30 December 2012

The pagan sensibility

I was at a public Pagan festival a while ago and a passing non-Pagan asked one of the people working at the information booth who we all were and what we were doing. The person in the booth provided an unhelpful, incoherent non-answer with the gods and nature and magic bobbing about in a froth of words, and the questioner walked away puzzled. I don't blame either of them; Pagans just don't have this thing down.

It is odd. Any Christian stands ready to explain God, sin, and redemption through Christ in 50 words or less. Any Buddhist can tell you quickly about suffering, illusion, meditation, and releasing attachment. Pagan inability to do something similar presents a problem both in talking to non-Pagans and within our own community.

But it's tricky because definitions are political. For example, I'm a proponent of what I would call Big Tent Paganism — a broadly-conceived Pagan community. My motives are frankly political; I think we will be stronger if we work together. But plenty of Pagans think differently for very good reasons. Any attempt at a Definition Of Pagan runs into serious problems over splits like that, with people rightly asking who are you to define me?

So while I've seen some interesting mutterings around this question on the Pagan blogosphere, the community generally shies away from offering some Definition Of Pagan despite the hunger to have something for situations like that festival.

Still, if we cannot describe pagan-ness, we end up with an unarticulated sense that Pagan means “Wicca and things like it”, which should satisfy no one. To sneak up on the problem, I want to resist questions as grandiose as Who Pagans Are or What Pagans Do or What Pagans Believe. (Indeed, that last is particularly pernicious; defining a religion in terms of what one believes is a distinctively Protestant move; let's not go there.)

Rather, I want to talk about what I call the “pagan sensibility” — note the deliberate use of the lower-case p. Not a statement of the True Pagan Nature or an explanation of the Pagan community, but a description of what kind of thought and action makes things pagan flavored. I think that one can describe that briefly and clearly, including everything one wants while excluding everything one doesn't.

The pagan sensibility sees the divine in the material world ... and so regards the human as sacred.

The pagan sensibility apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces ... and honors all of those forces.

That's deliberately very succinct, so it will help to unpack how I've phrased things.

the divine in the material world

The fancy term for this is immanence, as distinguished from transcendence, the idea that the divine is separate from the material world. While many Pagans do conceive of a variety of realms other than the material, they all agree that the whole of the material world is animated with divinity, and they connect to the spiritual through engagement with the material world rather than separation from it.

the human as sacred

Here “the human” takes a deliberately open-ended form. The pagan sensibility regards the individual human, the whole of humanity, and human qualities all as sacred, neither more nor less than anything else, though since we are human the sacricity of the human holds special interest for us.

apprehends the Cosmos

My choice of the word “apprehends” is very deliberate here. I'm not saying that the Pagan sensibility believes something about how the Cosmos really is, or even that it understands the Cosmos a certain way, but that it reaches for an understanding using a certain frame of mind. A Pagan may also apprehend the Cosmos through a scientific understanding, or commit to a certain belief, or whatever, but when working from the pagan sensibility, one employs its frame.

a multiplicity of different interconnected forces

The obvious, characteristically pagan example of the “multiplicity of different forces” is a polytheistic pantheon of gods. But the pagan sensibility is broader than simply that kind of classical polytheism; it means looking at the world as a tapestry of many different kinds of things woven together: gods and animals and humans and the spiritus loci that lives in one's backyard and the Earth and the Sun and human-created egregores like the New York Stock Exchange and so on. The pagan sensibility resists simple cosmologies.

I use the word “forces” rather than “things” in order to imply how the pagan sensibility sees the world not in terms of static objects but in dynamic action. To the pagan sensibility, even an “inert” stone is an actor in the cosmic drama interacting with the other actors around it.

Note also that though I have alluded to gods as examples of the forces which the pagan sensibility may find in the world, my description itself deliberately does not mention gods. The pagan sensibility does not require gods, only a multiplicity of forces; one may be an atheist Pagan who regards the complex Cosmos with an awe-struck but scientistic Discovery Channel pantheism.

honors all of those forces

Again, in “honors” I have made a deliberate word choice, avoiding words like “worships”. The pagan sensibility admits worship but does not require it; some Pagans have a relationship with their gods very different from what one could call “worship”. Even those who do worship their gods lack the time and energy and attention to worship all of the gods they recognize. And apprehending a multiplicity of different forces, the pagan sensibility encounters forces inappropriate for worship: one would not worship every breeze and stone and human and earthworm.

But one can honor everything one encounters, respecting its nature and acting respectfully. According to the pagan sensibility, one can and must honor even those chthonic or shadowy forces which one dreads or dislikes.


Linkback to The Wild Hunt! I'm honored to be mentioned in the same post with some other terrific Pagan thinkers there. And Star Foster alludes to this post while talking about her retreat from “Pagan” culture. Teo Bishop links to this post when asking about the possibility for an inclusive conception of “Pagan”.

And the Allergic Pagan has thoughts on this post which I hope to find time to talk about.

And John Beckett takes my metaphor of the Big Tent and extends it in some interesting ways, finding four “tentpoles” in Pagan culture: “Nature, the Gods, the Self, and Community”.

29 December 2012

Django Unchained

Short review: Go see it if you can.

But can you? For some people, the answer to that will be No, for either of a couple of good reasons.

If Quentin Tarantino's cinematic voice rubs you the wrong way, Django Unchained will likely be unwatchable. I respect that. I love Tarantino but recognize that there are good reasons to dislike his work. (Though if you are in that category and a cinephile, may I encourage you to give his relatively unrecognized gem Jackie Brown a try? It has a rather different tone.)

If you just cannot stomach onscreen violence, then you cannot watch Django Unchained. I'm a tough cookie who does not flinch at David Cronenberg's films, and I confess that there were a few times when I couldn't keep my eyes on the screen. If you're among the people who cannot metabolize that kind of movie, then skip this one.

Those exceptions aside, I strongly recommend catching Django Unchained while it's still on the big screen. The movie is terrific: smart, funny, wrenching, entertaining, and — yes — important.

I'll get to its virtues in a minute, but first I want to point to some of the picture's flaws, which stand out because Tarantino's skill in the medium sets a high bar. I gather that the release was a little rushed, which may have contributed to problems in the editing.

The pacing is flabby. Tarantino is a master at folding in a lot of digressions without it screwing up the rhythm, but that trick fails him this time.

That pacing problem probably helped to compromise one of his signature moves, mixing up the tone. Tarantino stirs together comedy and action and drama and terror from scene to scene and even moment to moment. This makes it possible to deliver a spicier brew than would be palatable if he gave us any of those elements alone, and the way he does it in his best work, like Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds, can be magical. Frustratingly, Django Unchained sometimes slips the clutch when it changes gears. Indeed, there are a few moments where it feels like the movie is in danger of unraveling, though those moments pass without going that badly wrong.

Comparisons to Inglorious Basterds are inevitable, as both take on politically and culturally charged material. Of the two Django Unchained is more ambitious but less completely successful. So while I think most critics of Basterds simply failed to get what the film was doing, I don't see Unchained as the same kind of controlled statement. It will surely get some deservedly harsh criticism, and I look forward to reading that. But to borrow from Alan Kay, it is good enough to be worth criticizing.

Those reservations noted, it's still one of the best pictures of the year. Tarantino moves the camera with his usual brio, the dialogue is smart and fun, the winks toward the history of cinema are lovely if you like that sort of thing, and where it is funny it is often very, very funny.

A big part of the pleasure comes from the actors. Jamie Foxx delivers subtlety, magnetism, and movie star awesomeness all at once. Casting Christoph Waltz again after his turn as the sadistic yet charming SS officer in Inglorious Basterds is gimmicky, but what a great gimmick it is; Waltz is a miracle worker. Leonardo DiCaprio goes for broke and makes it work, obviously having more fun than he's had in years; directors should stop giving him roles which call for that Serious Face thing he does and have him only play villains from now on. (The friend I saw the film with told me that when his character cuts his hand at one point, it was an accident he just played through. DiCaprio uses that bloody hand with an incredibly gutsy, irresponsible, and effective move.) Samuel L. Jackson uses his talent for being funny and menacing at the same time in playing the trickiest character in the movie. And there is some good work by actors in smaller roles, including a welcome appearance by Bruce Dern (who I'd assumed was no longer with us) and a surprisingly clever scene with, of all people, Don Johnson and Jonah Hill.

Of course, the main question is what happens when Tarantino's flippant tone collides with the crushing moral weight of slavery.

For a long time I praised and defended Tarantino's work as purely formal exercises, movies about movies, not about anything real. Some people think that makes the vulgarity and violence in his films irresponsible; I'm among those who take it the other way around, the layer of absurdity and unreality making forgivably cartoonish what would otherwise read as depravities.

But I don't think he's that filmmaker any more. He has, in an odd way, matured.

I've talked before about how Inglorious Basterds took half a step away from being a merely entertaining movie about movies. It remains a pastiche of other movies, especially WWII movies, but it also confronts us with questions about movie audiences and movie makers ... daring to hint at answers to those questions which do not flatter us. Maybe my critics are right, says Tarantino. Maybe my career of nihilistic pleasure in portraying violence is a symptom of something deeply wrong with all of us.

Django Unchained, too, remains a movie about movies, and a lot of it is the same old Tarantino borrowing from cinematic tropes — primarily, in this case, spaghetti westerns. But it's also a direct attack on how certain movie tropes connect to our culture.

Walking out of the theater, I tweeted ...

'Django Unchained' is, first among many interesting things, Tarantino vs. Selznick.

Tarantino wins.

... because after seeing Django Unchained it is impossible to simply accept the romanticization of the antebellum South of David O. Selznick's Gone With The Wind. Tarantino has used his fame and talent and position in the film industry to inoculate a generation of filmgoers against Gone and its seductive power. It pains me to admit it, but Gone With The Wind is one of the all-time great movies, and its portrayal of the bloody toll of war was a gutsy and righteous piece of propaganda for its day. But it opens with this:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind ...

