other viewpoints and, given the long and bloody history of right-wing terrorism, their actions of aggressive intimidation pose a real threat to democracy. They are demonstrating that, in being armed to the teeth, they are able and willing to fight against democratically-elected governments representing the people in order to get their way as a vocal and privileged group, even though the government is simply doing what most Americans want them to do as the shutdowns have been widely supported by the majority.

The white privilege flaunted on the public stage is mind-boggling. “This is the great irony, of course—that these men are enjoying a surfeit of justice, though they refuse to recognize it. It is impossible to imagine people of a different skin color angrily marching with military-style weapons and being treated with similar generosity by law enforcement. As Representative Rashida Tlaib noted on Twitter, “Black people get executed by police for just existing, while white people dressed like militia members carrying assault weapons are allowed to threaten State Legislators and staff” “ (Firmin DeBrabander, The Great Irony of America’s Armed Anti-Lockdown Protesters). “Unfortunately, while these armed protesters benefited from the rule of law, they unwittingly undermined it. For their demonstration certainly looked lawless—or made the rule of law seem absent, or tenuous at best. […] Whether they admit it or not, when these men carry military-style guns in protest, they send the message that they have occupied the public sphere, and that others are not really welcome. The public sphere is less public in that regard—and these protesters are fed up with a diversity of viewpoints. Armed protesters don’t want to deliberate or debate, or even tolerate the opposition. When they appear, democracy ends.”

Now the right-wing display of weaponry has increasingly shown up at the George Floyd protests against racist police brutality. As a counter-protest, one suspects that some of them are advocating racist police brutality and a more than a few have made their racism blunt. For certain, there is a movement of far right extremists hoping for race war, as they openly admit, and a number of them have been arrested for causing destruction and committing violence in the protests, including attempts to incite riots — for example, there are those loosely organized around the ‘Boogaloo’ meme (Jason Wilson, Protesters across US attacked by cars driven into crowds and men with guns; editorial staff, Right-wing extremist group ‘Boogaloo boys’ poses real threat during protests; Mehdi Hasan, How the Far-Right Boogaloo Movement Is Trying to Hijack Anti-Racist Protests for a Race War; & Clarence Page, While Trump blames antifa, a menacing far-right ‘boogaloo’ movement rises). There are also violent actors from more well organized groups such as the neo-Confederate bikers gang that is variously referred to as the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ (SCV), Mechanized Cavalry, or Mech Cav (SPLC, North Carolina Protest Shooting Suspect Appears To Have Ties to Organized Neo-Confederacy, Hate Groups). Claiming to be a Klan leader, Harry Rogers drove into a crowd of protesters. There are many other militant and militia groups with white membership that promote such right-wing extremism and violence.

In cities across the country, armed right-wingers showed up at protests in response to fake news created by fake social media accounts, including the right-wing group Evropa posing as antifa (Aaron Holmes, An ‘ANTIFA’ Twitter account that called for looting ‘white hoods’ was actually run by white nationalist group Identity Evropa). False rumors of “ANTIFA agitators” being bused in were spread on social media, including in the social media accounts of some Republican politicians, such as Senator Jennifer Fielder, along with President Donald Trump trying to get antifa officially listed as a terrorist group (Could you imagine the right-wing outrage if President Barack Obama had Tweeted that white militias were taking over the Tea Party protest movement and that they should be designated as a terrorist group?). Who believes this obvious bullshit, such blatant tactics of cynical divisiveness and attacks on democracy? It’s not clear who actually believes it, but it is known who is promoting it and it comes from respected officials. “QAnon theory builds on this, suggesting that all of it — the protests, the police reaction, the presence of antifa — has been preordained as part of a coming mass destruction. And QAnon isn’t just a niche conspiracy theory. Tweets from its proponents are regularly retweeted by the president. At least 50 current or former candidates for Congress, plus the Republican nominee for the US Senate in Oregon, are public QAnon supporters. And that doesn’t even include candidates running on the state or local level. As Adrienne LaFrance argued in the Atlantic, QAnon has become a religion, with clearly defined sides of good and evil, hungry for converts. The antifa fantasy functions similarly. Whether you’re in Lewiston, Idaho, or Klamath Falls, Oregon, it’s so, so easy to believe” (Anne Helen Petersen, How The Antifa Fantasy Spread In Small Towns Across The US).

The reports of antifa as a terrorist group have, of course, been greatly exaggerated. “The most important thing to understand about antifa is that there are very, very few of them: According to the Washington Post, when the group tried to gather nationally, they topped out at a few hundred” (Petersen). All that antifa means is anti-fascist and the boring reality is most people opposed to fascism aren’t seeking to provoke mass violence and revolution. If asked, the vast majority of Americans surely would agree that fascism is bad and should be opposed. “Anarchists and others accuse officials of trying to assign blame to extremists rather than accept the idea that millions of Americans from a variety of political backgrounds have been on the streets demanding change. Numerous experts also called the participation of extremist organizations overstated” (Neil MacFarquhar, Alan Feuer & Adam Goldman, Federal Arrests Show No Sign That Antifa Plotted Protests). So, it’s not clear why the vague label of ‘antifa’ been turned into a boogeyman. There aren’t likely many people who identify as antifa in any of the protests. “The Daily Beast also combed through the first 22 criminal complaints federal agents filed since May 31 that were related to the protests. None of them list antifa or anti-fascist ideology as being a motivating factor for the alleged crimes” (Sonam Sheth, The GOP’s claim that antifa is infiltrating George Floyd protests is a right-wing ‘bogeyman’ that bears all the hallmarks of a domestic disinformation campaign). Of these complaints, only 3 listed a specific political ideology claimed by the guilty party — one was anti-Trump, another anarchist, and a third involving several Boogalooers.

“Indeed, local officials in the state confirmed to the Post that not a single participant in the rallies was known to have defaced homes or storefronts in the name of antifa. […] Meanwhile, the FBI’s internal situation report which found “no intelligence” indicating antifa’s involvement in the May 31 protest violence did warn that people associated with a right-wing social media group had “called for far-right provocateurs to attack federal agents” and “use automatic weapons against protesters.” […] Politico also reported earlier this month that a Department of Homeland Security intelligence note warned law-enforcement officials that a white supremacist channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram encouraged its followers to incite violence to start a race war during the protests” (Sheth). “Actual cases of Antifa violence, however, have been few and in nearly all instances in response to violence or threats of violence from their opposition. Most accusations of its involvement in violence at protests around the country have proven unfounded. The FBI, for example, looked into Washington, D.C.-area violence last week and found “no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence.” “ (Randy Stapilus, The Antifa is coming! The Antifa is coming!).

