Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Guns — A Children’s Crusade

Culture, Historiography and Inevitability

On February 14th 2018, 19 year old Nikolas Cruz entered Stoneman Douglas High School with an AR-15 Semi-automatic and killed 17 people and injured 14 more, including students and faculty. This tragic shooting has reignited a well-tread topic in America — the contentious issue of how to accommodate our 2nd Amendment Rights in the 21st Century.

Seeing as how everyone and their brother has a hot take on this issue, and everything is now more partisan than ever so I’ll most likely offend someone either way, I thought I’d though my two cents in. It’s been a while since I’ve actively ignored a shitstorm.

Now, I’m trying to avoid the bullshit, so I’m not really interested in whether teachers should be armed or not. I also believe in being upfront about your biases and my biases are that while I’m not personally a gun owner, I’m fine with gun-ownership provided that person is committed to responsible gun ownership. With the usual caveats out of the way, my question centers on the idea of the right to bear arms, and how well that right holds up. But of course, we need context.

And the reality is, mass shootings don’t really capture the role of guns and gun violence in society. Fivethirtyeight shows us that of the 33,000 gun-related fatalities approximately 2/3rds are suicide and the majority of those suicides are men. About 12,000 of those gun related deaths are actually homicides, but those homicide causes vary wildly. Domestic abuse, gang-related violence, police-involved violence, and of course, mass shootings.

So those who make the argument that mental health is a factor in gun violence are correct, but probably not in the way they think they are. Mental health advocacy to treat depression and anxiety would do more to reduce gun violence than constant vigilance for the next trench-coated, trigger-happy gun-trotter. And the treatment for gun-related suicides would probably help curb mass shootings as well. But let’s be clear, most of the time the subject of mental health and gun generally is used as a way to write off looking deeper into the motivations of these violent mess shooters. And, on behalf of some of the people I know with mental health issues, the vast majority of those struggling with mental health issues are not violent and most of the mass shooters weren’t mentally ill. Actually, the Parkland shooting is somewhat of an anomaly because Cruz seems to have legitimately have had mental health issues.

Courtesy of the BBC

Now, while the evidence points overwhelmingly towards suicide as the largest cause of gun violence, it’s also overwhelmingly clear that mass shootings are increasing in America and that this phenomenon is atypical of even other violent countries. This means that mass shootings are a) uniquely American (or near-uniquely American as Yemen might fall in a similar camp) and b) clearly an issue we need to start providing solutions towards. Fine. But I hope I can show you, at the end of this little excursion, why the debate itself is fundamentally out of date, where I think this cultural moment will lead us, and how this all plays in the larger context of history.

Speaking of history, it would be an incredible injustice for me to not replicate exactly what makes American gun culture so unique — the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment reads as follows:

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.

This linguistically odd phrase has evolved into the what drives American gun culture. It is almost intentionally ambiguous, with the first half of the statement seeming to refer to a collective and the second half to individuals. I don’t want to spend too long in the history of it all, but the second amendment for quite sometime was not really at the forefront of American politics. Essentially, midway through the 1960s a reinterpretation of the 2A connected gun ownership with freedom, small government, and racial identity. It’s a deeply interesting story connecting the Black Panthers, the National Rifle Association, and populist pluck:

In general, in America, the gun debate has been driven mostly by right-wing conservative/libertarians (RW) who argue against mandated, federal gun control as proposed by left-wing liberals (LW). From what I’ve seen, on the rare occasion when when there is a true debate without talking heads spitting talking points and both sides genuinely seeking to speak to and understand each other’s point of view, the debate plays out somewhat like the following.

The left wing starts with a call for gun control, liberal defeatists dragging their feet because they know nothing will change. The right-wing counters by citing how the Prohibition did not stop alcohol sales and grew a burgeoning black economy instead. The left points to European countries who have successfully enacted gun control laws. The right points out how those countries are fundamentally different from the US because they have homogeneous populations and social nets that the US does not have. The left uses this as an opportunity to advocate increasing social programs, the right uses this as an opportunity to advocate the ethno-state.

Neither sides discuss how the founding fathers could not have foreseen a world of automatic weaponry, nuclear arms, or mass manufacturing.

Neither sides discuss the role of culture in the gun debate.

Neither sides discuss the supply chain of arms.

Because the debate as it stands is poised to be outdated.

Courtesy of Reason

I don’t usually care whether you click on the links or not, but you should do yourself a favor and watch all of that. Put aside whether or not you like the source for a minute. That was Cody Wilson, of Defense Distributed, who made headlines for printing and using a 3-D Printed gun. Defense Distributed now offers the Ghost Gunner, a CNC/milling machine that can personally and rapidly prototype the lower receiver for an AR-15. Every other component can be bought off the shelf. No serial numbers. No background checks. No regulatory hoops. A ghost gun.

I have to say I’m both frightened and inspired by Mr. Wilson. It’s like looking in a fun-house mirror, because so much of what he says is so similar to what I personally believe in (Proudhon? Badiou? Foucault? Hell yes!), but embracing every nihilistic tendency I’ve actively tried to sublimate. He’s probably the closest thing I’ve seen to a real-life Tyler Durden. But I’ll say that love him or hate him, he’s looking at the future of the gun debate. While we’re living in 2018, he’s living in 2020. We’re still talking about the Second Amendment, and he’s talking about the First Amendment.