Ah, that grand lost Civilization of gallant slavemasters!

We cannot afford having that romantic horseshit leaking into our cultural consciousness. Someday, we'll be past its seductions, and Unchained will be a dated curiosity. But that day has not come yet, and we need the medicine that Unchained offers. Anyone who sees it won't just know better than to fall for the vision of the Old South from Gone With The Wind, they'll feel it as an deep reflex. Tarantino's power to entertain is the candy coating on a bitter pill of knowing at a gut level that the Old South was a cruel dystopia. That is no small feat.

When I saw that science fiction writer Steven Barnes wrote about it, recognizing Barnes as an astute observer of how racism works in American film I passed his post along to my Facebook friends, commenting that Barnes had confirmed that Tarantino had made the film I had hoped he was making.

.... it is hard to feel anything other than a kind of awe that this thing exists. There are maybe five filmmakers in the world who could have done it, and the other four didn't want to. A black director would have been too close — he actually would have to have been BETTER than Tarantino to pull this off — all the technical skills, and the writing skills, but sufficiently disconnected to maintain emotional distance ... but simultaneously channel a volcano of emotions.

Hard to find.

I don't know how “good” DJANGO is.

....

Flawed? You bet. Unique? You bet. Was I hypnotized? You bet. Will I see it again? Ya think?

So I believe that starting with Basterds we now have a Tarantino who is not just making movies about movies, but at last actually has important things to say about movies.

Go see what he says in this movie.

I can hardly wait for the next.


I'm gathering links. Note that most contain spoilers.

  • At The Root, Henry Louis Gates has a long, fascinating dialogue with Tarantino about the film. (1 2 3) They talk a lot about not Gone With The Wind but Birth of a Nation. If you're not familiar with that film, you should be. Roger Ebert has a great introduction to it; DJ Spooky created a gorgeous commentary on it, Rebirth of a Nation.
  • Mike Ryan interviews Tarantino for the Huffington Post about the caper plot which drives the last act.
  • Steven Barnes' review doesn't just have that quote I pulled; there's also good commentary about masculinity and revenge and more. Check it out.
  • Annalee Newitz at io9 has an instructive commentary which addresses the relationship between fantasy and history: “Django Unchained is movie that is mostly about black people, but make no mistake — it is a white man's fantasy.”
  • Noah Smith at Noahpinion picks up Newitz' point with his post Django Unchained: A white revenge fantasy, arguing that the movie represents Whites rejecting a certain vision of Whiteness.
  • Steven Boone at Indiewire offers commentary on Spike Lee's famous rejection of Tarantino's right to even make the film in the first place.
  • Cord Jefferson at Gawker talks about how “it's almost impossible to not feel self-conscious when Tarantino asks you to rapidly fluctuate between laughing at the ridiculousness of Django's characters and falling silent with shame at the film's authentic historical traumas.”
  • Scott Reynolds Nelson at the Chronicle of Higher Education traces the film's symbolic lineage through blaxpoitation films to Black folklore.
  • Richard Brody at The New Yorker looks at the relationship between the two heroes of the movie.
  • Stephen Marche at Esquire compares Django Unchained to Lincoln and finds Spielberg's effort lacking in comparison. A. O. Scott's review at the New York Times cannot resist a similar comparison.
  • Jeffrey Overstreet writing at Patheos describes his ambivalence about the movie.
  • Jelani Cobb at the New Yorker and Remeike Forbes at Jacobin remind us that slave resistance is not only fiction.
  • Jesse Williams at CNN and then on his own tumblr criticizes the film sharply. I think in many ways he simply does not see what the film is trying to do — he describes at length of ahistorical and implausible the events of the story are — but I found it instructive in how someone with a very different frame of mine from own experienced the film.
  • An amazing discussion of the film on SF writer Samuel R. Delaney's Facebook feed.
  • Jamelle Bouie offers several interesting thoughts, including readings of the characters of Jackson's Steven and Waltz' Schultz which had not occurred to me.
  • Moviebob at The Escapist has videoessays reviewing the movie and examining whether it is fundamentally racist.

I've got my eye out for more commentaries and will add them as I find them. I'm hoping to find something incisive about Samuel L. Jackson's scary Uncle Tom character of Stephen, the biggest element of the film where I'm not sure what I think.


One last thought:

Given my skepticism about political violence, I've always been unhappy with Maya Angelou's choice of images to represent profound, dedicated support. But here it is, in fictional form at least.

27 December 2012

Soros on the EU

When financial crisis screwed up the euro in '08, I was mystified. The fundamental problem was that the EU had a single currency but multiple sovereign states with their own fiscal policies that could put them into debt. In a country like the US, our national debt is ultimately secured as a last resort by our ability to print money to pay it off if need be; doing that would be bad, but not as bad as defaulting altogether. The countries of the EU don't have that option, because the fiscal policy (government spending) is decoupled from the monetary policy (currency controlled by the central bank), which can wreak all kinds of havok. As it now has done.

This is such an obvious economic problem that when they created the euro in the first place, I assumed that the architects of the policy had some kind of plan I just didn't understand. So it was baffling when things blew up the way they did. Surely folks who think about economics all day had seen this threat coming?

Finally I saw a speech from George Soros about the crisis which included an explanation of the mystery: the politics of the EU are such that it becomes more tightly bound by progressively responding to expected crises.

I contend that the European Union itself is like a bubble. In the boom phase the EU was what the psychoanalyst David Tuckett calls a “fantastic object” – unreal but immensely attractive. The EU was the embodiment of an open society –an association of nations founded on the principles of democracy, human rights, and rule of law in which no nation or nationality would have a dominant position.

The process of integration was spearheaded by a small group of far sighted statesmen who practiced what Karl Popper called piecemeal social engineering. They recognized that perfection is unattainable; so they set limited objectives and firm timelines and then mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when they achieved it, its inadequacy would become apparent and require a further step. The process fed on its own success, very much like a financial bubble. That is how the Coal and Steel Community was gradually transformed into the European Union, step by step.

....

The Maastricht Treaty was fundamentally flawed, demonstrating the fallibility of the authorities. Its main weakness was well known to its architects: it established a monetary union without a political union. The architects believed however, that when the need arose the political will could be generated to take the necessary steps towards a political union.

But the euro also had some other defects of which the architects were unaware and which are not fully understood even today ....

The whole talk is worth reading, as is a long follow-up article Soros wrote for the New York Review of Books.

23 December 2012

Not-So-Good Men Project

I've been mildly interested in the feminist-informed web magazine for fellas The Good Men Project since it first turned up a few years back. I took a look at it early on, and I've read a handful of articles there, but every time I swing by there I conclude that I'm not really its audience. They're clearly trying to reach Regular Guys and the universe of gender politics culture that I move in is sufficiently weird and rarefied that they clearly weren't talking to me. But I've been kind of hazily glad they exist, since we need more and better feminist propaganda directed at men.

I'm not glad of them any more.

A day or three ago a Facebook friend linked to Amanda Marcotte's Slate article Rapists Say They Rape Because of Mixed Signals, and the Good Men Project Believes Them. The articles in question were Nice Guys Commit Rape Too and I'd Rather Risk Rape Than Quit Partying, looking at the narratives many men who rape construct about receiving mixed signals from women. I took a quick look at Marcotte's article and the two articles in question, and it seemed to me that Marcotte was reading them wrong; I took The Good Men Project as reporting what those rapists' rationalizations were, not accepting them. I have a lot of ambivalence about Marcotte already — she's a good polemicist, but not always good with nuance — so I thought that this was just a case of her tendency toward absolutism.

I was also hesitant to buy the critique because it connects to something which has recently given me an itch in the feminist blogosphere.

A lot of predatory men talk about “mixed signals” when a close look at what they say and do reveals that they are just engaging in self-serving, disingenuous rape apology bullshit where there was not really an opening for confusion at all. In the wake of recent studies showing that rapists will readily admit to having raped women if you don't call it “rape”, the feminist blogosphere has been talking about this rape apology move a quite a bit lately.

But in that discussion I have sometimes heard the implication that men talking about mixed signals are never doing anything other than rape apology. I disagree and think that, without taking it as a justification for rape, we have to include some thinking about how women do send mixed signals in order for us to fully understand how rape culture works. We have a culture hostile to women sending clear signals, and all men in our society have had troubling experiences with that. The pressure on women to send mixed signals, and the experiences men have with that, contribute to the machinery of rape culture in at least a couple of ways. It creates the opening for predatory men to rationalize to themselves the rapes they commit. And it makes those predators' claims of “mixed signals” plausible-sounding to responsible men when those responsible men don't stop to think about it carefully enough.

I took Marcotte's piece as belonging to that genre of reducing discussion of mixed signals to being nothing more than rape apology, shrugged, and let The Good Men Project off the hook.

I was wrong. I should have looked closer.

Last night I was talking to some friends about this dustup, so this morning I took another look at the Good Men Project articles. Looking at them, I still think that Marcotte's headline was a bit unfair in suggesting that the Good Men Project held that the rapists' stories were justified. The Good Men Project was quite clear that what these men had done was rape, and wrong.

But that didn't make those Good Men Project articles okay. They were very sloppy and strange and ... yeah ... rape-apologetic. So the criticism that Marcotte made in the body of her article had real bite.

I had thought that The Good Men Project had been critiquing the error of thinking that real mixed messages made rapists' rationalizations sound plausible, but in fact they had fallen for that error. And in misreading what the controversy was about, I had fallen for it too.

I did a little more digging and found more good commentary. Jill Filipovic writing at the UK Guardian lays out the critique well.

Feminists, including myself, pushed back on Royse's narrative. In response, the Good Men Project doubled down (and then tripled and quadrupled down). Good Men Project editor Joanna Schroeder made the decision to publish, under the cover of anonymity, the firsthand account of an admitted and unrepentant rapist who enjoys his hard-partying lifestyle and says he has “accepted a certain amount of rape as the cost of doing business.” Then they put up several more posts justifying the decision to publish the Royse piece and the rapist's narrative.