As far as that goes, unlike some of these right-wing groups, antifa is not the name of a specific group, much less a national organization with fees and a membership roll. Research indicates that antifa, in intentionally being unorganized, mostly takes form as small groups in response to local events. There is no national system by which to organize, much less leaders to bus antifa around the country. “Antifa operates as a designation similar to the way someone might describe themselves as a punk rocker,” says Joan Donovan, a Harvard media expert (Nate Hegyi, Spurred By Debunked Antifa Rumors, Armed Men And Women Stand Watch Over Protests). It’s not clear who is antifa, since anyone can claim it; and those genuinely anti-authoritarian aren’t necessarilly attracted to clearly-defined group identities and organized movements. Heck, numerous fake antifa accounts were created by right-wing hate groups, specifically to promote conflict and create the false perception of a dangerous and well-organized antifa movement. “Twitter determined that a tweet promising antifa would “move into residential areas” and “white” neighborhoods was sent by the white supremacy group Identity Evropa. The tweet was shared hundreds of times and cited in online news articles before Twitter removed it, a company spokesperson said. Facebook, using information shared by Twitter, announced it also took down a handful of accounts on its platform that were created by white supremacy groups like Identity Evropa and American Guard, some of them posing as part of the antifa movement” (Associated Press, False Claims of Antifa Protesters Plague Small U.S. Cities). It turns out the only active antifa groups promoting riots, destruction, and violence are in actuality right-wing groups. If we eliminated all the right-wingers posing as antifa, there might not be much of an antifa left remaining.

“[T]he group the Trump administration has labeled a menace has mostly been nonexistent, experts and law enforcement officials say, and certainly has not been orchestrating what have been largely peaceful protests. Despite warnings of antifa incursions in scores of cities, there is no evidence linking outbursts of violence to an organized left-wing effort. And those associated with the autonomous groups that went up against far-right figureheads four years ago — and whose roots go back to earlier left-wing causes — say there is no such centralized organization. Federal and local arrest records in dozens of cities make virtually no mention of antifa. Law enforcement officials who had braced for the purported invasion of antifa militants in cities large and small now mostly acknowledge the threat has not appeared. […] The absence of antifa from protests roiling Berkeley — a crucible of left-wing activism — is a sign, Arreguín said, of the scale and possible significance of the protests. They are not driven by left-wing zealots, he said, but by multiracial and multigenerational crowds seeking a reckoning with systemic problems of racism and policing. […] The difference was expressed another way by Yvette Felarca, a Berkeley middle school teacher charged in 2017 with felony assault for allegedly punching a man with a neo-Nazi flag. (The assault charge was later dropped.) “Trump has turned everybody into antifascists,” Felarca said. “There’s no organization called ‘antifa.’ It was always just people prepared to take action against fascism. It turns out, that’s a lot of people.” (Isaac Stanley Becker, Scant evidence of antifa shows how sweeping the protests for racial justice have become).

It’s really bizarre. The paranoid mind will believe almost anything. If President Trump had told these white right-wingers that elephant agitators were going to invade from Mexico or be bused in by George Soros in order to take over the protests and trample their towns, he could make a small wealth from selling elephant repellent. The consequences of these conspiracy theories, however, are not a joke. The rumors of armies of antifa planning to destroy cities all over the United States were taken seriously, including by some rural Sheriffs (Ryan Burns, Sheriff Honsal Stands By ‘Antifa Bus’ Reports Despite Evidence That It Was All a Hoax). “The Associated Press has catalogued at least five separate rural counties where locals have warned of imminent attacks, although none of the rumors have been substantiated” (Russell Brandom, ‘Antifa bus’ hoaxes are spreading panic through small-town America). Sheriff of Curry County, Oregon called on local vigilantes to take action: “Without asking I am sure we have a lot of local boys too with guns that will protect our citizens and their property.”

That irresponsible fear-mongering online instantly elicited comments threatening violence (Nicole Blanchard & Ruth Brown, Police: No, antifa not sending ‘a plane load of their people’ to Idaho to incite riots) — one man was arrested because he made his intentions too clear when he stated on Twitter that he would “personally kill” any “antifa soldiers” (Isaac Stanley Becker, Scant evidence of antifa shows how sweeping the protests for racial justice have become). Later at the protests, in several cases, it did lead to serious altercations. Some of the armed white right-wingers haven’t merely threatened but acted out with violence. Roving gangs of armed white men have already started fights and attacked people in various protests. With fears of antifa, many protests have had a large influx of well-armed white people showing up to violently stop the left-wing violence that social media has told them is coming. Innocent people were caught in the crossfire, such as a mixed-race family traveling in a converted bus who were accused of being antifa and harassed to the point they feared for their lives (Peter Aitken, Washington family accused of being Antifa members, followed by armed citizens; & Deborah Hastings, Fake ‘Antifa’ Social Media Posts Incite Fear and Anger Across the Country). As in many other states, cities in Montana have had masses of white people with guns looking for trouble. In Missoula, this led to one black teen being chased down an alley where he was attacked by right-wing goons carrying AR-15s. They thought a young black kid riding a bicycle was suspicious and believed he was ‘antifa’ apparently because he was black.

It turns out this young black had lived most of his life in that town, but it makes no difference where he lived. Black people should be free to travel in the United States without fear of being attacked by the equivalent of the Klan. The sad irony of attacking an innocent black kid at a protest against racial violence was lost on these right-wing terrorists. “I feared for my life,” he told a reporter (Seaborn Larson, UPDATE: Teen: Armed group wanted ‘reason to hunt me down’), “I could have been killed or could have been taken out.” This self-appointed militia handed the boy over to the police and, after brief questioning, they released him as obviously not being a threat. He immediately called Quentin Robinson, an adult he trusted. “Robinson was not at the protest last week, but said the dynamic of armed white men surrounding an anti-racism protest reinforces the system in which white people are the de facto authority. […] The problem is on display when police do not pursue the men who conducted a citizens arrest of the teen for seemingly no reason.” Imagine if men who looked like black gangsters or a Black Panther militia attacked a white boy at a Tea Party protest and tried to hand him over to the same group of white policemen. One suspects it would have ended quite differently.

