What We Should Mock About When We Mock About Guns


“Heavy Weapons Guy and Vash the Stampede” by 5of7 on Flickr.


“Enjoy your guns, gun owners. I hope they make you happy in a way that breathing, smiling six-year old children cannot.” – Jon Rosenberg, Scenes From a Multiverse.

[EDIT: So, that quote seemed like a good idea at 11PM when I finished this post and slapped it up there, but in retrospect I think sets the wrong tone for a lot of the discussion here. I'm not zapping it out of existence, because no one should forget that I'm a dick, but I'm retracting my endorsement of it.]

Let me start with a controversial claim: to heck with The Matrix Revolutions. Straight to heck.

We’re going to get to guns. We need to, that’s the whole driver behind the existence of this blog! Anotherpanacea has been bugging me to blog for a while now, and so I promised that the first time I had something extended to say on the internet, I would blog about it rather than emailing him or having a really painful extended Twitter conversation about it.  And so I was thinking about his recent series of posts on gun control, and thought “I should email Anotherpanacea about this,” and then thought: shit.  So now I’ve got a blog, and we’re going to get to guns, and we’re going to get back to The Matrix Revolutions, but first we’re going to talk a little bit about my boltcutters.

I own a pair of boltcutters.  I bought them for an utterly mundane, bourgeois purpose – we have a padlock on our back gate, and over the winter it irretrievably seized up from moisture getting inside and freezing and mucking up whatever magical mechanisms make locks work, and so I had to take the garbage out by walking it all the way down the hall and then all the way down the sidewalk to the back of the property where the alley is and garbage is heavy and stinks, as you may have noticed.  So I went to my friendly neighborhood hardware store (that doesn’t sell kitchen scales because they kept getting stolen by heroin dealers for weighing stuff – which, seriously, are the margins on heroin so bad you’re stealing scales?) and bought some boltcutters. I’ve since used them on that darn lock, another one that froze up, some bolts (go figure!) that got embedded in the bed frame (long, not at all risque, story), and the splendid ring you can see me sporting in the first post.


BUT.  Did you actually click the link on “boltcutters” above?  If not, go do it.  It’s relevant, and it is just a righteous fucking song.

Boltcutters are more than just a tool. I am not nearly as cool as the vacant-squatting, private-property-disdaining Doomtree crew, but when I pick up my boltcutters to do even something kind of mundane, I hear in my head, “my girl gave me a boltcutter, we like to break in…”

One day, some yahoo locked their bike through my bike at Penn Station. I was annoyed, you might expect.  I couldn’t leave until this wanker got back from wherever zie was… wanking, maybe?  I don’t like to imagine that zie had had to park in a hurry because of the emergency brain surgery, as it harshes my rage buzz. But more importantly for the issue at hand, I was thinking, “man, I bet I could get my boltcutters…”  I don’t normally even contemplate the destruction of other people’s property, but knowing I had a metal-crushing device at home, and with my head filled with romantic anarchistic fantasies of the efficacy of crushing metal in achieving social justice/petty revenge, I was tempted.

Now, if you find this bad-ass romanticized anarchism repellent instead of attractive, you are probably thinking: asshole! Destroying and/or #occupying private property isn’t awesome and punk rock, it’s a total dick move!

Would your response be to advocate a ban on boltcutters?

Probably not terribly likely. They’re useful tools with legitimate purposes.  It’s just you don’t want assholes like me being tempted to misuse them.

But let’s say that Baltimore gets slightly worse and people busting into vacants and squatting is really becoming an issue, so you decide, OK, let’s regulate boltcutters. We want to be able to track people down if they steal a foreclosed house for shelter. We don’t want the cops to confiscate some punk’s boltcutters and then have hir just be able to go buy a new pair at that hipster hardware store.

Of course, this creates consternation and backlash. In particular, some people like me yelling about how private property is theft and if you give the state control of boltcutters, all boltcutters will be used to prop up the state. You counter with all sorts of statistics about how allowing houses to be foreclosed and re-sold rather than tied up with people trying to keep families living in them, or turn them over to commies and the homeless actually helps the market recover faster so that everyone can get their jobs at Lehman Brothers and Sparrow’s Point and Subway back (except not at Sparrow’s Point, you say: suck it, unions!).