When women and men who have dedicated their lives and careers to anti-rape work pointed out the fact that we have some pretty good scholarly sources that look at why men rape, the Good Men Project editors responded by attacking the scholarly sources. Some GMP writers quit the site in protest. Other GMP editors and writers joined forces with Men's Rights Activists to lash out at feminists and anti-rape activists on Twitter and other social media.

....

So why am I writing about a relatively insular blog fight in my Guardian column? Because it sheds light on just how toxic our culture is when it comes to rape and sexual assault – and how we can fight back.

At Feministe, Filipovick has more about why The Good Men Project was speaking irresponsibly and responded badly to criticism and Thomas Macaulay Millar has a good critique of the framework which the Good Men Project offers for understanding rapists' behavior. At Heteronormative Patriarchy For Men, Ally Fogg calls shenanigans on the Good Men Project's article. At Jezebel Katie J. M. Baker offers strong words about why we should turn our backs on the Good Men Project.

I agree. The Good Men Project have demonstrated that they are not a trustworthy source.

21 December 2012

Star Wars midrash

I've linked before the amazing final post of Darth Vader's blog, Darth Vader Superstar.

I was born forty-nine years ago, less a day. I was born a slave, as billions are born slaves. When I was a child I did not immediately imagine that I deserved freedom, for this was not my mother's attitude. Suffering was to be endured. She admitted a patient hope for less cruel masters, when we were between them. She taught that if freedom was in our destinies, fate would find us.

A friend just pointed me at another masterpiece of Star Wars apologetics, Reconsidering Star Wars IV in the light of I-III:

As Star Wars opens, R2 is rushing the Death Star plans to the Rebellion. That’s R2, not Leia. The plans are always in R2. What Leia puts into him in the early scene is only her own holographic message to Kenobi. Leia's own mission, as she says in that holographic message, is to pick up Obi-Wan and take him to Alderaan. Or so she thinks. Actually, her father just wants her to meet Kenobi, which up to this point she never has. There's a reason for that.

Obi-Wan has spent the last 20 years in the Tattoine desert, keeping watch over Luke Skywalker and trying to decide on one of the three available options:

  1. If Luke shows no significant access to the Force, then leave him alone in obscurity
  2. If Luke shows real Force ability, then consider recruiting him as a Jedi. The rebellion needs Jedi and it needs them now. But, if Luke shows any signs of turning out like his father, then:
  3. sneak into his house one fine night and chop his head off. With great regret but it'll save a lot of trouble later on.

Or consider A People's History of Tattooine.

What if Mos Eisley wasn’t really that wretched and it was just Obi Wan being racist again?
The 'sand people' were really just desert nomads emancipating the massive slave population.

Or this alternate version of Luke's first meeting with Kenobi.

“That's what your uncle told you. Bit of a liar, your Uncle.” A pained expression crossed Obi Wan's face. “Lying is wrong,” he muttered. “Anyway, your Uncle didn't hold with your father's ideals.” Killing children is bad, Obi Wan thought, so that one's true. “Thought your father should have stayed here – er, as a slave – and not gotten involved.”

Or consider this:

... rewatching Episodes I, II, and III were tedious slogs made better by only two things: snark and a shocking reveal that the subtext here could be that Padme was totally cheating on Anakin with Obi-Wan Kenobi.

I mean, the evidence is right there staring you in the face, coloring everything that happens in “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” into a fairly passable arc of love and revenge. Don’t believe me? Put on your ship-goggles and let’s go on a journey!

We’re skipping over The Phantom Menace because Padme is fourteen in that movie and Obi-Wan is probably in his early twenties and we want this to be romantic, not creepy as hell. Anakin already has that angle covered.

When Attack of the Clones opens, Senator Amidala arrives on Coruscant for a vote even though her life is in danger due to her political leanings. In order to ease her mind, it is suggested that “an old friend” be assigned to guard her person. Yet Anakin is giddy in the elevator because he hasn't seen Padme in a decade. So who is this old friend? Her secret lover Obi-Wan, obviously ....

Color scheme tools

I most often use Adobe's little Kuler tool because it lets you easily work with CIE L*a*b* color values. It's often handy in info design to find colors with the same L value so you know they will read at the same level of visual emphasis.

But I was just reminded of Color Scheme Designer, which has some nifty tools for finding colors that work together well.

John Lott

In the discussion of gun policy around the recent school shootings, I've encountered a few gun control opponents pointing to the Multiple Victim Public Shootings paper by John Lott and William Landes, which argues that having civilians carrying guns in public prevents multiple-murder killings.

It's an interesting thesis but a little googling reveals that Lott is a bullshit artist. Salon has a quick overview of the reasons to be skeptical of Lott, with several links, as does the Washington Post, Media Matters, another fact checker, Mother Jones, and Wikipedia. (Media Matters has a bunch of articles about Lott, since he turns up on TV and other media a lot. I found a critique of one of his books particularly instructive. A couple of pieces about his TV appearances provide good examples of his deceitful moves.)

Another Washington Post article surveys the literature on Lott's “more guns, less crime” hypothesis and find that the evidence is against it. Tim Lambert at ScienceBlogs has two articles on evidence that he has cooked his statistics. He even has used a sock puppet identity in online discussion fora to defend his own work.

Bullshit artist.

19 December 2012

Second Amendment remedies

Charles P. Pierce at Esquire has a little observation about the symbolic significance of the “Battle of Athens”, in which recently returned WWII GIs broke a corrupt small town political machine through force of arms.

The events in question have become iconic on the fringe of the gun movement wherein resides Larry Pratt and, indeed, the veterans of McMinn County, fresh off battlefields in Europe and the Pacific theater, were disinclined to get pushed around by political bosses who'd stayed safely at home and gotten fat off the political spoils. It's important to remember, however, that these same arguments are largely denied in history to, say, the coal miners at Matewan, or to the Black Panthers, whose arguments from the 1960s are indistinguishable from those made by Pratt to Matthews last night. Both groups were equally powerless against a political machine deaf to their pleas.

Neofeudalism

I've been looking for a short description of the “neofeudal” order developing in our society and economy, and I find that Umair Haque delivers it in his short post The Neofeudal Degeneration.

  1. Neoserfdom
  2. Output fetishism
  3. Kleptarchy
  4. Patronage
  5. Cronyism

Update: Another quick summary from Haque describing this future in a different way, ganked from his Twitter feed:

  1. If you're part of the global poor, your life is probably going to improve. In some places, radically.
  2. If you're part of the middle class, especially in advanced economies, your future's going to be difficult.
  3. Middle classes will get bigger TVs, and eBooks, Tacocopters, but they won't get jobs, gains, wealth, security, or public goods.
  4. The real beneficiaries of this order are the global super-rich, whose gains are mounting at a truly staggering degree.
  5. And the real cost of this order is that we're deconstructing the elements of the great liberal project, that propelled humanity forward.
  6. If the future consists of “I Saw Your Boobs” and internet memes and AR glasses, it's not really a future. It's more of an anti-future.
  7. The pundits and the powers that be will tell you: all the preceding's OK, just fine, perfect, the only possibility. It's not.
  8. There's no one solution. There are billions of solutions. You are the solution.

Links reveal Twitter replies, many of which are interesting.

18 December 2012

Dealing with deities

Just yesterday I was talking to a Pagan friend of mine who has a real problem with Ha’Shem and Jesus, for the usual reasons.

My own Pagan perspective having been born not of a rejection of unhappy early experiences at the hands of Abrahamic believers, but rather having snuck up on my original atheistic positivism, I get along rather better with those guys. Indeed, though I honor Hermes as my patron deity, I honor Ha’Shem as my tribal deity.

Ha’Shem, of course, has a bad reputation for Not Playing Well With Others, and comes by it honestly. Maybe you've heard Exodus 20:2-3 before, where he kicks off his Top Ten list?

:םידבע תיבמ םירצמ ץראמ ךיתאצוה רשא ךיהלא הוהי יכנא

:ינפ-לע םירחא םיהלא ךל היהי-אל
I am Ha’Shem, your god, who brought you out of the Narrow Place, the house of slavery.

Have no other gods before me.

I make no attempt at obeying Mosaic Law, but this is Ha’Shem’s #1 injunction, so I obey it in Pagan spirit by saying that though I have many other gods, I put them beside or behind Ha’Shem but never before him.

My offer to him has long been ...

Either you are on the bus or you are off the bus. I'd like to bring you with me, but if you're not going to play nice with the others then I'm going to have a lot less time for you.
... and I said this cheerfully and firmly for years. He has taken the lesson, and has a place on my altar. He has joined me for rituals where he was not the only god I honored.

That conversation with my friend had me thinking I need to write something long on that subject, and then I saw that today Morpheus Ravenna has written a long post, Votum Solvit, to much the same point. She says it much better than I was going to.

There seems to be a belief out there that because the Gods are mighty and powerful, we can’t or shouldn’t attempt to negotiate with them. That when we have something to ask of them we are supplicants, and must accept whatever unknown thing may be asked of us later in the relationship. This view has been articulated a couple of times recently by one of the bloggers I read, Druid John Beckett. But I’m not picking on John; I’ve seen this expressed elsewhere and frequently, which is why I’m addressing it today. In particular with regard to the Morrigan, the perception seems to be that She’s a scary, powerful, terrible Goddess and so it is unwise to negotiate: the advice is to ask, and ask nicely, and hope She doesn’t demand anything too painful in return.

I respect John, but I’m here to offer another view. I am here to tell you that you can, and you should, negotiate with the Morrigan. It’s absolutely because She’s as powerful and as demanding as She is, that you should be 100% on your toes about cutting a deal with Her. Yes, She must be approached with respect. Yes, if She wants something from you, She’ll have it one way or another. That’s exactly why you MUST negotiate for terms that are safe for you and support your needs.