The greatest privilege of all is being oblivious to one’s privilege, to have one’s privilege taken for granted by you and everyone around you, including authority figures like the police. There have been some arrests when right-wing extremists undeniably go over the legal boundary, but otherwise they are allowed to menace citizens freely. The police have, in some instances, attacked peaceful protesters with no apparent reason or provocation or sometimes have beat on innocent bystanders such as old man who couldn’t move out of the way quickly enough. Such attacks don’t seem to happen to armed right-wingers. Why not? Is it that police only attack innocent citizens when they are unarmed? Or is the main factor the color of one’s skin? Maybe it’s the combination of the two, some magical power that is formed from white skin touching the metal on a gun. In that case, could we stop police brutality by carefully placing in key locations white people with guns who are allies with minorities? If that is all it takes, we should have taken this simple step years ago.

The beauty of paranoid fantasies is that they are non-falsifiable because they create reality and enforce their own truth. The fantasy of violence works if violence does erupt as a self-fulfilling prophecy or if it doesn’t in that one becomes a hero in claiming to have prevented it. But that they are fantasies is the main point, fantasies as melodramatic spectacles on the public stage (Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals; & The Fantasy of Creative Destruction). They create a narrative of self-importance with little personal cost or consequence. That no buses full of antifa is likely to show up is the whole point. Most of these right-wingers want to keep it a fantasy that can be repeated. “The Idaho Public Television journalist Melissa Davlin tweeted on Tuesday: “After searching, I saw a number of bots posting about Antifa heading to (Coeur d’Alene), which spurred the armed people to ‘protect’ downtown. Antifa never showed, and now the armed people are claiming victory. Meanwhile, a few bots are still posting that CdA is under siege from Antifa.” “ (Stapilus). So, even in self-perceived right-wing victory, the bots of the social media machine go pumping along, mindlessly spewing their hateful conspiracy theories and fearful visions of destruction.

“Militia members get to plan, anticipate, and enact the idea at the foundation of their existence. And they get to do it in a way that positions them as “the good guys,” fighting a cowardly bogeyman easily vanquished by show of force alone. As a popular meme circulating in North Idaho put it, “Remember that time when Antifa said they were coming to Coeur d’Alene / And everyone grabbed their guns and they didn’t come? That was awesome!” It doesn’t matter if antifa was never coming in the first place. They didn’t come, and that’s evidence of victory. And that victory can then be leveraged into further action — and a means to extend the fantasy. On the Montana Militia page, a man named Tom Allen, whose home is listed on Facebook as Wibaux, Montana, posted that he’d spent the night in Dickenson, North Dakota, “protecting” the veterans monument during a planned protest. A group of bikers showed up to guard the nearby mall, protecting “all of Antifa’s usual targets.” There was no incident” (Petersen).

These are staged events orchestrated by whichever puppet masters are writing the scripts and programming the bots. These ordinary white right-wingers are willing puppets, as long as they get to be in the leading role. The protests that were in response to the racist maltreatment of blacks can be reframed once again about the heroic victimhood of whites. And like some of the white police officers who brutally kill blacks, these self-styled white vigilantes get to feel powerful in carrying their guns and demonstrating their racial privilege. Meanwhile, the police go on shooting black men and boys for carrying cellphones, candy, or nothing at all — in the racist suspicion that they might be carrying a gun and so must be put down for the good of the community or simply because the officer felt ‘threatened’. Even a black person running away in terror for their life is considered by some cops as justifiable cause for being gunned down. One of the other white privileges is getting to choose your own narrative, rather than having someone with power impose their narrative upon you.

“Look, every advancement toward equality has come with the spilling of blood. Then, when that’s over, a defensiveness from the group that had been doing the oppressing. There’s always this begrudging sense that black people are being granted something, when it’s white people’s lack of being able to live up to the defining words of the birth of the country that is the problem. There’s a lack of recognition of the difference in our system. Chris Rock used to do a great bit: ‘‘No white person wants to change places with a black person. They don’t even want to exchange places with me, and I’m rich.’’ It’s true. There’s not a white person out there who would want to be treated like even a successful black person in this country. And if we don’t address the why of that treatment, the how is just window dressing. You know, we’re in a bizarre time of quarantine. White people lasted six weeks and then stormed a state building with rifles, shouting: ‘‘Give me liberty! This is causing economic distress! I’m not going to wear a mask, because that’s tyranny!’’ That’s six weeks versus 400 years of quarantining a race of people. The policing is an issue, but it’s the least of it. We use the police as surrogates to quarantine these racial and economic inequalities so that we don’t have to deal with them.”
~Jon Stewart, NYT interview by David Marchese (June 15, 2020)

Fearful Cops and Gun Culture

What should I absolutely not do when visiting the USA?

Don’t get out of your car if you get pulled over by police.
by Charlie Knoles
(I have lived in 5 countries and am an Aussie expat in the USA.)

I was pulled over by a police officer while driving in Iowa. It was one week after I had arrived in the USA for the first time. I had accidentally made a minor mistake disobeying a traffic sign. Back home in Australia it’s considered polite to get out of your car and walk over to the police officer’s car and hand him your license* so he doesn’t have to get out of his seat. I wanted to be extra polite so I immediately jumped out of my car and walked towards his car while reaching into my back pocket.

I’m lucky to be alive.

If you come from a gun-free country like the UK or Australia you don’t have any natural instinct for gun culture. You don’t realize that police assume that everyone is armed.

Things got immediately serious. The police officer’s hand went to his weapon and I responded by dropping to my knees with my hands up. He yelled a bunch of things at me but my memory is vague because my heartbeat was suddenly pulsing in my ears blotting out all sound. I don’t know if he drew his weapon or not. I was staring intently at the ground, shaking and trying to project non-threatening vibes. My next memory is that there were three police cars around me and a bunch of cops who’d been called for backup. They were all keeping their hands close to their guns. After some time passed (a minute? 30 minutes? I have no idea) the tensions de-escalated and they told me to get up. I gave the officer my license and tried to explain why I’d approached him. It was completely incomprehensible to him that there was a place where people don’t fear cops and vice versa at traffic stops. It was as though I was trying to tell him that I came from Narnia and our cops were all talking animals.

I’ve spoken to several British people, New Zealanders, and Australians who have shared almost identical stories. They really need to put signs up in all major US airports.

Don’t get out of your car if stopped by police. They will assume you are armed and they might shoot you.

by Bill Null

As the country has gotten safer the police have become more aggressive. It’s now at the point where you are far more likely to die by interacting with a police officer than they are to die by interacting with you.

In 2015, out of the 980,000 police employed nation wide, there were 26 recorded cases of homicide against a police officer, 4 of which occurred during a traffic stop. By contrast, 1093 people were killed in the same year; more than half of which didn’t have a firearm, and 170 were completely unarmed at the time.