Here come the well-meaning public policy types.  They say, look, the stats are never going to convince people like that Wrongzo guy. You have different cultural risk assessments! You’re worried about the value of private property and your 401k, and Wrongzo is worried about the risk of being homeless! You’re talking past each other! What you need to do is meet him on some middle ground, acknowledge his feelings about private property and stuff, and try to find a way to engage with his values.

Here’s where you say: fuck you, thinly veiled gun-debate analogy guy! Wrongzo’s values are communist terrorist values that suck and are wrong! And what happened to nice rappers like Run DMC?

The problem with the policy solution offered is that we’re not arguing about boltcutters.  We’re arguing about class war. If you win on boltcutters at the expense of losing on class war… not a great outcome.

This is why I think the approach that Anotherpanacea (remember those linked posts) is picking up from Braman and Kahan is wrong.

You should read the posts and the paper, but there are two important bits.

1. All the numbers in the world won’t end the US gun control debate, because the debate isn’t about numbers. People who love guns know that they’re deadlier than knives. People who hate guns know that car accidents kill more people each year (for now). But we’re really fighting over the “cultural meaning” of guns. People who love guns love them because they represent individualism and the defense of proper hierarchy. People who hate guns hate them because they represent mutual suspicion instead of solidarity, and the propping up of unjust hierarchy.

2. The way forward is to find a way to create a discourse that recognizes the important cultural meanings of guns to the egalitarians, the authoritarians, and the individualists, and comes up with compromises and grand bargains that makes everyone feel honored. For instance, they suggest that we simultaneously adopt registration (showing that gun owners are willing and required to be responsible to their fellow humans, as egalitarian-solidarists want) and recognize the individual right to bear arms (showing that gun owners will not be stripped of their rights, as individualists want). Anotherpanacea suggests focusing on some of the risks (like harming family members, or facilitating suicide) that guns have that presumably even their ardent supporters don’t want and reducing some of those through licensing, ammunition control, etc.

These solutions are missing the forest for the trees.

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

Pick up your monocles, gun defenders, this is probably the last thing I’m going to say that you’re going to like.

Or, rather, social hierarchies kill people.

Judith Butler has this wonderful term, “precarity,” that refers to the ways in which social structures expose people to risk and harm. I’m running roughshod over her careful, elaborate, and incomprehensible prose, but the bottom line is this: all life is precarious. We’re all subject to death from a variety of sources at any moment, and death will eventually come to us all.  But the ways that we are exposed to risk are social. I could go to DR Congo and walk around North Kivu at relatively little risk, despite it being an active war zone, because I was hanging with the UN. More generally, I live in Baltimore, one of the most violent cities in America, but the fact that I am white, live in a fairly affluent neighborhood, and don’t buy, sell, or use heroin means that I’m pretty unlikely to become one of the 200+ murder victims we have here each year.

Ultimately, the way a bullet kills you is a brute matter of the physics of metal and meat. But thinking of how people die in the US as a matter of physics is boneheaded.

So I think Anotherpanacea is wrong because he’s got the fight backwards. We’re not fighting guns and being sucked into the quicksand of egalitarian-solidarism vs. hierarchical-individualism. We’re fighting hierarchy and getting sucked into guns.

Take one thing that Anotherpanacea himself has pointed out. If we banned guns nationwide tomorrow, how do you think it would play out?  Would the cops be busting down my door on suspicion that I might have a hunting rifle? Probably not. They’d be stopping and frisking young black men down the street from me, and throwing them in jail. They’d be kicking poor people out of subsidized housing because a family member had a gun.

Take a thing a lot of people have pointed out: pretty much universally, mass shootings are a thing that white men do to other white, relatively affluent people. But the real death toll isn’t driven by spectacular media-friendly killing sprees. It’s the constant drip, drip, drip of blood in urban centers characterized by poverty and inequality.