Ha’Shem has a well-known awesome and terrible aspect. But not any more so than the Morrigan, no?

17 December 2012

Guns



Given the Recent Unpleasantness, it occurred to me that it might be useful to corral some data and commentary about guns and public policy.

(Note the original date on this post. It seems there is always a Recent Unpleasantness with guns in America, doesn't it?)

Had you asked me a couple of months ago about gun control policy, I would have confessed that I had precious little interest in it, in a couple of senses. First in that I hadn't paid it much attention. Second in that I didn't think of it as a terribly significant area of policy. I grew up in the liberal culture of the ’70s which favored gun control, but contrary to conservative imaginings, lefties like me lost enthusiasm for it decades ago. The politics have been too much a non-starter, and frankly I remember a lot of the old anti-gun arguments as being pretty weak. All things being equal, more liberty is more better, so I drifted toward skepticism about gun control. (And certainly I will grant gun control opponents the point that current legislation is an incoherent, illogical mess.)

But in the past few weeks, as discussion of gun policy has resurfaced in its most vigorous form in my political lifetime, I have grown much more sympathetic to gun control that I had been. A big reason why is the weakness, even absurdity, of the arguments I have seen gun control opponents present. Of course bad arguments against X don't necessarily make X a good idea. But at the same time, many commentaries I've encountered have persuaded me that some kind of more vigorous gun control is warranted.

Below are links to some articles which have most clarified my thinking.


OK, that was what I wrote when I first put up this post. Since then, I've progressively added a lot of stuff to the collection of links; enough that I've broken it into three topic areas. I've tried to be fair-minded, and I've included resources from a few different points of view, but it should also be evident what I've found persuasive. (I have a follow-up post in which I talk about my conclusions and the policy implications.)

Research & facts

10 Pro-Gun Myths, Shot Down at Mother Jones is a short overview that includes links to lots more resources.

Mother Jones also has a good report on mass shootings, an attempt to tally the economic costs of gun violence, and a review of reasons to be skeptical of gun advocates' telling of some mass shootings where civilian gun owners effectively intervened.

ArmedWithReason.com is a resource which collects arguments for gun control, supported by research.

Let's Talk Seriously About Gun Control clears a bit of brush about bonehead ideas on all sides.

There’s a serious problem with facts when it comes to gun control legislation. That’s not an ideological criticism, I’m not some asshole screaming about “gun-grabbing fascists”, I’m saying that when people describe proposed legislative solutions, they tend to be based on things that are, literally, counterfactual.
....
Obviously, one thing we should ask when considering legislative solutions is which legislative solutions have worked in the past, and why. Unfortunately, the data on that subject is kind of a mess.
....
Admittedly, part of the problem there is that the goddamned NRA has been actively working to prevent thorough research, which is an intellectual embarrassment no matter where you stand on the issue.

While we're on the subject of boneheaded misunderstanding of the bare facts about guns, I have A Public Service Announcement On Guns And Bullets from Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, pinch hitting at Charles P. Pierce's Atlantic blog.

it was really evident from some of the footage, that my fellow Americans watch way too much television and thus have a false understanding about bullets. So this afternoon's public service announcement is to try and prevent possible harm that might otherwise be avoided
....
If you are in a place where you hear steady, and sustained, and nearby (lets call that, for some technical reasons, anything less than 800 meters) gunfire, do these things:
  • Go to your basement. You are cool there.
  • If you don't have a basement, go to the other side of the house from the firing, and leave, heading away from the firing. Do not stop for a mile.
  • If you do not think that you can leave, get on the ground floor, as far from the firing as possible, and place something solid between you and the firing. Solid is something like a bathtub, a car (engine block), a couple of concrete walls (single layer brick...nope).
  • If you are high up (say 4rd story or higher) just get away from the side of the building where the firing is taking place. You will, mostly, be protected by the thick concrete of the structure.

Harvard School of Public Health: Gun Threats and Self-Defense Gun Use offers references to a few studies supporting some key points.

  • Guns are not used millions of times each year in self-defense
  • Most purported self-defense gun uses are gun uses in escalating arguments and are both socially undesirable and illegal
  • Firearms are used far more often to intimidate than in self-defense
  • Guns in the home are used more often to intimidate intimates than to thwart crime
  • Adolescents are far more likely to be threatened with a gun than to use one in self-defense
  • Criminals who are shot are typically the victims of crime
  • Few criminals are shot by decent law abiding citizens

A study-of-studies shows that having a gun greatly increases one's risk.

People who have ready access to a firearm are almost twice as likely to be killed and three times likelier to commit suicide than those without a gun available in the home or from a neighbor or friend

Statistical analysis from a sociologist.

See the statistically significant correlation between homicide by firearms and ownership of firearms? See the massive difference between the United States and other developed countries?

A striking study of simulations of gun confrontations reported by the Washington Post includes some videos of the simulations showing how untrained civilians make bad decisions.

They found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, people without firearms training performed poorly in the scenarios. They didn't take cover. They didn't attempt to issue commands to their assailants. Their trigger fingers were either too itchy -- they shot innocent bystanders or unarmed people, or not itchy enough -- they didn't shoot armed assailants until they were already being shot at.

More statistics from recent research, as reported by Richard Florida at The Atlantic quoting John Roman, a senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

In addition to the general relationship between gun safety laws and firearm deaths, the paper also suggests that increasing the number of gun safety laws increases the reductions in firearm related deaths. So the benefits just get bigger with more laws. The authors also identify background checks as the most important type of law.

The Harvard School of Public Health has an index of firearms research, including a striking report showing a few different correlations between more guns and more homocides.

  • Where there are more guns there is more homicide
  • Across high-income nations, more guns = more homicide
  • Across states, more guns = more homicide

The Scientific American article The Science of Guns Proves Arming Untrained Citizens Is a Bad Idea cites several interesting studies.

every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides
in states that prohibit gun ownership by men who have received a domestic violence restraining order, gun-caused homicides of intimate female partners have been reduced by 25 percent
Strong regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers—defined as having a state law that required state or local licensing of retail firearm sellers, mandatory record keeping by those sellers, law enforcement access to records for inspection, regular inspections of gun dealers, and mandated reporting of theft of loss of firearms—was associated with 64 percent less diversion of guns to criminals by in-state gun dealers.

The article in the UK Guardian Guns don't offer protection – whatever the National Rifle Association says offers links to a few more studies.

The insistence that guns protect people from rape and violence is not rooted in scientific reality

Richard Florida at The Atlantic also looks at guns, geography, and suicide.

According to a recent Pew Research Center report, over 60 percent of all firearm deaths in 2010 were suicides.
....
The close connection between gun ownership and suicide has indeed been documented in several detailed state-level studies.

The Journal of the American Medical Association has a study on the effects of legislation.

A higher number of firearm laws in a state are associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in the state, overall and for suicides and homicides individually.

Those suicides, by the way, would not all have been accomplished by other means. Justin Briggs and Alex Tabarrok report at Slate on a paper in the International Review of Law and Economics.

Are the people not killing themselves with guns simply committing suicide by other means? Some are—but not all. While reduced household gun ownership did lead to more suicides by other means, suicides went down overall. That’s because contrary to the “folk wisdom” that people who want to commit suicide will always find a way to get the job done, suicides are not inevitable. Suicides are often impulsive decisions, and guns require less forethought than other means of suicide—and they’re also deadlier.

Another study, America Under The Gun from the Center for American Progress, reaches similar conclusions.

While the strength of a state’s gun laws is just one factor in the prevalence of gun-related violence in the state and cannot alone account for gun violence, there is a clear link between weak gun laws and high levels of gun violence across the United States.

Another piece at PolicyMic collects a few such studies.

States with more gun regulations had lower rates of gun deaths, and states with less gun laws had higher gun death rates, both in terms of suicide and homicide.

Pew Research reports Gun Homicide Rate Down 49% Since 1993 Peak; Public Unaware; there are many interesting details in their report.

Researchers have studied the decline in firearm crime and violent crime for many years, and though there are theories to explain the decline, there is no consensus among those who study the issue as to why it happened.

Alternet provides an overview of a report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns analyzing FBI data.

there are 38 percent fewer killings of women in states that require background checks for every handgun sale
the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide for women by 500 percent
  • Less than 1% of gun murder victims were killed as part of incidents with four or more victims.
  • In at least 57 percent of the incidents, the shooter killed a current or former intimate partner or family member.
  • Assault weapons or high capacity magazines were used in 23 percent of the incidents, and when they were used, more than twice the number of people were shot and 57 percent more were killed.
  • No more than one quarter (23 percent) of the shootings occurred in public spaces that were so-called ‘gun-free zones.’

William Saletan at Slate identifies some interesting key findings of a survey of research from the National Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, mostly focused on what research is needed to inform policy.

  1. The United States has an indisputable gun violence problem
  2. Most indices of crime and gun violence are getting better, not worse
  3. We have 300 million firearms, but only 100 million are handguns
  4. Handguns are the problem
  5. Mass shootings aren’t the problem
  6. Gun suicide is a bigger killer than gun homicide
  7. Guns are used for self-defense often and effectively
  8. Carrying guns for self-defense is an arms race
  9. Denying guns to people under restraining orders saves lives.
  10. It isn’t true that most gun acquisitions by criminals can be blamed on a few bad dealers

Given some of the other studies I cite earlier here, I'm skeptical about Saletan's point #7. Salatean quotes the article saying “Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was ‘used’ by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies”. That's at least plausible, but is disconcertingly consistent with studies like Hemenway/Azrael/Miller, which tells us that that guns are likely used in “self-defense” 60,000-120,000 times each year, but:

Results
Even after excluding many reported firearm victimizations, far more survey respondents report having been threatened or intimidated with a gun than having used a gun to protect themselves. A majority of the reported self defense gun uses were rated as probably illegal by a majority of judges. This was so even under the assumption that the respondent had a permit to own and carry the gun, and that the respondent had described the event honestly.

