Guns and Kansas

In his seminal What’s The Matter With Kansas, Thomas Frank made the argument that the once fiery heart of progressivism and the Granger movement has allied itself with the Republican party (which in the language of the totebagger means “voting against their self-interest”) because of the neoliberal economy. As candidate Obama put it, they “cling” to guns and God.

What one can take from this is that (1) not everyone defines self-interest the same way, (2) a large portion of people will react to adversity in a way different than you think is in their “interest,” and (3) the neoliberal economy is really the issue.

In a world where you’re becoming more poor, the outside world seems more dangerous, and the politicians don’t even pretend to care about you, religion and guns don’t seem like such a crazy thing to turn to. In fact, this is what people do world-wide, from the Kansas prairie, to the Judean hills, to the Pakistani and Egyptian megapolises. (I remain surprised to this day that this has not occurred in Latin America. Perhaps it’s precisely because radical groups do, on occasion, achieve power there that this is the case.)

Guns give some people the feeling that there is a line that cannot be crossed, even when every other line is crossed. And to a certain extent, this is true.

It may not matter if there are any more school shootings, but the problem with the current strategy on guns (at least the persuasive strategy, if not the legislative-legal one) is that it does not suffer this distinction. In that sense, it is the inverse of anti-abortion fanatics who scoff at major reductions in the number of abortions and only want to see it totally criminalized, even though this will unquestionably not eliminate it.

Ignoring some things that are true (even if tautologically so) coming from the pro-gun side will ultimately take a lot of the wind out of the sails of the less organized, less long-term passionate anti side. For example, you can shoot bad guys. Police at schools is something parents would love, even if civil libertarians won’t.

What level-headed policy-makers should seek to do first is look at the problem epidemiologically and try to find a way to reduce the absolute number of guns without necessarily banning anything. The first school shooting that involves the kind of gun that Lee Harvey Oswald used will show just how minor an assault weapons ban would be in relation to this particular problem. (The assault weapons ban is a vestige of crackdowns on “inner city” problems such as gangs, drug trafficking, and so forth.)

The most effective extant way to do this at present is a buy-back program. This would reduce the number of guns “in the wild” and may reduce a number of accidents (a huge problem) but will not take guns away from those who associate them the most with power or who are the nuttiest. In fact, it will just strengthen their resolve in a What’s The Matter With Kansas type of way.

I don’t know what comes next. Someone smart will have to come up with it.

But until we confront the root of the gun culture—and simply saying it’s some kind of pathological fixation on violence is a sort of tribalism that really misses the core of the issue—which is the powerlessness that is a side-effect of the neoliberal economy, it will persist. Now, it could be that this is a side-effect we want to live with because alternatives are worse, but until this question is really asked, it can’t be answered.


One thought on “Guns and Kansas”

  1. This really jibes closely with my own thinking on the issue — yes, the core of the issue is the powerlessness that is a side-effect of the neoliberal economy. However, describing gun culture as a “pathological fixation on violence” is not, in any way, “missing the core of the issue.” As a description, it’s completely accurate, but also unhelpful without the understanding that this pathology exists in the context of a defense mechanism.

    Specifically, the fixation is centered on fantasies of redemptive violence. Indulging in these fantasies allows the participant in gun culture to escape the awareness of an unpleasant reality (which you correctly identify)…. and by escaping such awareness, they are able to avoid the hard work of both re-orienting their perception in a healthy manner, and of taking action upon the resulting perspective… after all, fantasizing about what you’ll do when the shit hits the fan is an excellent way not to think about what exactly is inside that sandwich you have to eat…

    This explains why a large industry exists to directly and indirectly feed these fantasies. First, because indulging people’s dysfunctional behavior will always be a good money-making strategy, but more than that, because a large segment of the political and financial elite in this nation maintains power by actively encouraging people to define their self-interest in a manner that is contrary to fact. As you write: “Guns give people the feeling that there is a line that cannot be crossed, even when every other line is crossed.”

    Indeed. And as long as gun culture participants remain assured that “the line that cannot be crossed” hasn’t been — i.e. that a particular fantasy of redemptive violence shared within gun culture, that I shall dub The Black Helicopter Scenario, has not actually burst forth from their perfervid collective unconscious like Athena from Zeus’ brow — as long as that fails to occur, they will continue not only to overlook their own actual victimization, but to lend aid and comfort to their exploiters.

    In terms of practical solutions, I don’t know either… but in terms of confronting the roots of gun culture, I think we can start by turning a half-truth into a full one — guns don’t kill people, people who consume authoritarian propaganda telling them they can escape complicity in an unjust system through acts of redemptive violence kill people… And if that’s tribalism, so be it.


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