Policing in the US has never really been a dangerous job, at least not in comparison to other outdoor occupations. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the job of police and sheriff’s deputy as the 16th most dangerous job, right below grounds maintenance workers. That figure however, includes all officer related fatalities, including traffic and health related incidents. If you compare on-the-job injury rates, the numbers aren’t much higher.

Paranoiacs With Guns: Violence and More Violence

I was contemplating the irrationality of violence. People turn to violence out of a desire for safety. Yet violence in the end makes the world a less safe place for everyone, not just for the supposed bad guys.

I can’t stop thinking about one piece of data. The US doesn’t have the highest rates of all kinds of crimes, compared to other similar countries. What makes the US crime rates stand out is that for Americans crime is more likely to involve violence and so more likely to result in injury and death. Why is that the case?

It occurred to me that criminals are more violent because our society unintentionally incentivizes violence. We have a heavily armed population who are trigger-happy. It isn’t always clear who is and isn’t a criminal. You only know a criminal after they commit the crime. Americans are a paranoid people, seeing criminals everywhere. Cops regularly shoot people who they mistakenly thought had guns. So do regular citizens. To a paranoid mind, a bag of skittles or a cell phone looks like a possible weapon.

The criminal is also in a paranoid state. Knowing so many people carry guns, the criminal isn’t going to mess around. He is more likely to shoot someone, if he has even the slightest reason to think the victim might pull a gun. Also, because our criminal system is so harsh in its punishment, the criminal is more likely to kill all witnesses to decrease the probability of going to prison. Our desire to protect ourselves from bad guys backfires and creates a less safe world.

Even mass incarceration just makes everyone worse. It has been convincingly argued that prisons have become schools for criminals where people come out the other side more dangerous than when they went in. Incarceration destroys lives, destroys families, destroys communities, destroys social capital. It makes our society worse in every possible way. We are surrounded by people who are the victims of our demented compulsion to punish at all costs. Some data shows that at least 6% of people in prison are entirely innocent of all crimes charged against them. Over the past few decades, that would amount to millions of Americans who have been falsely imprisoned and had their entire lives destroyed for no reason. These are the walking wounded, the desperate and hopeless, the victims of a society that betrayed them.

On a larger scale, our entire society has become militarized as our country increasingly has embraced its role as a police state and a military empire. The US has become the militarized policemen of the world. The Cold War, the War On Poverty, the War On Drugs, the War On Terror, all of these first and foremost have been wars on people which includes American citizens. We’ve made our country and the entire world into a war zone.

In lowering the standards for recruitment, the military allowed people with criminal records into service. This unintentionally led to the military training of criminals who in many cases were gang members. So, the gangs in this country became militarized, using military tactics and military weapons against both other gangs and the police. At the same time, the police have militarized and our country is beginning to feel like a military occupation with police who look like soldiers, with guns being pointed at innocent citizens, and with military vehicles on American streets.

This creates a state of fear and paranoia. From right-wingers to minorities, people are arming themselves as the society becomes increasingly dangerous. American citizens aren’t sure who to trust anymore. Not even the police seem to be entirely on our side. If we can’t trust the police, as minorities and the poor understand all too well, then the only other choice is to defend oneself, to defend one’s family and community. Americans have started forming militias and are training in preparation. Even gangs in many ways are simply the poor person’s militia.

In our paranoia, we’ve projected our violent behavior onto the entire global society. In acting like Big Brother, we’ve simply become yet another authoritarian bully. All of the US war crimes and atrocities make us less safe as a country. These include: wars of aggression, long-lasting occupations, assassinations, overthrowing democratic governments, arming and training militant groups, mass bombings and drone strikes that kill innocent people (often women and children), funding Israeli’s genocide of Palestinians, allying with authoritarian governments in the Middle East and Latin America, and on and on.

As many have pointed out, the 9/11 attack was blowback from all that our government has done. When we do horrible things to others, they feel motivated to return the favor. It becomes a vicious cycle of violence. It creates and entire mentality and reality tunnel where everything is seen through the lense of violence and where violence is seen as the solution to all problems.

This is social dysfunction brought to its extreme. It is a vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy of self-destruction.

Sweeping Social Problems Under the Rug

Why do some people think that laws, the police, and prisons can be the solution to almost everything? Why do some people think that banning and criminalizing a problematic behavior will solve the problem and banning something will make it go away?

Sometimes such a response is the only one available.

Child abuse is an obvious example. But, even in that case, it would be better to spend money on preventing child abuse by breaking the victimization cycle than merely to imprison child abusers after the fact. We don’t want to decriminalize child abuse. Still, that doesn’t mean prison is the only answer.

Slavery is another example. It is a good thing we legally abolished slavery. But we have to be honest with ourselves by its effectiveness. There still remains a large and widespread slave trade in the world. According to some data, there are more slaves today than existed in the past. Slavery is still even occasionally discovered in the United States, typically involving those at the edge of society who are afraid of trying to escape and contact authorities.

There are other examples that are even more obvious failures.

Prohibition didn’t eliminate alcoholic consumption and alcoholism. If anything, it caused it to grow worse and added mass gang violence to the mix. Illegalizing prostitution hasn’t closed down that market. I don’t know that prostitution has increased, but I doubt it has decreased because of its illegal status. The War on Drugs is the clearest example of failure, maybe worse than Prohibition because it has lasted so much longer. Drug use and addiction is higher than it has ever been, even as more people are in prison for selling and using drugs.

On the other hand, some countries have successfully used a combination of legalization and decriminalization. Instead of sending people to prison for being addicted to drugs, they send them to drug rehabilitation. These countries probably also have better public healthcare, especially mental healthcare, than the United States has. They seek to deal with the problem at its root, and at least in some cases they’ve actually decreased drug use and addiction.

In a country like the United States, trying to ban all guns probably would be about as effective. It is better to keep such things as drugs and guns on the legal market. That way, there can be more oversight, transparency, regulation, and control.

When something is on the black market, it may be a libertarian fantasy of an unregulated market, but it rarely leads to positive results for the larger society. Drugs on the black market can be dangerous because a person doesn’t actually know what they are buying. Guns on the black market get easily sold to criminals, gangs, cartels, terrorists, etc. The trick is to make the legal market more profitable and attractive than doing business on the black market. Black markets often form when the legal market fails.

So, why do conservatives think that banning abortions will end all or most abortions? They would have a reasonable argument if that was the case. However, the data doesn’t show that abortion bans leads to a decrease and sometimes it leads to an increase, just like with drug use.

Conservatives will point to conservative states that have decreased their rate of legal abortions. That is simply because they’ve forced women’s clinics that do abortions. No one is keeping the data on how many women in those states go to other states to get abortions, how many go on the black market, and how many try to do it themselves.