Conclusions
Guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense. Most self reported self defense gun uses may well be illegal and against the interests of society.

David Kopel at the Wall Street Journal reports that gun fatalaties have changed in recent years, for reasons that are hard to definitively explain.

Has the rate of random mass shootings in the United States increased? Over the past 30 years, the answer is definitely yes. It is also true that the total U.S. homicide rate has fallen by over half since 1980, and the gun homicide rate has fallen along with it. Today, Americans are safer from violent crime, including gun homicide, than they have been at any time since the mid-1960s.

Mass shootings, defined as four or more fatalities, fluctuate from year to year, but over the past 30 years there has been no long-term increase or decrease. But “random” mass shootings, such as the horrific crimes last Friday in Newtown, Conn., have increased.

Adam Gopnik writing in the New Yorker says that the Simple Truth About Gun Control is that gun control is effective in reducing violence. The article is a lively exhortation, but what's useful in it are the links to resources, including several from researcher David Hemingway, like an article in Harvard magazine about his work laced with quotes.

The gun-control debate often makes it look like there are only two options: either take away people’s guns, or not. That’s not it at all. This is more like a harm-reduction strategy. Recognize that there are a lot of guns out there, and that reasonable gun policies can minimize the harm that comes from them.

I need to take a closer look at them, but the Violence Policy Center's reports Unintended Consequences and Firearm Justifiable Homicides and Non-Fatal Self-Defense Gun Use look intriguing. I found the first one through an ABC News report with a showy demonstration of people with concealed carry permits having trouble in simulated confrontations.

From Unintended Consequences:

This report ... illuminates the patent danger of our present practice of allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns with only minimal screening and hardly any educational requirements. Based on the work of widely recognized pro-gun experts on the use of handguns for self-defense, it demonstrates that the industry's position is false. These experts' own words are quoted at length in this report. They show that for entirely practical reasons handguns in particular are a dangerous choice for all but a tiny minority of exceptionally well-trained people who maintain their skills with regular and intensive practice. The vast majority of handgun owners put not only themselves, but their families, their neighbors, and wholly innocent bystanders at unreasonable risk of harm, including death and catastrophic injury. The costs of this harm are borne largely by the non-gun owning public.

From Firearm Justifiable Homicides and Non-Fatal Self-Defense Gun Use:

Guns are rarely used to kill criminals or stop crimes.
....
In 2012, for every justifiable homicide in the United States involving a gun, guns were used in 32 criminal homicides.

Stanford University reports that right-to-carry legislation correlates with increased violent crime.

“The totality of the evidence based on educated judgments about the best statistical models suggests that right-to-carry laws are associated with substantially higher rates” of aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder, said Donohue.

The strongest evidence was for aggravated assault, with data suggesting that right-to-carry (RTC) laws increase this crime by an estimated 8 percent – and this may actually be understated, according to the researchers.

“Our analysis of the year-by-year impact of RTC laws also suggests that RTC laws increase aggravated assaults,” they wrote.

Richard Florida, writing for Atlantic Cities, points to research from John Roman of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center showing that Stand Your Ground laws disproportionately protect White people shooting Black people.

The odds that a white-on-black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justified.

I'd like to provide even more hard data, but in an interview Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who was the director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in the ’90s, laments the dearth of solid research to shape policy. But there are a couple more key things that the CDC established.

What the research showed was not only did having a firearm in your home not protect you, but it hugely increased the risk that someone in your family would die from a firearm homicide. It increased the risk almost 300 percent, almost three times as high.

It also showed that the risk that someone in your home would commit suicide went up. It went up five-fold if you had a gun in the home. These are huge, huge risks, and to just put that in perspective, we look at a risk that someone might get a heart attack or that they might get a certain type of cancer, and if that risk might be 20 percent greater, that may be enough to ban a certain drug or a certain product.

....

We also found that there were a lot of firearm suicides, and in fact most firearm deaths are suicides. There were a lot of young people who were impulsive who were using guns to commit suicide.

Still, we have more questions than answers. Maggie Koerth-Baker has a long post at bOING bOING exploring the gaps in the data and the challenges in filling them.

We know that gun violence research is deeply flawed. We know that it cannot currently answer the questions we need it to answer. But why? What, specifically, is missing? What about this field is broken? And how do we fix it?

According to scientists who do gun research, scientists who were involved in the National Academies review, and scientists who study the way other scientists do research, there are two key problems. First is the issue of missing and poorly matched data. Second, there are also serious problems with the mathematical models scientists use to analyze that data, and with the type of conclusions they attempt to draw from it.

So why isn't there better data? Rich Addicks at The New York Times explains that the NRA fights against that research.

In the wake of the shootings in Tucson, the familiar questions inevitably resurfaced: Are communities where more people carry guns safer or less safe? Does the availability of high-capacity magazines increase deaths? Do more rigorous background checks make a difference?

The reality is that even these and other basic questions cannot be fully answered, because not enough research has been done. And there is a reason for that. Scientists in the field and former officials with the government agency that used to finance the great bulk of this research say the influence of the National Rife Association has all but choked off money for such work.

A CNN report about the sequence of events at the Columbine shooting is illuminating, not least because in the face of recent calls by the NRA and others to have armed cops or other guards at schools, it turns out that Columbine had exactly that.

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy Neil Gardner soon would complete his second year as the uniformed community resource officer assigned to Columbine High School.
....
Gardner, seeing Harris working with his gun, leaned over the top of the car and fired four shots. He was 60 yards from the gunman. Harris spun hard to the right and Gardner momentarily thought he had hit him. Seconds later, Harris began shooting again at the deputy.

After the exchange of gunfire, Harris ran back into the building. Gardner was able to get on the police radio and called for assistance from other Sheriff’s units. “Shots in the building. I need someone in the south lot with me.”
....
While he was on the radio calling for assistance, five other Jefferson County deputies already were on their way, arriving only minutes after the first report of a “female down” at Columbine High School.

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen has been hosting a series of posts on guns.

The RAND Corporation has a collection of data resources under the witty name Many Questions, Some Answers.

One last thing: I should observe that many proponents of private gun ownership counter this kind of research with studies by John Lott. But he is not a credible source. I have articles from Salon and the Washington Post and fact checker Mark Robison with facts and links showing that Lott is a bullshit artist slinging pseudoscience to shill for the gun industry.



Law, politics, and history

Mark Waldman at Politico provides a good capsule history, emphasizing recent developments, in How the NRA Rewrote the Second Amendment.

Many are startled to learn that the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t rule that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun until 2008, when District of Columbia v. Heller struck down the capital’s law effectively banning handguns in the home. In fact, every other time the court had ruled previously, it had ruled otherwise. Why such a head-snapping turnaround? Don’t look for answers in dusty law books or the arcane reaches of theory.

So how does legal change happen in America? We’ve seen some remarkably successful drives in recent years—think of the push for marriage equality, or to undo campaign finance laws. Law students might be taught that the court is moved by powerhouse legal arguments or subtle shifts in doctrine. The National Rifle Association’s long crusade to bring its interpretation of the Constitution into the mainstream teaches a different lesson: Constitutional change is the product of public argument and political maneuvering. The pro-gun movement may have started with scholarship, but then it targeted public opinion and shifted the organs of government. By the time the issue reached the Supreme Court, the desired new doctrine fell like a ripe apple from a tree.

Another interview with Waldman in Mother Jones.

Emphatically, the focus was on the militias. To the framers, that phrase “a well-regulated militia” was really critical. In the debates, in James Madison's notes of the Constitutional Convention, on the floor of the House of Representatives as they wrote the Second Amendment, all the focus was about the militias. Now at the same time, those militias are not the National Guard. Every adult man, and eventually every adult white man, was required to be in the militias and was required to own a gun, and to bring it from home. So it was an individual right to fulfill the duty to serve in the militias.

In Betraying the Founding Fathers: How Scalia and the NRA Hacked the 2nd Amendment, an examination of the context of the writing of the Second Amendment, looking at law and debate at the time, is very instructive.

These contemporaneous examples of individual rights language prove three things:

  1. The framers were aware of the distinction between defense of the self, hunting and defense of the state
  2. The framers knew how to express that distinction in clear legal language
  3. They chose not to do so in the Second Amendment after a lengthy drafting process

We can’t go back and wish they had included that language. They didn’t. If we want that federal individual right, the Second Amendment itself has to be amended.

M.S. at The Economist calls American conservatives' arguments that the Second Amendment is a bullwark against tyranny The Right To Commit Treason and argues that history stands against their position.

No popular militia has ever prevented the seizure of power by an authoritarian ruler. In countries with well-established democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers are rare; when they occur, popular militias do not resist, or are ruthlessly crushed by national armed forces. In countries with weak democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers sometimes go smoothly, or in other cases touch off periods of civil war, which are resolved when one faction finally defeats the others and imposes authoritarian rule. Name your authoritarian takeover: Germany, Japan, Russia, China, Egypt, Libya, Brazil, Greece, Spain, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iran, Chile, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Syria—popular militias never resist authoritarian takeover and preserve democracy or civil freedoms. That is a thing that happens in silly movies. It is not a thing that happens in the world.

To that same point about history, the Founders, and the Second Amendment, Tom Verenna at American Hiſtory and Anceſtry has a long article Rebellion! Armed Uprisings in America and Tea Party “Patriots”.

With all the calls for armed insurrection being thrown around as if it weren’t a big deal, it would not surprise me if some of my readers were unaware of the tumultuous history of the United States and its rebellious past after it had won its war for independence. I thought it prudent to discuss some of the history concerning three previous rebellions in the United States following the American Revolution: (1) Shay’s Rebellion, (2) the Whiskey Rebellion, and (3) Fries’s Rebellion. These three rebellions prove a few very important points and bust myths in the process:

  1. The government (contrary to popular belief), made up of founding fathers, did not respond favorably to armed, unsanctioned groups of protestors.
  2. Sanctioned militia, called up by United States drafts, were used to suppress violent and armed uprisings. The mobs who started these uprisings were not considered ‘militia’.
  3. A armed rebellion is not the same as the American revolution.

