ANYBODY STILL hoping for a sensitive and serious national debate in the wake of the Newtown elementary school shootings probably hasn't heard that January 19 is Gun Appreciation Day.
Is it just me, or does it seem early this year? I've barely recovered from New Year's, and it's already time for making homemade, hollow-tipped ammo and gathering around the family firearm for carols (my personal favorite is "There's Nothing Semi-Automatic About Our Love").
Actually, Gun Appreciation Day is a right-wing media stunt to protest the new momentum for gun control laws that has followed Adam Lanza's massacre in Newtown with a semiautomatic Bushmaster XM-15 rifle.
And Wade Michael Page's rampage in a Sikh temple with a Springfield Armory XD(M) 9mm semiautomatic pistol.
And James Holmes' movie theater shooting spree with a Remington 870 pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, Smith & Wesson M&P15 semiautomatic rifle and Glock .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol.
Sorry to bore you with technical details, but it is almost Gun Appreciation Day.
Reporters have noted the day's provocative timing: two days before Barack Obama's inauguration. It's also two days before Martin Luther King Day, which makes you wonder if gun worshippers want to create an annual alternative holiday for those who don't believe in peace and racial harmony.
WE'VE KNOWN that the National Rifle Association (NRA) wasn't going to back down an inch since December when the group's spokesperson Wayne LaPierre called for armed guards to be placed in every school. LaPierre's memorable slogan--"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun"--perfectly summarized the NRA's breathtakingly simple common sense:
-- Bad Guys don't obey laws because they are Bad Guys.
-- Therefore, Good Guys shouldn't obey laws either.
Who knew that the very principle of civilization could be philosophically demolished in two easy steps?
"Good Guys with Guns" is a one-size-fits-all argument against any conceivable limitation on personal ownership of weaponry, from assault rifles and high-capacity ammo clips to--presumably in the coming years--dirty bombs and personal drones. The Second Amendment protects my right to bear unmanned aerial vehicles!
It's also a key element of the ultra-individualist world view promoted by those billionaire libertarians and major NRA donors Charles and David Koch, who seem to think that Adam Smith's phrase "the invisible hand of the market" was not a metaphor but a cleverly obscure call for concealed weapons.
For most of us, neatly dividing humanity into two groups seems a little sketchy, especially when the dividers seem to have color-coded the categories. In other words, trigger-happy racists should be the last people allowed to pick the teams in the Morality Bowl.
Gun enthusiasts typically describe Bad Guys as coming in two flavors: criminal and crazy, which happens to be a decent summary of some prominent NRA leaders. Take the modern organization's founder, Harlon Carter, who was convicted in his youth for murdering a 15-year old Chicano boy who loitered too close to Carter's home in rural Texas.
Carter only got off when the conviction was overturned on the dubious grounds of self-defense--foreshadowing today's "Stand Your Ground" laws, like the one in Florida that George Zimmerman claims gave him the right to kill Trayvon Martin. The NRA is a major backer of "Stand Your Ground" and similar laws that seek to protect Good Guy murderers like Carter and Zimmerman.
Then there's Wayne LaPierre himself, whose speech after the Newtown massacre was a call to arms against crazed gunmen that sounded a lot like the paranoid manifesto of a crazed gunman:
The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters--people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day...So now, due to a declining willingness to prosecute dangerous criminals, violent crime is increasing again for the first time in 19 years! Add another hurricane, terrorist attack or some other natural or man-made disaster, and you've got a recipe for a national nightmare of violence and victimization.
Note to Wayne's friends: Don't take him to a teen zombie movie. He probably won't catch the irony.
CRAZY AS he is, we all know that LaPierre has tremendous influence in the Republican Party. Just last month, in fact, some wing nut senator introduced the "Save Our Schools Act" to deploy the National Guard to schools.
Oh wait, that was no fringe Tea Partier. It was Barbara Boxer, liberal Democrat of California, proposing to send troops trained for night raids in Kandahar to kick in lockers in Kansas. So why hasn't Boxer been receiving a fraction of the scorn progressives have been dumping on the NRA?
One reason is the usual partisan hypocrisy of those whose own definitions of Good Guys and Bad Guys are based solely on the capital D or R next to their names.
More important, however, is the fact that many progressives who support limits on guns change their tune completely if those guns are carried by soldiers, police officers or any government agency allegedly serving the public good. At a time when American society has never been more militarized and patrolled, this leaves a gaping hole in the national discussion of weapons and violence.
