Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Full Collision Politics

We’ve heard the refrain so often now, it’s become downright boring: if anyone wants to discuss the proliferation of military-grade weapons in civilian hands, two answers effectively silence all debate. In ordinary times, defenders of the status quo whine: We have bigger issues demanding our attention. Now isn’t the time. And following mass shootings, these same defenders snivel: Don’t you dare politicize our national tragedy! Now isn’t the time.

Well, at this writing, we haven’t had a headline-grabbing mass shooting in several weeks—though, considering today’s news cycle, that claim may be outdated before you read this essay—so there’s no raw tragedy to politicize. And we’re entering an election cycle where presidential candidates from Lindsey Graham to Hillary Clinton want to foreground national security concerns. Since recurrent domestic terrorism constitutes a security concern, is now finally the time?

Americans own nearly half the world’s civilian firearms, with a saturation rate of nearly ninety percent. However, while gun quantities have increased, gun ownership rates have actually declined, signifying a hoarding tendency in ownership. CNN reports that, in a significantly deregulated weapons market, flamethrowers have become a going commodity, channeling cultural memories of Vietnam-era napalm attacks, surely not America’s proudest recollections.

This militarized civilian population travels hand-in-glove, or possibly jackboot-in-leg-iron, with city police forces armed like an occupying military. Over the last year, images of Ferguson, Missouri’s overwhelmingly white police force dispersing unarmed protesters using tanks has become dishearteningly iconic. Last week, the Oath Keepers, a military dissident group, visited Ferguson to stop “looters,” a longstanding dog-whistle term used to describe uppity African Americans.

Attitudes toward firearms have achieved the standing of legitimate moral panic. My sister, who works in order fulfillment at sporting goods giant Cabela’s, reported such a massive upsurge in orders for ninety-round drum-loader rifle magazines following the Sandy Hook school shooting that the backlog reached four months. Formerly a Second Amendment absolutist herself, my sister’s views shifted markedly: “Nobody,” she said, “is buying a ninety-round drum magazine to hunt deer.”

Members of the Oath Keepers dissident militia patrol the streets of
Ferguson, Missouri, last week in this news photo

The standoff between what libertarian journalist Radley Balko calls “the warrior cop,” and a civilian population living like beleaguered French Resistance, hasn’t made anybody happier. I seriously doubt it’s made anybody feel more secure. Though most non-white-collar crimes have fallen sharply in recent years, mass shootings have become more common in this era of gun hoarding, not less. We’ve become more likely to enact our paranoias on crowds of strangers.

Meanwhile, the cocoon of partisan media protects true believers from encountering opinions that make them uncomfortable. Conservatives have Fox News, National Review, and Breitbart to keep emotions high regarding our God-given right to own firearms, while progressives let MSNBC, Mother Jones, and Gawker remind them how awful guns really are. If this “debate” seems interminable, it’s because the participants have stopped even bothering to talk to one another.

Thus, while high-profile violence continues to proliferate, nothing actually gets done. Paid pundits whip both sides into a lather; people sign online petitions; politicians tell voters what voters already believe while sucking, lamprey-like, on the asses of their big-money donors. A complex economy of outrage peddlers convinces us we’re doing something about the problem, when we’re actually providing passive eyeball monetization for the advertisers who profit from the status quo.

Now, let’s pause and establish what we’re not discussing. No national-grade political figure I know seriously suggests mass roundups of civilian guns. Not only because such actions would be unconstitutional, but because they would be deeply impractical: there are reportedly more firearms than adult Americans in this country, and we don’t know where they all are. Any roundup would quickly become both logistically impossible and a civil liberties nightmare.

However, we have an opportunity here that currently remains largely unrecognized. The combination of relative peace, a moment of pause in headline-screaming violence, happens to coincide with the kickoff to a national election season in which several candidates, some very charismatic, intend to vie for the Presidency, and no incumbent sets the tone. Our national discourse is wide open to discuss real issues. We just have to ask the question.

We’ve received this moment serendipitously, and as citizens, we could embrace it. We could demand our leaders and would-be leaders explain how they intend to curb America’s bend toward violence, without infringing our constitutional liberties. We, the citizens, could take the initiative in defining America’s national discourse. Or we could await the next tragic collision, and the deflections that inevitably follow. Please, let’s take the more noble, more active course.

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