Conservative apostate David Frum looks at the historical record and says the same thing in his post No, the Second Amendment Does Not Authorize Armed Sedition.

Before 1965, it would have occurred to precisely nobody that the Second Amendment guaranteed the right to organize private armies independent of the state.

I have a blog post of my own on that subject, a well regulated militia, which examines the Constitution to determine what the Second Amendment is for.

Contra many gun regulation opponents' fantasies, the armed militia described in the Second Amendment is not meant to protect private gun ownership or to equip the populace to overthrow a tyrannical government. It is intended as an instrument of the Federal government.

Historian Kevin Sweeny looks at the history of the Second Amendment and argues that it unmistakably concerns Federal control over militias, not private firearm ownership.

The concerns that led to the Second Amendment were not the fear that the government would go around taking people's firearms—I mean, most of these were firearms that the government didn’t want. [The founders] wanted some reassurance that states could arm the militia if the federal government did not. This is largely a debate that has been missed. But it’s clear that James Madison and many other Southerners who had poorly armed militias wanted the federal treasury to arm them.

....

So, yes, those who today argue that the militia is a palladium of our liberties and freedoms have to remember that part of its purpose was to prevent insurrection.

Hrafnkell Haraldsson at PoliticsUSA catalogues some quotes about guns attributed to the Founders which they never actually said. Including this one, which I had been suckered by myself:

When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.

Dominic Tierney at The Atlantic notices a paradox in the politics of the people who are talking about the need for an armed citizenry as a bullwark against an oppressive government.

As governor of Alaska, [Sarah Palin] signed an amicus brief that claimed: “The Framers were understandably wary of standing armies and the powers of a potentially oppressive government.” The Second Amendment provides for “a citizenry capable of defending its rights by force, when all other means have failed, against any future oppression.” Last February, Palin even suggested that the federal government is “stockpiling bullets in case of civil unrest.

But where did these bullets come from? They came from champions of a strong military — like Sarah Palin. She believes in fiscal conservatism, but with a clear exception for defense. “We must make sure, however, that we do nothing to undermine the effectiveness of our military.” To diminish the government's standing army is to “risk losing all that makes America great!”

The Propaganda Professor takes on The Myth Of Hitler's Gun Ban and shows that it's both propaganda BS and not true.

Whenever a politician, or anyone else, starts talking about regulating guns, it’s a safe bet that someone will bring up how Hitler supposedly outlawed guns in Germany, which supposedly enabled him to do all the mischief he did.
....
Hitler really did enact a new gun law. But it was in 1938, not 1935 – well after the NAZIs already had the country in its iron grip. Furthermore, the new law in many ways LOOSENED gun restrictions.

Bernard E. Harcourt's article “On Gun Registration, the NRA, Adolf Hitler, and Nazi Gun Laws: Exploding the Gun Culture Wars (A Call to Historians)” (PDF) for the Fordham Law Review also argues that American opponents of gun control referencing Nazi gun control legislation are also misunderstanding history. Apropos of the 1938 law the Professor references above, he says:

It is fair to conclude, then, that the 1938 Nazi gun laws represented a slight relaxation of gun control, at least with regard to general gun acquisition, transfer, and carrying. To be sure, the Nazis were intent on killing Jewish persons and used the gun laws and regulations to further the genocide. But it appears that the Nazis aspired to a certain relaxation of gun laws for the “ordinary” or “law-abiding” German citizen, for those who were not, in their minds, “enemies of the National Socialist state.”

Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon also addresses The Hitler Gun Control Lie and addresses Stalin's supposed gun control policies.

The very idea of either gun control or the freedom to bear arms would have been absurd to [Stalin]. His regime used violence on a vast scale, provided arms to thugs of all descriptions, and stripped not guns but any human image from those it declared to be its enemies.

Ezra Klein at the Washington Post talks to Janet Rosenbaum, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center School, who informs us that Israel and Switzerland are not gun-toting utopias.

There’s this widespread misunderstanding that Israel and Switzerland promote gun ownership. They don’t. Ten years ago, when Israel had the outbreak of violence, there was an expansion of gun ownership, but only to people above a certain rank in the military. There was no sense that having ordinary citizens [carry guns] would make anything safer.

Switzerland has also been moving away from having widespread guns. The laws are done canton by canton, which is like a province. Everyone in Switzerland serves in the army, and the cantons used to let you have the guns at home. They’ve been moving to keeping the guns in depots. That means they’re not in the household, which makes sense because the literature shows us that if the gun is in the household, the risk goes up for everyone in the household.

The New York Times talks about a few other international examples in More Guns = More Killing.

Despite the ubiquitous presence of “good guys” with guns, countries like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Venezuela have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

“A society that is relying on guys with guns to stop violence is a sign of a society where institutions have broken down,” said Rebecca Peters, former director of the International Action Network on Small Arms. “It’s shocking to hear anyone in the United States considering a solution that would make it seem more like Colombia.”

Truthout asserts that the Second Amendment was ratified to preserve slavery.

If the anti-slavery folks in the North had figured out a way to disband - or even move out of the state — those southern militias, the police state of the South would collapse. And, similarly, if the North were to invite into military service the slaves of the South, then they could be emancipated, which would collapse the institution of slavery, and the southern economic and social systems, altogether. These two possibilities worried southerners like James Monroe, George Mason (who owned over 300 slaves) and the southern Christian evangelical, Patrick Henry (who opposed slavery on principle, but also opposed freeing slaves).

....

Their main concern was that Article 1, Section 8 of the newly-proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise and supervise a militia, could also allow that federal militia to subsume their state militias and change them from slavery-enforcing institutions into something that could even, one day, free the slaves.

Mike The Mad Biologist sharpens the point about militias and slavery.

In other words, the Second Amendment has to be read, in part, as a way to maintain militias under state (“State”)—and thus slaver—control, as opposed to letting the “Country” control them (a term used elsewhere in the Constitution to mean the federal government). As Hartmann describes, the Virginian contingent of the drafters of the Constitution were terrified that the Constitution would disband the militias ....

Another on the subject of slavery, from Mike The Mad Biologist:

What Nocera misses is that the key argument was over who would control the militias: Congress or the individual states. Virginian Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death”; boldface mine):
If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress [slave] insurrections [under this new Constitution]. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress .... Congress, and Congress only [under this new Constitution], can call forth the militia.

Another article, Slavery and the Second Amendment: Slave Patrol Militias from Michael R. Burch examines the language of the Second Amendment and finds militias serving as slave patrols.

These extensive militias had become part and parcel of southern society. Two decades before the Revolutionary War, the state of Georgia passed laws that required all plantation owners or their white male employees to enlist. The Georgia militias were required to make monthly inspections of all the state’s slave quarters. According to Professor Bogus, "The Georgia statutes required patrols, under the direction of commissioned militia officers, to examine every plantation each month and authorized them to search 'all Negro Houses for offensive Weapons and Ammunition' and to apprehend and give twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds."
....
Some slaveholders were concerned that Article 1, Section 8 of the then-proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise and supervise a militia, could result in a federal militia that absorbed the state militias and ended up freeing the slaves they had been keeping in chains!

A reader informs me of a little Boston Globe article about gun regulation in the UK. I note that despite very tight regulation, England has not become a totalitarian hellscape ... and when guns are outlawed, an amusing anecdote demonstrates how it can be hard for outlaws to get guns.

Inside plastic bags hidden in a trash collection room, officers uncovered two archaic flintlock pistols, retrofitted flare guns, and a Jesse James-style revolver. Now, that kind of an­tiquated firepower is about the baddest a gang member can get.

The Atlantic The Secret History of Guns offers some fascinating historical background.

The Founding Fathers instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them. While they did not care to completely disarm the citizenry, the founding generation denied gun ownership to many people: not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution.

For those men who were allowed to own guns, the Founders had their own version of the “individual mandate” that has proved so controversial in President Obama’s health-care-reform law: they required the purchase of guns. A 1792 federal law mandated every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters—where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls.

Rick Perlstein looks at the erosion of political strength behind gun control and comes to disquieting conclusions.

In other words, there is virtually no countervailing power to the now-hegemonic acceptance that there’s nothing much to do about the proliferation of guns in America. Democrats, as usual, gave an inch. The right, as usual, took a mile. And now we face the consequences.

Harold Meyerson looks at strong open carry laws and asks Whens Guns Trample Speech, Do We Have A Democracy?

Upon learning of the Utah law, Sarkeesian chose not to go ahead with her talk. No responsible person could have done otherwise. And that’s surely what the gamer twerp who sent the email had anticipated. After all, Utah’s gun laws could not have been more precisely designed to compel the cancellation, and to encourage more such threats and cancellations the next time a talk is scheduled that upsets some unbalanced or merely sinister figure.
Mark Ames at Pando acerbically describes connections between everyone-needs-a-gun enthusiasm and quasi-libertarian far right politics in A Brief History of American Gun Nuts.

The key to understanding why gun-nut politics thrives is that it’s a natural fit with a much more serious and powerful agenda — big business and the wealthiest upper crust. If all you do when you think of guns is think of an instrument that is dangerous, can kill, and is usually seen being waved around by dangerous criminals or pot-bellied white jerks in pickups, then you don’t see the angles. First, you need to disabuse yourself of the silly notion that the very rich and powerful in this country fear an armed citizenry, or an armed rebellion by “the people” — or anyone with guns, period. Government antitrust laws and taxes—that’s what keeps them up at night. Further down the line are labor and other government regulations, depending on the business. But for tech titans especially, the threats are antitrust and taxes—with labor a distant third. Few things are less threatening than the “revolution” threat by citizens clutching their guns and their Bill of Rights, or their Guy Fawkes masks, or their marked up copies of Kropotkin.