Defense Distributed, after testing and firing the “Liberator” pistol released the blueprints for the firearm online. They were then contacted by The State Department Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance and told to remove the plans because they were in violation of regulations against the international export of firearms. Defense Distributed then filed a lawsuit claiming their First Amendment rights were being infringed.

Think about what that means. Gun control cannot police the transfer of information. Information exists to be disseminated. The knowledge of firearms manufacturing exists and is widely known. Sure, it is specialized knowledge, but the main reason it can not be eradicated is that the idea of how a firearm works is well-known and now has the means to quickly spread. I realize this sounds like the prohibition counter-argument often made by conservatives, but it is a deep form of that. The prohibition counter-argument essentially states that there will always be a demand for firearms. This argument, the 3D Printing a gun argument, claims that there will always be a supply or the means to supply firearms.

Frightening, no?

Where does that leave us, in this present moment of crisis? There are some left-wing types who I’m sure will still rally around cries of gun control. As I previously stated, I’m weakly pro-gun but I acknowledge the problem and do think something must be done but I have very low faith that gun control as is currently discussed will do much.

Often the argument is for increased background checks. But after working with NICS Background Check Gun data for an online course, I have to say that I’m not impressed with our background check system as it is. For one thing, there was a shit-ton of missing data. Easily one of the most incomplete datasets I’ve ever worked with, and that’s saying something. It’s so bad that there is an organization devoted to fixing our flawed system.

According to them:

A background check is only as good as the records in the database. FBI NICS databases are currently incomplete because many states have not provided all records that establish someone as prohibited from owning a firearm under current law, especially including mental health adjudications and involuntary commitments orders. Including these missing records will help ensure more accurate and complete background checks.

The Trace reaffirms the general notion of how broken our background check system is, citing how 7 million records are missing, how 25% percent of felony convictions are not available, and how “people are allowed to leave a gun shop with a firearm, only for a checker to later discover that they are disqualified.” Astounding. I’m all about fixing this issue. Our records should be robust, complete, and effectual. But this isn’t the totality of what I think should happen.

The students of the Parkland shooting have been incredibly vocal about gun control in the wake of the tragedy. I’m all for letting the victims assert their opinions and I don’t begrudge them at all for speaking their mind. I encourage it. But if all that happens is tighter gun laws, I’ll be disappointed. If all that happens is NRA loses some of its lobbying power, I’ll be disappointed. Or if the PTA becomes a politicized, lobbyist organization, I’ll be disappointed. Because these kids have the potential to do something that I truly think needs to happen — they can change the conversation.

One of the most intriguing, data-driven theories of revolution I’ve ever read was how the potential of a revolution is actually driven be how many teenagers there are in a country. The more teenagers, the more likely you will have a revolution.

The author of the above, a data-analyst for the Air Force at the time, said:

The craziest part of my story was that we did this research in 2007. At the time, there were several countries that had the same population pyramid with tons of teenagers but low violence and no civil war: Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iran (Tunisia wasn’t as bad, actually). The “bosses” said this was a real problem with our theory, and we tried to explain it away by saying maybe in the 21st century where dictators have access to fighter jets and tanks that they can hold the teenagers back from starting a civil war. Little did we know we had accidentally predicted the Arab Spring by nearly three years!

You don’t have to think hard to see the pattern. The Occupy movement was mostly college age students, the Hippie movement was started in part by the Students for a Democratic Society and the Port Huron Statement. The young drive social change. While the US is nowhere near a full scale revolution, there is a transfer of power going on as the reins are being handed to a younger generation. What change, then, should be we looking for in the wake of this tragedy?

A graph of the age of populations of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), from the above Newsweek Source.
A graph of the age of populations of the US, from the aforementioned source. As you can see, the DRC had a much higher ration of teens to adults, which is why the US is most likely not near a violent political revolution.

I personally think the best answer would be to talk more about what constitutes as acceptable or responsible gun culture. Right now, American gun culture seems to be informed exercising power. Movies and books and a whole culture industry reinforce some of the fringe arguments made by gun-advocates like the “good guy with a gun” theory. But I think a call for responsibility in gun culture would go a long way. I’m not trying to take away anyone's guns, but the party that is all about fiscal responsibility could conceivably tack on firearm responsibility. The so-called right-wing working class is already familiar with lockout-tagout procedures in powerhouses and facilities, why not extend the idea to firearms? This would require a cultural shift that our next generation is well-positioned to enforce and achieve.

The sad and dangerous thing to me is that we as a people have not kept up with the pace of technological evolution and that culturally our moral sensibilities are exactly where they were in the 1700s. I don’t believe that means we don’t deserve the technological boon we’ve received, just that we have to rise to meet the challenge which will mean looking inward and learning to accept responsibility for our actions and our complicity. The gun debate as it stands is not accommodating a fast-approaching future, but we are in a cultural moment to shift the debate so that we are prepared for a more violent world.