Making abortions illegal does decrease the rate of legal abortions, but going by the country comparisons it appears simultaneously increases the rate of illegal abortions. This is common sense, and conservatives claim to love common sense. If conservatives actually care about saving the lives from “baby-killers”, then the last thing conservatives should want to do is push abortions onto the black market and to have women trying to give themselves abortions with coathangers. It doesn’t just likely increase the abortion rate, but also the dangers involved. Women die because of botched abortions. Sometimes, even when the woman isn’t harmed, botched abortions still lead to birth where the baby is deformed or has brain damage.

Who would argue the War on Drugs is successful because the rate of legal recreational drug use has decreased, even as the illegal recreational drug use has increased? As we now fill prisons full of non-violent drug users, are we going to start to fill prisons also with women who seek abortions?

Sweeping problems under the rug doesn’t solve the problem or make it go away.

Armed Americans Are the Greatest Threat to Americans

Americans are more likely to be killed by other Americans with guns than by all of our enemies across all of history combined.

That is a mind-blowing fact. It puts the issue in perspective. It also makes one wonder what people mean by guns making them feel ‘safe’. It certainly doesn’t make Americans on the other side of that gun safe. Nor does it make for a safer society, as compared to other countries.

This can be taken as a direct criticism of guns or not. I take it as a criticism of our gun-obsessed and violence-obsessed culture. There are other countries with as or higher rates of gun ownership and yet lower rates of gun homicide. Likewise, other countries don’t necessarily have less crime, just less crime that leads to homicide. It’s bad enough being robbed or raped, but being killed afterward is far worse.

In America, life is cheap.

The Riddle of Culture

Sam Harris has a fairly good article about the gun control debate, The Riddle of the Gun.

My own position is more or less similar. Like Harris and like most Americans, I’m for the right to own guns within reasonable limits such as basic gun regulation. I suspect that most liberals would agree with this, even if this gets distorted because liberals end up reacting to the right-wing extremists.

Harris apparently doesn’t see it this way. He thinks that the so-called liberal media represents the average liberal, but my sense is that the ‘liberal’ elite might be as far away from the average liberal as they are from those on the right. I think the position Harris is taking, not unlike that of Jonathan Haidt, is motivated by a desire to create an appearance of credibility by criticizing his fellow liberals. The problem, though, is that those like Harris and Haidt are just more liberal elites, maybe no less clueless than any other liberal elite when it comes to understanding most liberals.

The culture wars are the central problem to my mind, although not because of the wars part but because of the culture part. I’d rather have a culture discussion than a culture war. It would be much more fruitful. This is the other challenge that Harris fails to meet. Despite my mostly agreeing, I want more from an analysis than what Harris offers. His article lacks subtler nuance and depth of insight.

The issue of culture is something that I’ve been obsessing over the past few years. In an earlier post about gun regulation, I did touch upon the deeper problems involved… but my thoughts have continued to develop such as considering moreso the importance of regional data on violence. The key to connect it all is culture.

Harris sticks to the standard narrative. He wants to bring the discussion more to the data itself with which I agree. However, there is a lot of relevant data that rarely gets discussed and certainly Harris doesn’t venture very far into the vast array of interesting data.

Most of the time, the type of data discussed is limited to generalized national data. Sometimes the distinction of rural and urban violent rates will be brought up, but usually just to reinforce stereotypes about urban blacks. This data, however, is complicated by other data.

It is true that urban areas on average have more violent crime, including with guns, than rural areas on average. What isn’t true is that this is equal for all regions. In fact, the  opposite is true in the South. The rural South has more violent crime than the urban South. The rural South has more violent crime than the urban North, more crime than the rural North, and actually more violent crime than any other region in the country.

Two other factors relate to types of violence. One factor is that you’re not necessarily less likely to experience violence in rural areas. Rather, you’re more likely to experience violence from someone you know instead of from a stranger (this includes a high rate of ‘accidental’ deaths and a high rate of self-inflicted violence, i.e., suicides). Another factor is that there typically is an inverse relationship between homicide rates and suicide rates, but in the rural South both are high.

All of this is quite significant considering that gun regulation is the weakest in the South and gun ownership is the highest in the South. This data punctures the argument that higher rates of gun ownership have no correlation to higher rates of gun violence. Even so, the correlation may not be direct. My own view is that they both are connected through culture.

So, I’m not blaming guns in and of themselves. What I am blaming (as others have noted) is the gun culture that is prevalent in America, specifically the romanticizing of violence and the pushing of military-style tactical gear. More importantly, I’m laying responsibility upon the culture of the rural South which is a culture of honor that has a long history of weak government and vigilante justice (think of the Hatfield-McCoy feud). This is seen in exaggerated form on the borderland of Kentucky and Tennessee where, following the Civil War, the violence was ten times the national average.

Interestingly, it isn’t just those on the left making this argument. Thomas Sowell, the popular black conservative, wrote an essay about culture, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals”. I haven’t read that essay, but I’ve read a number of reviews about it and aspects of it seem to hit upon an element of truth. Is it mere coincidence that black culture also came from the South?

This isn’t about blaming a region for all problems. My impulse is to seek understanding. What specifically might be the common factor between rural white culture from the South and urban black culture from the South? It’s not just an issue of the South as if a direction on a compass magically conveys an essence upon people. It’s certainly not to make a blanket judgment. What I want is to get at the root cause(s), the fundamental motivation behind diverse behaviors.

I’m less interested in knowing what motivates people to want to own guns and more interest in what motivates people to be prone to using guns and to being violent. Why is it the exact demographics that are the most violent are also the demographics most antagonistic toward the government? I don’t know about the urban black culture in the North, but I do know the rural white culture in the South believes that people should take care of their own problems. Similarly, what is the correlation to the Republican Party in terms of how the rates of violence consistently increase after a Republican administration takes office?

Of course, these two specific demographics have some good reasons for feeling antagonistic toward authority. Blacks have been one of the most oppressed groups in American history. Poor whites in the rural South haven’t experienced much privilege either. These are all people that have had to fight for their own way in the world, rarely with any help from those in authority. The problem for the gun regulation issue is that such demographics become pawns for the fight between elites.

I don’t think cultures are inevitably dysfunctional on their own terms, although sometimes that might be the case. This seeming dysfunction is a response to larger dysfunctions in society. The Scots-Irish are a good example of this. They have been pawns in America and in the past they were pawns in Britain. Their culture became so prone to violence because they found themselves amidst violence. In the victimization cycle, violence endlessly begets violence.