So why does the Big Business lobby align so seamlessly with the gun cultists?

Second Amendment cultists truly believe that guns are political power. That guns in fact are the only source of political power. That’s why, despite loving guns, and despite being so right-wing, they betray such a paranoid fear and hatred of armed agents of the government (minus Border Guards, they all tend to love our Border Guards). If you think guns, rather than concentrated wealth, equals political power, then you’d resent government power far more than you’d resent billionaires’ power or corporations’ hyper-concentrated wealth/power, because government will always have more and bigger guns. In fact you’d see pro-gun, anti-government billionaires like the Kochs as your natural political allies in your gun-centric notion of political struggle against the concentrated gun power of government.

How very convenient that works out to be.



Culture

What Gun Owners Really Want at The New Republic provides a bit of a window into gun owners' culture.

Growing up around guns and owning them as an adult affords a person memories and experiences that strangers to guns may have trouble understanding. The divide is phenomenological, not political (or not political until it gets to be), like the gulf between those who've had sex and those who haven't or those who smoke and those who've never lit up. Pulling a trigger and being prepared to do so cuts patterns in the self. Depending on the nature of your social life, which time around guns can shape and color in ways that I'll describe, you might forget that these patterns are even there, because you're surrounded by people who share them—until someone or some event challenges you to answer for your thinking.

Hope Reese at The Atlantic interviews Dan Baum about what liberals need to understand about “gun guys”.

The people who buy most of the guns are middle-aged white men who have not finished college. That demographic has been particularly screwed in this society in the past 30 years. They are losing ground economically, they are losing ground culturally, but in this country, to talk about your circumstances as part of a class is forbidden. So these guys have no vocabulary for discussing what has happened to them. All they know is, they're pissed.

The only people giving them a voice is the NRA, who comes along whispering in their ears, “The liberals want to take away your guns.” The gun is the one thing that makes these guys feel vital and useful and powerful and capable. They're managing these incredibly dangerous weapons, not hurting anybody, maybe they're wearing a gun and keeping people around them safe. They get a lot of pride and a lot of self-esteem from having these guns. This is not crazy, and this is not pitiable — this is real.

TBogg's essay I Was The NRA reflects on a change in the culture of hunters in his lifetime.

We felt safe in the field because the NRA had taught us how to be safe; to know where everyone else was when you pulled the trigger, to keep your weapon pointed at the ground, to open the breech and extract the shells if you weren’t hunting, to keep you finger off of the trigger unless you had reason to pull it.

As I grew older I began to notice a different breed of hunter; men who showed up with multiple shotguns as if they were golf clubs needed for specific shots. While most of us wore jeans, t-shirts and hunting vests, these newcomers dressed like they were going on safari, wearing bush hats, shooting jackets (in the 100 degree heat), and cargo pants with more pockets than there existed implements to fill them. You would see them walking the fields; shotgun draped over one arm, can of beer in the other hand. We learned to stay away from them.

Eric Raymond's essay Ethics from the Barrel of a Gun: What Bearing Weapons Teaches About the Good Life provides another compelling description of how many gun owners experience gun ownership. He describes his own relationship with guns as a kind of meditation on citizenship.

Nothing most of us will ever do combines the moral weight of life-or-death choice with the concrete immediacy of the moment as thoroughly as the conscious handling of instruments deliberately designed to kill. As such, there are lessons both merciless and priceless to be learned from bearing arms — lessons which are not merely instructive to the intellect but transformative of one's whole emotional, reflexive, and moral character. The first and most important of these lessons is this: it all comes down to you.

No one's finger is on the trigger but your own. All the talk-talk in your head, all the emotions in your heart, all the experiences of your past — these things may inform your choice, but they can't move your finger. All the socialization and rationalization and justification in the world, all the approval or disapproval of your neighbors — none of these things can pull the trigger either. They can change how you feel about the choice, but only you can actually make the choice. Only you. Only here. Only now. Fire, or not?

A second is this: never count on being able to undo your choices.

If you shoot someone through the heart, dead is dead. You can't take it back. There are no do-overs. Real choice is like that; you make it, you live with it — or die with it.

A third lesson is this: the universe doesn't care about motives.

If your gun has an accidental discharge while pointed an unsafe direction, the bullet will kill just as dead as if you had been aiming the shot. I didn't mean to may persuade others that you are less likely to repeat a behavior, but it won't bring a corpse back to life.

These are hard lessons, but necessary ones. Stated, in print, they may seem trivial or obvious. But ethical maturity consists, in significant part, of knowing these things — not merely at the level of intellect but at the level of emotion, experience and reflex. And nothing teaches these things like repeated confrontation with life-or-death choices in grave knowledge of the consequences of failure.

Unhappily, Raymond's whimsically-titled Gun Nut Page prominently features John Lott's work among “scholarly studies”, which makes me distrust the other sources there and Raymond's judgment.

Dave Grossman's On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs is an expression of a common sentiment in gun culture.

One Vietnam veteran, an old retired colonel, once said this to me:
Most of the people in our society are sheep. They are kind, gentle, productive creatures who can only hurt one another by accident. Then there are the wolves, and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy. Then there are sheepdogs, and I'm a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.

Michael David Cobb Bowen references both that metaphor of the Wolf and Eric S Raymond's comment in The Wolf, a meditation on learning skills with firearms and joining the ranks of the “sheepdogs”.

The most important thing about gaining this skill is the appreciation I have for other people who have it and the recognition of us as a force. Essentially, I can recognize other people who see the same foolishness in video portrayals of shooting pistols and rifles. I can separate the fact from the fiction and determine how much plot narrative of our entertainments depends upon entirely magical powers of weapons. I'm not the only one who sees through the curtain. And so I have a new brotherhood. The brotherhood of those who have the obligation to take the shot, and not miss. I don't want to be one obligated to make the shot. So I have not sworn an oath to defend the Constitution against all foes. I have not trained to stand on that wall. But I am in their minds and they are in mine. We are united in purpose, it is only our duties that separate us.

A less romantic version of this sentiment can be found in Igloowhite's scary little memoir I Glimpse The Elephant.

Men who have been in combat will often say that there is no comparable experience to it in the whole of the world. They say it's like a car accident, that it is totalizing terror, that it is like watching yourself in a movie, that it is like many things. The usual metaphor is the old story of the three blind men and the elephant. ... This is the reason that men have often called their first combat experience "seeing the elephant.”
....
Seeing the elephant is some serious shit — as serious as it gets, so let me be right up front with this: I have not seen the elephant. I have glimpsed it, however — and that little peek was enough for me.

In the leftist magazine The Baffler Have Guns, Will Liberate is a review by Chase Madar of Jennifer Carson's book about gun enthusiasts Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline which shows them echoing Raymond's sentiments, and offers some explantations of the cultural politics behind it.

The men and women who are her informants are not all that different from her; far from being fuming resentniks, they see themselves as civic-minded people who offer up their armed vigilance as a contribution to the common good. While other sociologists of gun culture have emphasized its high quotients of bile and backlash, Carlson highlights the Good Samaritan mindset of gun owners: these everyday, armed Americans want to be ready to stop the next carjacking, school shooting, or act of international terrorism, which they think could happen at any moment. They just want everyone to be safe and would hate to see anyone get hurt.

James McMurtry offers a meditation from gun country.

I don't want to take away anyone's Uzi. I don't want to restrict anyone's right to dig up a hillside with an AK-47, but I want that constable or deputy to have an extra second to make the shooting stop; that way, someone gets to see their child, someone who wouldn't without that extra second. I don't know of a fair way to make that happen. And no, I don't know if the unfair way would work either, but it seems like it might, at least in a case or two. Might.... once again. One must try.

Occasioned by the discussion of George Zimmerman's acquittal for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Scott Lemieux raises hard questions about the consequences of having a lot of armed citizens.

Carrying a deadly weapon in public should carry unique responsibilities. In most cases someone with a gun should not be able to escape culpability if he initiates a conflict with someone unarmed and the other party ends up getting shot and killed. Under the current law in many states, people threatened by armed people have few good options, because fighting back might create a license to kill. As the New Yorker's Amy Davidson puts it, “I still don't understand what Trayvon was supposed to do.” Unless the law is changed to deal with the large number of people carrying concealed guns, there will be more tragic and unnecessary deaths of innocent people like Trayvon Martin for which nobody is legally culpable. And to make claims of self-defense easier to bring, as Florida and more than 20 other states have done, is moving in precisely the wrong direction. And, even more importantly, no matter how self-defense laws are structured the extremely unusual American practice of allowing large number of citizens to carry concealed weapons leads to many unecessary deaths. (All 50 states, it's worth noting, permit concealed carry.) Cases like the killing of Martin should compel reconsideration of the lack of significant gun control in the United States, but for whatever reason this isn't the lesson that most legislators are likely to draw.

Adam Weinstein at Salon in It's Really Hard to Be a Good Guy With a Gun looks closely at the details of how an armed citizenry is really supposed to help, and finds gun proponents' heroic fantasies lacking.

The universe of scenarios in which carrying a gun seems prudent or useful just keeps shrinking and shrinking, even as the legal freedom to wield personal firepower keeps expanding. The NRA has recalibrated its message for the 21st century: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But in many ways, the 21st century has already overtaken us good guys.

In Do Armed Civilians Stop Mass Shooters? Actually, No Mark Follman debunks some commonly-cited examples of “a good guy with a gun”.

  • Appalachian School of Law shooting in Grundy, Virginia
  • Middle school dance shooting in Edinboro, Pennsylvania
  • High school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi
  • New Life Church shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • Bar shooting in Winnemucca, Nevada
  • Shopping mall shooting in Tacoma, Washington
  • Courthouse shooting in Tyler, Texas

Mike the Mad Biologist quotes a news item about a guy exercising his “Second Amendment rights”, with some cunning use of emphasis, and it's hard to resist a psychologizing reading of it.