Consider that 2012, the year that saw mass shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin and Connecticut, also saw a celebration of "the greatest manhunt in history," as the posters for Katherine Bigelow's movie Zero Dark Thirty described the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Liberal commentators gushed over the realism of Bigelow's war-nography, just as they cheered every speaker who shouted "Bin Laden is dead" at the Democratic National Convention last summer.
Perhaps these 18 months of worship for Seal Team Six has made it hard for progressives to consider a simple question in the wake of the Newtown shooting: Who exactly was Adam Lanza dressing up like on that December morning when he put on an all-black uniform? We know one thing: it wasn't Wayne LaPierre. That guy may talk like Johnny Rambo, but he looks more like John Denver.
I don't blame the NRA for the low level of debate for the same reason I don't blame my toddler for not changing our lightbulbs. The fault lies with those who are capable of more serious thinking, but who choose to ignore our society's round-the-clock celebration of Good Guys with Guns, and instead focus solely on gun prohibition.
It's easy for liberal bloggers to swap stories of paranoid fanatics in the heartland who stock arsenals to protect themselves from the hordes of criminals and crazies. It would be more productive to think about how this phenomenon is related to the hysteria in recent decades against "homegrown terrorists," "wilding gangbangers," "criminal aliens," "looters," "violent anarchists," "grown-up crack babies" and on and on. In each of these panics created by our Wars on Drugs and on Terror, respectable and powerful people in both parties argue something very similar to the NRA.
-- Bad Guys don't obey laws because they are Bad Guys.
-- Therefore, the state shouldn't have to obey its own laws either.
After Newtown, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera mocked the gun lobby's "absurd" argument that "instead of tightening gun laws, we should go in the other direction, and start packing heat. That way, you see, we can mow down the bad guy before he gets us."
Nocera could have used (but didn't) almost the same words to describe the national response to the September 11 attacks: Instead of using international law to prosecute Osama bin Laden, we went in the other direction and started launching wars. That way you see, we could "fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here."
LEFTISTS LIKE myself traditionally oppose gun control because, even though we have much more in common with people who oppose gun violence than those who seem to celebrate it, it nevertheless doesn't seem like a great idea to leave all the guns in the hands of the state--and besides, we really do believe in all that right to self-defense stuff the NRA makes such a mockery of.
But the United States of 2013 is a country with a vast arsenal and surveillance apparatus. Let's face it: the revolution won't be purchased in the sporting goods department of Wal-Mart. So it doesn't make sense to oppose gun control chiefly on the basis of any future armed rebellion.
On the other hand, if you want to understand why it's equally foolish to expect gun control laws to have a real impact on gun violence in society, look no further than the domain of the NRA's arch-nemesis, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In the country's most appallingly unequal city, gun control is daily enforced by unconstitutional search and seizures by heavily armed Good Guy police using little evidence beyond the skin color of the suspected Bad Guys. Every case of racial profiling has the potential to end violently--as one did last February, for example, when Officer Richard Haste followed unarmed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham into his apartment and fatally shot him in his own bathroom.
Michael Bloomberg hasn't spoken out once against this type of gun violence, and nobody expects him to. Every police department in the country operates under its own personal "Stand Your Ground" law, and always has.
I realize a neither-for-it-nor-against-it stance on gun control doesn't satisfy that urgent feeling we all had after Newtown that something must be done. But let's drop the pretense that any of the proposed legislation has a good chance of stopping the next shooting. Obama's proposed restrictions on assault rifles and ammo are very limited, which is just as well, because prohibition has a pretty awful track record.
Furthermore, because the government shares much of the NRA's assumptions about Good Guys and Bad Guys, all signs are that the gun controllers under any new laws will be focusing, as the New York Times put it, "on ways to keep more commonly used firearms out of the hands of dangerous criminals and people with mental illness."
An accompanying article in the Times that same day quoted a doctor who has researched mass shootings about why this is the wrong approach: "Most mass murders are done by working-class men who've been jilted, fired or otherwise humiliated--and who then undergo a crisis of rage and get out one of the 300 million guns in our country and do their thing."
Thus, the main effect of gun control legislation will be a symbolic statement against violence, and a shallow one at that.
If you want to do something that can prevent future gun violence, how about joining the family of Ramarley Graham in pushing for Officer Richard Haste to be convicted of murder? That would put one particular group of repeat violent offenders on notice that they'll be held accountable. And it might help in creating a culture where it's impossible for anyone to think that they're part of the Good Guys with Guns.