I don’t want to scapegoat this group or that. From my perspective, that would be avoiding the real issues that are much more profound and pervasive. The individual cultures manifest particular symptoms, but dealing with the symptoms won’t help in the long-term. There are different levels of culture. How do we dig down to the root level?

Gun Violence & Regulation (Data, Analysis, Rhetoric)

“But I actually want to address his first point because it is so profoundly stupid. Why should we criminalize anything because the criminals are going to ignore the law anyway? Think about that in other contexts. Why should we criminalize murder or rape because people are going to kill and rape anyway? But wait a minute. Then, one of the reasons to criminalize it is so we can prosecute them.”
~ Cenk Uygur

I should preface this entire blog post with the delaration that I, like Cenk Uygur, am a liberal who supports gun rights and yet frames these rights within their corollary of social responsibility. I don’t know that regulation is good, but regulation does seem unavoidable in its necessity… given human nature and the state of modern civilization. Everything in this blog follows from that understanding. My biases are entirely out in the open and they aren’t above being questioned.

(By the way, if you’re interested in seeing the material I posted in direct response to the Tuscon shooting, see my other post here.)

– – –

The data about guns and violence is complex and difficult to analyze, but for argument’s sake let’s assume we could make a clear conclusion that gun regulation was effective (an argument that is confirmed by at least some of the data). Assuming this, how many gun advocates would change their minds? Probably very few. Gun advocates who argue against all regulation are a minority. If being for gun regulation is liberal, then most Americans are liberal (well, most Americans are liberal on many if not most issues: US Demographics & Increasing ProgressivismPublic Opinion on Tax Cuts for the Rich85% Oppose Cutting Social Security (Poll), Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info), and Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life).

My frustration is that the far right gun advocates want to portray the debate as an issue of banning all guns. They do the same thing with other issues as well: banning all drugs or legalizing all drugs, banning all abortions or legalizing all abortions, et cetera. There is no middle ground in this black and white worldview.

This would appear to be a dishonest debating tactic, but it feels honest to many who see the issue this way. They truly believe in their worldview. As they see it, the gun violence issue isn’t the central issue. They perceive their right to own and carry guns as an inalienable right. Even the most basic regulation ensuring public safety is an infringement and is perceived as an erosion of gun rights that will inevitably lead to banning all guns. If those with a record of crime, violence, or insanity can’t legally buy guns, these people fear that the state will begin to label all gun advocates as violent and insane criminals. They fear the govt, they fear liberals, they fear everything. In a world where everything is a potential threat, they have to be able to defend themselves. Anything outside of their paranoid fantasy is meaningless to them. Yes, this view is only held by far right extremists and that is the problem as these people usually dominate any discussion.

It’s fine that these people have their own worldview. I don’t hold that against them per se. But I do hold it against them that their worldview is forced onto the entire country. These far right gun advocates have immense influence because the NRA and gun corporations have immense amount of wealth and large numbers of lobbyists. They’ve been so effective at controlling the narrative that they’ve even persuaded the moderate majority. If you ask many gun owners, they’ll give you an inconsistent response. Most of them support reasonable regulation, but whenever the gun advocacy narrative is brought up (which is often in the media) they will have a knee-jerk response of saying they’re against ‘regulation’ interpreting it as a codeword for banning guns. This is the power of a narrative. This is also how conservatives have won the health care reform debate. If you ask Americans, most support health care reform (specifically ideas such as public option or single payer). But if you frame the debate with push-polling questions, most Americans say they are against health care reform (against Obamacare, against Government controlled health care, et cetera).

The problem is that minority of far right gun advocates and the majority of average regulation advocates aren’t even talking about the same thing. There is a middle ground that rarely gets discussed and when it gets discssed it is framed as being far left. We can have gun ownership legalized, we can have even have more people owning more guns. None of that contradicts having more effective regulation. I’m fine with someone having a houseful of guns within reasonable limits… just as long as they don’t have a record of crime, violence, and/or insanity… just as long as certain weapons are banned such as machine guns, grenade launchers, bazookas, flame throwers, etc. The thing is that most Americans agree with me, but finding agreement in public debate is so difficult because the rhetoric used to frame the debate just muddies the water, inflames emotions, and polarizes opinions. The results of this rhetoric that we see in the media and in politics doesn’t correspond to what most people think and believe. Research shows that, for example, politicians in Washington are more polarized in their positions than are the American public that they supposedly represent. How can a democracy function when minority groups control all aspects of political debate and policymaking?

The debate isn’t about banning all weapons versus legalizing all weapons. The debate isn’t even about ‘strong’ regulation versus ‘weak’ regulation. Most Americans want to have the right to own guns and to have reasonable regulation to ensure public safety. So, the only worthwhile debate is what kind of regulation is effective. We can have few regulations if those regulations are effective and if they are enforced consistently. On the other hand, having lots of ‘strong’ regulations would be meaningless if they are badly designed and/or aren’t enforced. I’ve presented the real debate here in this post. So, why is this real debate so rarely heard in the media? Or why, when heard in the media, is this real debate so easily derailed by rhetoric? Who benefits by not having a real debate? That is obvious: those who make a lot of money off of guns (meaning the gun makers and sellers including the lobbyists and politicians who work for them).

To be fair, sometimes real debate does happen in the mainstream media and sometimes a rightwing gun advocate will openly speak about regulation:

A further problem is that the complex data on guns is in the context of even more complex data about violence in general. Many people will point out that the rates of violence have been decreasing since the 1980s, but that misses the point that our present ‘low’ rates are still massively higher than the rates of violence in the 1960s. In fact, our present ‘low’ rates of violence are about the same as the high rates of violence during Prohibition.

Also, research shows that the recent decrease of violence is largely caused by factors that have nothing to do with gun regulation or tough-on-crime policies.

These other factors are conveniently ignored or dismissed by gun advocates and other conservatives because it supports a liberal vision of society. Thom Hartmann recently discussed the correlation between violence and income inequality which I’ve discussed in the past.

I noticed this blog post which I could connect into the issue of inequality:

Various people have tried to resolve this issue over the years, with little success. When the Brady list came out recently, blogger Jay Tea noted that some states with strict gun laws (such as California) actually had higher rates of gun death, while some states with looser laws (such as Utah) had much lower rates. (The “rates” are gun homicides per 100,000 people, and not total deaths. This allows us to compare large states and small states fairly.)

However, Mr. Tea failed to note that the reverse is also true — that there are also states with strict laws that have low rates of gun violence, and states with loose laws that have high rates.

So, which is it: do gun controls make you safer, or put you in more danger?