According to witnesses who spoke with WSB-TV, the man wandered around the Forsythe County park last Tuesday night showing his gun to strangers, telling them “there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Anyone who was just walking by – you had parents and children coming in for the game – and he’s just standing here, walking around [saying] ‘You want to see my gun? Look, I got a gun and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ He knew he was frightening people. He knew exactly what he was doing,” said parent Karen Rabb.

Rabb said that the man’s intimidating behavior panicked parents causing them to hustle children who were there to play baseball to safety after the man refused to leave.

Digby, writing at Salon, considers the case above and other obnoxious behavior by open-carry activists and comes to unflattering conclusions.

You can see why they think that’s freedom. It is. For them. The rest of us just have to be very polite, keep our voices down and back away very slowly, saying, “Yes sir, whatever you say, sir,” and let them have their way.

I've been wondering what it is about suburban young White guys which makes them occasionally freak out and kill a bunch of people. Michael Kimmel and Cliff Leek don't have an answer, but they frame the question well.

This new phenomenon of suicide-by-mass-murder has emerged as a corollary to the earlier suicide-by-cop as a phenomenon of those whose real goal is, at least in part, to kill themselves — and to take out as many of “them” as possible on the way. And this seems to be an entirely white male thing.

Dealing with guns at Making Light offers some useful comments about problems with the argument that ready availability of guns will actually reduce the threat of violence because will be better able to defend themselves.

A handgun is not a magic wand. Displaying it will not cast a spell of caution or calmness on the various parties. A loaded weapon makes people crazy — the person at which it is aimed, the persons who are witnesses, and often the person who is holding it.

Josh Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo addresses the cultural politics in Speaking For My Tribe.

In the current rhetorical climate people seem not to want to say: I think guns are kind of scary and don’t want to be around them.

That frightens me. I don’t want to have those in my home. I don’t particularly want to be around people who are carrying. Cops, I don’t mind. They’re trained, under an organized system and supposed to use them for a specific purpose. But do I want to have people carrying firearms out and about where I live my life — at the store, the restaurant, at my kid’s playground? No, the whole idea is alien and frankly scary. Because remember, guns are extremely efficient tools for killing people and people get weird and do stupid things.

A big part of gun versus non-gun tribalism or mentality is tied to the difference between city and rural. And a big reason ‘gun control’ in the 70s, 80s and 90s foundered was that in the political arena, the rural areas rebelled against the city culture trying to impose its own ideas about guns on the rural areas. And there’s a reality behind this because on many fronts the logic of pervasive gun ownership makes a lot more sense in sparsely populated rural areas than it does in highly concentrated city areas.

But a huge amount of the current gun debate, the argument for the gun-owning tribe, amounts to the gun culture invading my area, my culture, my part of the country.

Paul Waldman at The American Prospect has a kind of sequel to Marshall's post, Here a Gun, There a Gun, Everywhere a Gun.

But gun advocates want to create a society governed by fear, or at the very least, make sure that everyone feels the same fear they feel. “An armed society is a polite society,” they like to say, and it's polite because we're all terrified of each other. They genuinely believe that that the price of safety is that there should be no place where guns, and the fear and violence they embody, are not present. Not your home, not your kids' school, not your supermarket, not your church, no place. But for many of us—probably for most of us—that vision of society is nothing short of horrifying.

Borrowing from that Waldman piece, I have an old commentary on the subject of A Polite Society.

If you're Black, the effects of systemic racism have salted your community with armed, violent hotheads; if you're White, those implications don't even occur to you.

Joe Bageant talking about the discussion of guns in his wonderful book Deer Hunting With Jesus also talks about the cultural factor.

.... assessing gun ownership is spongy ground at best. It's a matter of trying to asses the color of the bottle from the inside. None of us do it well. Objectively speaking, I don't believe any American needs to own a gun. But as long as so many Americans believe they do, we're going to have the ongoing debate, not to mention the total bafflement of the outside world as it watches. To an American, guns represent an entirely different thing — several of them actually — than they do to other nationalities not steeped in gun ownership.

Somehow though, I believe the gun ownership debate detracts from the real issue of America's interior psychic violence, which manifests itself in so many escalating ways these days. Said violence is very deeply ingrained.

....

Consequently, a great many people own guns out of pure fear of a worst case scenario which varies according to the person's anxieties. These include government intrusion by a hardening totalist state; crime activity generated by wealth disparity and a growing and increasingly desperate underclass; sexual violence perpetrated upon women (fear of which has been inherent in urban women for a long, long time); and plain old American distrust of authority and its abuses. And finally there is the mundane familiarity with guns on the part of so many Americans, built over generations of everyday exposure, among which I number — people who understand that guns don' t pull their their own triggers.

In a country where high background stress and insecurity is the norm, and where greed is purposefully stimulated and misnamed "personal drive," and especially one in which gun ownership is protected by the nation's most esteemed founding document, I cannot imagine Americans asking anytime soon just what national disease is causing so many of its men and boys to pull that trigger. The answer is just too horrible to face, because we would all have to take responsibility for our failure as individuals and as a society.

So we delude ourselves that we can legislate and/or criminalize behavior as a substitute for asking that national question. Perhaps if we suffer the consequences of our national long enough, perhaps with a dozen more school shootings, we will find the balls to ask that question. But I doubt it.

David Brin offers The Jefferson Rifle as a reflection on the question in the form of a semi-serious proposal.

Here is a possible compromise, one of many. Moderate gun owners just might accept reforms that treat most personal weapons like motorcars — including registration, mandatory training, licensing and insurance — if they were also offered some surety against the dreaded slippery slope. This could consist of a grand compact permanently setting aside one class of firearms from oversight.

Traditional bolt-action rifles and simple shotguns are rarely used by criminals, impulse murderers, or children.
....
Oh, there is one more place where the bolt-action rifle proved itself — on the battlefield.

Boots Riley has a series of tweets talking about how the left was not always a proponent of gun control ... and the shift is entangled with racism.

I'd like to put forward that gun control is not actually a left idea. Its about “progressives” attachment to the democratic party.
The left used to champion striking miners fighting back against pinkerton security with their guns.
The first gun control laws came about from media created hysteria about the “Negro crime waves” of the 1920s.

Alex Gourevitch points to the strong tendency toward racism in the selective enforcement of gun control legislation.

...policing guns is just like policing drugs. Like drugs, there are a vast number of guns. Possession is far more widespread than can possibly be policed so decisions have to be made about where to devote resources. Furthermore, since possession itself is the crime, the only way to police that crime is to shift from actual harm to identifying and preventing risks. As legal scholar Benjamin Levin argues in a forthcoming piece

“Searching for guns – like searching for drugs – can easily become pretextual, a proxy for some general prediction of risk, danger, or lawlessness.”

In other words, there must be selective enforcement, where enforcement includes invasive searches based on existing prejudices about who is and isn’t dangerous. For example, as research by Jeff Fagan and Garth Davies shows, in the late 1990s, the NYPD used suspected weapons violations to justify numerous stops, even though these stops resulted in fewer arrests than stops for other crimes. And when it comes to individualized assessments of who is dangerous and worthy of punishment, every study shows steep, and unfounded, bias.

An interview with Charles E. Cobb about his book This Nonviolent Stuff'll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible at The American Prospect makes a similar point.

You couldn’t live in any household in a rural Southern community without guns, and people weren’t afraid to use them. During the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, Reverend King had guns all over his house. Glenn Smiley, one of King’s advisers, called King’s home an “arsenal.” That’s a Southern thing. I’ve been in houses where guns have been in the nightstand, under the pillow, in the chair.

Mike Newirth writing in The Baffler gives us an erudite rant on gun violence Death Travels West, Watch Him Go, sparing neither the NRA nor cops nor suburban commandos.

Which facet of our contemporary gun violence is most intolerable? Is it the racist edge-city rages of Smith and Baumhammers? The cracked-up, nerded-out boy who opts for early revenge at his underfunded hell of a high school in Kentucky or Arkansas or Washington—states where guns are common as grain? The Michigan first-grader who gleaned from his ragged home the coding that compelled him to shoot a classmate in the head? The Baltimore or D.C. ’banger who pulls the trigger of his cheap 9 mm for reasons that can barely be understood within their tragic seconds? Or the “tragic miscalculation” of plain-clothes officers who empty their high-capacity clips to put down a black man reaching for a wallet? Whichever, it’s hard to deny that the national love of guns is wreathed in a bloodthirstiness that somehow negates the caution of millions of responsible gun owners; is choked with a quickening rage that, from the penny-ante fascism of spree killers to the “acceptable” casualties of the Drug War, is fast approaching conflagration. How long will the nation remain lost to this violent dream of itself?

Gary Wills in the New York Review of Books gives us Our Moloch, a chilling meditation on the strange awe of guns which inhabits our politics.

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.

Via conservative apostate David Frum, a few words from Thucydides about whether an armed society is a polite society.

The whole of Hellas used once to carry arms, their habitations being unprotected and their communication with each other unsafe; indeed, to wear arms was as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians. ... The Athenians were the first to lay aside their weapons, and to adopt an easier and more luxurious mode of life.

Digby has a sharp-toothed comment on how, in an unhappy sense, some people conclude that an armed society is a polite society.

I don't think the NRA dream will be realized. Something much more repressive and socially stifling is taking place. In the final analysis, I think most people will not take a chance on getting into a deadly altercation. If it becomes accepted that the bullying types who demand “respect” and like to tell strangers to follow their orders are packing heat most people aren't going carry their own guns and they aren't going to be reckless enough to get into gun battles with armed thugs.

They will submit.

They will keep quiet.

They will apologize and move on.

Sure, there will be more killing of young men and assorted people asserting their right to speak, but once most of us understand that we could die if we fail to follow a bullying stranger's orders, we'll usually do what we're told. Life is already short enough.

And the gun proliferation zealots will call it liberty.