Take away guns, poof, as if by magic, and what happens? Probably, police use the ban to crack down harder on those we already crack down on. Probably, people in “urban sacrifice zones” keep dying, just not by guns. They’re going to keep dying from malnutrition, stress, lack of education, lack of hope, drugs, pollution, and all the other things besides guns that people need to deal with. All that precarity. The flow of metal into bodies is just one stream in the mighty flow of money and power and fear that characterizes our system.

So, guns, whatever. Take away the fear and hatred that drives the hierarchical-individualist worldview (and its purity norms, on which a future discussion) and probably we have guns that police occasionally use against sociopaths and hunters use to get game meat, and boltcutters I only use on my back gate.  The fight is with hierarchy, not guns.

Take mental illness for one thing. A lot of people have been talking about how we need to take better care of the mentally ill, including the NRA (better care =   government monitoring – one reason my money is on the hierarchical part of the worldview being more important to “gun culture” than the individualist). But most mentally ill people don’t murder anyone - in fact they are more likely to be the subject of violence than its perpetrator. And a lot of folks have arm-chair diagnosed Adam Lanza without much basis other than the fact that, you know, he killed a lot of people.

And hell, if you believe gun deaths are about physics, you’ll believe mental illness is about random organic misfire, rather than about economically-related abuse and the stress of living a precarious life. Just give the poor some Abilify, that will fix the roaches on everything.

Precarity, hierarchy, it’s what’s killing people. Metal and disease and fear just tag along on the flows.

So, this makes me one of the “extremists” that Braman and Kahan worry about. They will find me “obnoxious.” I’m cool with that.

Their approach to the gun debate only works if you take the gun debate as the important focus and cultural worldviews as fixed.  We shouldn’t do either, and I’ve argued for the first bit already.

The second bit, well, a couple years back Anthony Appiah wrote a very interesting little book called The Honor Code. The question was: how did we get big, paradigm-shift moral reforms in history, like the end of dueling, slavery, and foot-binding in China?

I don’t necessarily buy every bit of his analysis, but the core idea is suggestive. Dueling didn’t end because people figured out that it was dangerous. I mean, duh. Dueling ended because it came to be seen as part of a boorish, wasteful, laughable code of “honor” not befitting gentlemen. Similarly with slavery and foot-binding: they ended when they became disreputable. And a major tool in the arsenal was not engaging people and honoring their tender pro-dueling worldview. It was marginalizing and mocking and satirizing and humiliating them.

OK, Marxists, yeah, changing economic modes probably had a lot to do with slavery, that’s part of where I’m not totally with him.

Now, Braman and Kahan specifically call out ridicule as a tactic they don’t approve of, and which they think doesn’t work. I call someone a gun-toting redneck, and they laugh and eat some more saltpeter-flavored pork rinds. No advance.

But let’s target our mockery. I’m not mocking someone for being rural. I’m mocking them for fearing me. For needing to control people to feel good about themselves. For talking like turning lives into meat is cool and fun to pretend at. For worshipping stupid narratives where all solidarity and planning and mutual support is for naught unless that one chosen one they imagine they are saves everyone. For complaining that the poor aren’t grateful enough while clinging to a world-view that pretends people owe nothing to each other. For fearing dependence, decrepitude, infancy, and birth, and hence being willing to sacrifice everyone else on the altar of a continent-wide, 300 million+ member death cult so that we and ours can live a little bit longer.

So, whatever. WordPress and Chrome are literally rebelling at the length of this post and starting to eat my typing. I don’t know if Appiah is right and heaping despite, or even sly humor, on the defenders of hierarchy will actually work. Maybe agriculture already doomed us. I’m sure Anotherpanacea’s quite sober and reasonable policy proposals – that don’t mention death cults or Judith Butler – will advance the ball a bit.

But I want to at least make a plea for us to fight the right fight. And I think that  we can win the battle but lose the war if we regulate guns in a grand bargain to preserve hierarchical-individualism.

Lots of reasonable people are afraid of the noise of a real fight over the cancer of authoritarianism and hierarchy. Me, I’m starting to hate the quiet moments.