The author of that blog makes the point that no clear causal relationship can be ascertained proving the benefit of either pro-gun or pro-regulation. However, he was leaving out the data about inequality. Compare (look below) the maps of inequality and poverty to the maps of gun deaths and permits… and notice the fairly consistent georgraphic patterns. Utah has one of the lowest income inequalities in the country and California (like much of the Southern US) has high income inequality. According to The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett, Utah has one of the best ratings in the US in terms of the index of health and social problems (in the Top 10). California is much worse than Utah, but California looks fairly good on many standards when compared to the strongly conservative states in the Southwest and Deep South.

I was initially confused why the above quote mentions California as having higher rates of gun death because one of the maps below shows California gun deaths to be lower per capita. The article that the gun deaths map below comes from explains the differences of data: “The map above charts firearm deaths for the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Note that these figures include accidental shootings, suicides, even acts of self-defense, as well as crimes.” (By the way, data shows a reverse correlation between murder and suicide; in any given society, people will be more likely to either kill themselves or kill others but not usually both in equal rates; so, combining both murder and suicide rates is possibly a more accurate way of making comparisons of overall violence.) The above quote is only referring to the data on homicides (which seems to imply that California has extremely low rates of non-homicidal gun deaths). Anyway, including or excluding California, the pattern still holds with most of the states with a few possible anomalies such as Nevada.

Gross Domestic Product by Industry

% in Poverty Income Map


Here is an interesting diagram showing some correlated factors:

It’s obvious the US has a violent culture when looking at the bigger picture of comparisons between countries, although it’s also clear that certain regions of the US are more violent than others. This violence can’t be directly blamed on guns, but it can’t be denied that our worship of guns (along with general glorification of violence in the media) plays a part. The more violent society gets the more people buy guns. And the more gun laws are loosened the more shooting rampages occur. It’s a vicious cycle that will continue as long as we ignore the fundamental causes. One of these causes is the economic disparity which correlates to an increase of social problems such as violent crime and an increase of social mistrust. Research shows that this type of conflict-ridden atmosphere predisposes people toward more a more conservative and even authoritarian worldview.

So, those in favor of conservative and/or authoritarian policies have an incentive to encourage such social conflict and violence. Those who make money off of the gun industry and the military-industrial comple have a vested interest to encourage this culture of violence. The increasing economic disparity isn’t an accident but is the result of specific political agendas. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy, but I am saying people tend to act in their own interests. When a minority gains most of the power, they will tend to create a world that conforms to their personal biases.

Here is a further problem. We can only clearly ascertain the correlations between violence and inequality by making comparisons, but I found certain comparisons being dismissed by gun advocates:

Concomitantly, the U.S. should be compared not to Western Europe but to other high-murder-rate nations such as Russia. There, severe and severely-enforced gun bans applied to a largely unarmed population succeeded in virtually eliminating gun murders — so other weapons were substituted. In only four of the 35 years 1965-99 was Russia’s murder rate (barely) lower than ours, while in another 10 the rates were almost identical. But in 21 years the Russian rate was higher, and in seven the Russian rate was more than twice the U.S. Today it is almost four times higher.

When gun control advocates argue for banning or severely restricting gun ownership, the comparisons drawn are usually the United States vs. Britain, Canada, or Japan. The argument presented is that availability of guns causes high crime rates. Occasionally, similar comparisons are made with different American states — though usually such comparisons are made by their opponents, since state by state murder rate comparisons can be used (just as inaccurately) to “prove” that gun control laws increase crime rates.

That comparisons of such widely differing nations, cultures, and legal systems as Japan, Britain, and the United States are absurd should be obvious. But even ignoring these obvious differences, there is plenty of evidence that such comparisons are ignoring significant factors besides firearms availability. As an example, compare American and British rape rates. Unlike murder, rape seldom involves a gun. While 62% of murders in the U.S. in 1981 involved a firearm, only 7% of rapes did so. [1] Therefore, if crime rates in the U.S. and Britain can be fairly compared, we should find that British rape rates were equal to U.S. rape rates, minus the 7% of U.S. rapes committed with guns.

The 1984 British Crime Survey reported 2,288 rapes in England and Wales — an area with a population of 49 million people! This gives 4.67 rapes per 100,000 people. [2] By comparison, America’s rape rate for 1987 was 73 per 100,000 females [3] , or 36.5 per 100,000 people. Subtracting the 7% of U.S. rapes that are committed with firearms gives 34 rapes per 100,000 people — far higher than Britain’s rate. Britain’s very low rape rate must be more than just the absence of firearms — much more.

Similarly, there were 662 murders in England and Wales in 1984 [4] . This gives 1.35 murders per 100,000 people. The U.S. murder rate in 1987 was 8.3 per 100,000 people [5] . Even if we assume that:

1. In the absence of firearms, not a single murderer using a firearm in the U.S. would have used another weapon to commit murder (very unlikely);

2. further assuming that not a single privately owned firearm was used to prevent a murder from happening in the U.S. (very unlikely);

3. assuming that not a single murder in Britain involved a firearm (not true);

subtracting out the 59% of murders committed with firearms in the U.S. in 1987 [6] still gives a rate of 3.4 per 100,000 – – two and a half times higher than Britain. How valid is it to compare British and U.S. murder rates?

We shouldn’t make comparisons with countries that are better than the US based on a wide variety of data because such comparisons would be ‘unfair’. Give me a break! That is the whole point. These countries don’t have the problems the US has and so we should look to why those countries succeed where the US fails. Of course, such data would undermine the rightwing arguments. It’s just ‘unfair’ that reality has a liberal bias.

Another correlation can be made with the military. It’s conservative policies (which are supported by most Republican politicians and many conservative Democrats as well) that have been the major factor behind the rising inequality. And it’s conservative ideology that has always presented the Military-Industrial Complex as a patriotic institution that must be promoted no matter the cost (in lives or taxes). The far left has always been against these things, but you rarely see leftwingers in mainstream media and mainstream politics (a rare exception being Bernie Sanders).

So, besides the problems of inequality, what are some of the other problems of the culture of violence? The most obvious result is the growth of the Military-Industrial Complex, the militarization of the police, a failing War on Drugs, the highest per capita prison population in the world, and the creation of a system of powerful gangs, cartels, and smugglers. Here is an example of how this plays out in the real world:

My complaint of the rightwing vision of society is that it can end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Maybe I’m being unfair to conservatives. However, my criticisms are mostly limited to the far right. My criticisms only seem to apply to all conservatives because the far right has come to dominate and define conservatism. Nonetheless, the data I’ve seen shows that even most NRA members and most gun owners support gun regulation.

Here is a major confusion to this debate.

The liberal/conservative divide is often a urban/rural divide. This is particularly clear with the gun issue. Research shows that when you have highly concentrated populations violence tends to increase… no matter what laws and regulations are in place. Conservatives will point out that liberal urban areas have high crime rates, but the liberalism doesn’t cause the crime rates. Liberalism and crime rates are both caused (or contributed to) by concentrated populations (or, at least, there is some kind of correlation, causal or not). An example of this is research showing that people who grow up around diverse cultures (i.e., urban areas) tend to be more socially liberal as adults (I’ve seen this research a number of times but I was unable to locate it; I think I might have included it in a previous blog). More importantly, the liberal desire for gun regulation is in response to gun violence and not the cause of it. Highly concentrated populations with high economic disparity will inevitably have high rates of violence. It makes no sense to blame the solution as the cause. Gun regulation is desired when gun violence is out of control. It’s like blaming Progressivism for causing the Robber Barons.

Part of the confusion comes from comparing states without controlling for all variables.

Conservative states tend to be more rural and rural regions tend to have less gun crimes or less reported gun crimes (although it should be pointed out that rural areas have equal rates of gun deaths as urban areas, but they tend to be different kinds of gun deaths: suicides, ‘accidents’, et cetera). Liberal states tend to be more urban and urban areas in general tend to have higher rates of gun violence. So, there is an urban/rural divide when it comes to gun regulation. However, if we just compare urban areas in liberal states to urban areas in conservative states, liberal urban areas (which tend to have comprehensive gun regulation) have lower rates of gun violence. I assume this has to do with liberal urban areas tending to have lower income inequality than conservative rural areas.

A related factor is that rural conservative states with loose gun laws often are the source of illegal or unregulated gun purchases that are behind the large number of unregistered guns in urban liberal states. An example is that many unregistered guns in Chicago come from Indiana.

Gun advocates will sometimes point out that the data is complex. If they can’t prove their own preferred conclusions based on the data, they’ll claim that no conclusions at all can be made. So, they think we should just throw out all the data and go back to first principles (which reminds me of two previous posts: Conservative Mistrust & Ideological Certainty (part 1) and (part 2)). They assume their own ideology is the default position. They argue that the data and analysis is just a distraction from our Second Amendment rights. This simpleminded view misses the point that even the Second Amendment is complex. There is no refuge for the simpleminded. The complex can be denied by embracing ignorance and ideology, but that doesn’t make the complexities go away.

Let’s look at the entire wording of the Second Amendment:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The first few words clarifies the original intention of the founders. First, they realized it was the role of the government to regulate guns. Second, they supported a militia because they were originally against having a standing army. Combined together, they wanted a “well regulated Militia” meaning they realized having unregulated militias and unregulated gun use was dangerous. The founders did worry about an oppressive government and so so a well regulated militia serving the role of protecting the population from abuse of power, but the founders also worried about populist revolt. They didn’t want what happened to the French to happen to them. They were the business and intellectual elite of their day. If a populist revolt were to happen, they knew they’d be among the first targets of violence. For this reason, they made sure to clarify that regulation was centrally important, i.e., law and order. The founders were far from being radical gun rights advocates.

Obviously, we no longer live in the world the founders lived in. Even the founders had to backtrack on their dislike of a standing army. It was in their lifetime that a standing army was created and has existed ever since. However, if were to go by their original wording and intentions, we should immediately dismantle the entire military and create a “well regulated Militia”. What this would mean is that those who are trained militia members would have the right and responsibility to own a gun and these militias would be under the authority of (i.e., regulated by) the government (both state and federal).

The Second Amendment, however, doesn’t inherently give the right for every person to carry any and all weapons they want without any government regulation.

There is a lot of bogus invocation of the Second Amendment going on right now. But there is no ambiguity in the judicial precedent: the assault-weapons ban does not violate the Second Amendment. When Kim Strassel of The Wall Street Journalcomplains that “New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has piped up, again, in favor of expanding the sort of burdensome restrictions his city places on the Second Amendment to the nation as a whole,” she is using weasel words to invoke the Constitution on a subject with no relevance to it. Even the most conservative jurists held for decades that the Second Amendment was meant to protect state militias rather than an individual right to own weapons. More recently, the Supreme Court overturned total bans on all gun ownership, such as the Washington, D.C., law overturned in Heller v. District of Columbia by a 5-4 decision. But Heller did not establish an individual right to own all weapons. Members of the narrow majority on the Supreme Court who believe that the Second Amendment establishes an individual right to bear arms would not hold that the Constitution protects one’s right to own a nuclear submarine. So it is not true that any gun ban automatically “burdens” the Second Amendment. The question is whether it affects the limited right to self-defense that the conservative majority now says the Founders intended. Banning any possession of handguns by law-abiding citizens, even in the home, is so far the only law that the high court has held violates the Second Amendment. Such extreme bans are only passed in large liberal cities such as D.C. and Chicago where crime is a persistent concern. No federal law that could ever actually be passed by the U.S. Congress approaches such a level of restriction. There is simply no precedent to support the claim that laws preventing civilians from obtaining weapons that can fire 30 bullets without reloading would violate the Second Amendment. This does not mean that one cannot have a valid concern that even constitutional laws place an undue burden on one’s freedom, but that is a question of values and public-policy tradeoffs, not constitutionality.

I don’t claim to have it all figured out. The more I look at the data the less certain I am. For example, I noticed John Lott coming up a lot in my websearches, especially his book More Guns, Less Violence. Looking at the Wikipedia page, there is tons of research that either supports or challenges his conclusions (although there apparently is more research on the side of challenging).,_Less_Crime

Trying to make sense of the data is difficult, but I think it’s worth the effort because otherwise we will just be arguing past eachother based on our various biases. I do think we need to take the data, all the data seriously… and not dismiss it because it’s inconvenient or too confusing to fit our preconceived ideologies. But it seems like rational debate is next to impossible. I try to remain intellectually humble and openminded, but I find myself polarized and frustrated by all the rhetoric.

So, I could be wrong about what makes sense to me at the moment. As far as I can tell, gun violence and gun regulation don’t necessarily have a causal connection, although there does seem to be some correlations related to economic disparity (which, in turn, is correlated to the degree of conservatism of a state). I have no absolute conclusions based on such confusing statistics and demographics… and, for that reason, I’m dissatisfied and annoyed by those who are satisfied with absolute conclusions (and absolute ideologies). Regulation might not solve the problem, but at least some basic regulation seems like a necessary ‘evil’ until (if ever) the more fundamental problems in our society are remedied.

Anyway, for the apparent minority of people who care about the complexity of the facts and issues, here are some interesting and helpful links: