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Part IV of “Passions of a March–and of Gun Culture

The student-initiated “March for Our Lives”, two months old to this day, has already been characterized as a novelty in the annals of American political action.  History is, of course, always being ‘made’ in the United States: in a metrics-obsessed culture, this or that phenomenon—ten dunks in a single game by LeBron James, or the single-season rushing record in a NFL game, ad infinitum—becomes ‘one for the history books’.  The “March for our Lives” has doubtless made it to the history books as the expression of a certain sentiment involving a larger number of school students than any previously recorded movement of dissent—and perhaps this is all the more ‘historical’, if one is accepting of such a worldview, in that the present age is often described as one characterized by student apathy.  It may be that the noxious and equally nauseous politics of the Trump regime and its supporters has energized student bodies into political action.

NandlalBoseGAndhiWalking

It is well to remember, however, that “the march” is not a singular thing.  The “Long March” was itself comprised of several marches; most famously, it entailed the movement by Mao and fellow comrades from Jiangxi Province to Shanxi, a distance of some 4,000 miles across mountain ranges and two dozen rivers, over a period of 370 days from October 1934 to October 1935.  The stranglehold that Chiang Kai-shek had attempted to place around the communists was broken; the march would help to seal Mao’s ascent to power.  Gandhi’s march to the sea likewise may have done more than anything else to transform him into a world-historical figure, just as Nandlal Bose’s rendition of the Gandhi of the strident walk would yield one of the most iconic images of the Mahatma.  In its wake, came the Round Table Conferences:  whatever their place in the narrative of independence, and some have critiqued the conferences as clever stratagems on the part of the colonial power that deferred Independence for another fifteen years, the British for the first time sat down to negotiate with Indians.  Numerous marches have sought to reconfigure the American landscape, none more so than the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, which itself demonstrably took a page out of Gandhi’s march to Dandi.  A quarter of a million were gathered to hear some of the stalwarts of the Civil Rights movement; none present there had any anticipation of the soaring speech that King was about to deliver.  Less than a year later, the Civil Rights Act, inarguably the most transformative piece of legislation in modern American history, was passed.

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The March on Washington, 28 August 1963:  civil rights supportres carrying placards seeking equal rights, equal employment opportunities for black people, and an end to discrimination.  Photograph:  Warren Leffler.  Source:  Library of Congress.

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King,Jr. (C)

Martin Luther King, Jr. waving to supporters from the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington, 28 August 1963.  Source:  AFP/Getty Images.

The most recent “March for Our Lives” cannot be likened to any of these marches, and yet it has earned the moniker of a “march”.  Will it, in time, be similarly transformative and thus be deemed historic?  Few remember today the Million Mom March, held on Mother’s Day in 2000, when an estimated 750,000 women and men converged in Washington in support of gun-control legislation following a shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California.  Another 250,000 people then took part in sister marches held simultaneously around the country.  The legislation that may legitimately be described as having in part emerged from this activism, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (November, 1993), mandated federal background checks on firearm purchasers and imposed a five-day waiting period for purchases, though the latter provision was rendered obsolete by the introduction in 1998 of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  The NRA, expectedly, offered stiff resistance to the Brady bill; its defeat, at that moment, was roundly celebrated as a demonstration of the fact that dents can be made in the NRA armor.

The Brady Act, however, did nothing whatsoever to put into question “the gun culture” that occupies an immense space in the American imaginary.  The long-standing and militant Executive Vice President of the NRA, Wayne La Pierre, is scarcely the only exponent of American exceptionalism, and believes with many of his countrymen and women “in America as the greatest nation on earth”; but he is also certain that America’s greatness owes everything to the Second Amendment, and that gun owners were critically important in handing Hilary Clinton an unexpected defeat.  Clinton is far from being an enemy of the Second Amendment; much like the students who marched on Washington, she believes only in sensible gun control—though, it is necessary to state, gun control laws in most nations are far more stringent than anything that could be contemplated under the rubric of “sensible gun control” in the United States.

The NRA has absolute mastery over this domain: it defines, names, and maims its enemies, except that its enemies are merely somewhat more reasonable more human beings, and nothing like the radicals who, as the NRA claims, are determined to take America down and strip its citizens of their cherished freedoms.  Apart from all this, it should not be forgotten that the provisions of the Brady Act continued to be whittled down, and the NRA successfully and relentlessly waged battles to augment the rights of gun owners in other respects.  As the events of the last twenty-five years have amply shown, the Brady Act has been rendered toothless; one study, based on an exhaustive study of data from 1985 to 1997 at the National Center for Health Statistics, concludes that the Brady Act may have done something to reduce suicide rates among those who are 55 years or older, but that it had no impact nationally on homicide rates or even suicide rates for those under 55 (see Jens Ludwig and Philip Cook, “Homicide and Suicide Rates Associated with Implementation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act”, Journal of the American Medical Association 284, no. 5 (2000), 585-91.

(to be continued)

See also:

Part III, The March for Our Lives:  A New Generation of Activists?

Part II, School Shootings, the Lockdown, and an Aside on Masculinity

Part I, High School Shootings:  Fragments of Americana

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Los Angeles:  October 2nd, 2017

Today, October 2nd, is designated by the United Nations as the “International Day of Non-Violence.” A General Assembly resolution to this effect was passed in 2007, with the hope that a day so designated would be an occasion to “disseminate the message of non-violence, including through education and public awareness” throughout the world.  The choice of October 2nd was, of course, no accident:  the day marks the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the principal architect of the idea of mass nonviolent resistance.

Today, October 2nd, I woke up like millions of others to the news that a gunman, identified as Stephen Paddock, 64 years of age, had positioned himself in a room on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel from where, on the night of October 1st, he fired dozens of rounds of bullets from an automatic rifle on thousands of people attending a country music concert before turning the gun on himself and preventing his capture by the police outside his door.  When the firing ceased, at least 50 people had been killed; another 500 had been wounded.  The death toll, some 20 hours later, now stands at 59.

This is how America celebrates the international day of non-violence.  Oh, yes, it does—loud and unmistakably clear.  I can already hear the din of noises disturbed by what they will characterize as a caricature of this nation.  I can hear them saying that what Paddock did is not what the United States is about.  There will be the furious hashtag messaging — #thisisnotus – and thousands of others will point to the first responders, to those who have graciously given blood to the hundreds now lying on surgery tables, and even more so to those who gallantly even chivalrously laid down their lives—such as the young 29-year old man who had been married for just a year, shielded his wife’s body with his own, and so took the bullets that spent his life—as representing the real story of America.  They are right:  that is the story of America, but not uniquely so:  there are such decent and good people everywhere.

The story of America is, however, uniquely a story of violence in a certain idiom.  There is no other country in the world which has such a troubled relationship with violence, beginning with the genocidal impulse that swallowed up a continent and its indigenous peoples.  From thence we move on to slavery and to wars of extermination, to the saturation bombing of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and of course to the regime of guns.  Some others have enumerated in detail the many catastrophes that I have omitted which ensued worldwide in the wake of American foreign policy; yet others have hinted at the metaphysical foundations of American violence.  The indubitable fact remains that the United States is, in this respect as in so many others, an anomaly on the world stage—even as it, of course, claims leadership of that mystical entity which has become a license to police the world, that thing called “the international community”.  India was long under British rule; the United States is under the rule of guns.

The wounded are still being attended to but the so-called “debate” over gun control laws has already led to the firing of missives from various parties.  We will doubtless hear an argument fit only for imbeciles, namely that guns do not kill, people do:  by this logic, those who can afford to keep tanks to protect themselves from drones or large mobs of people should be allowed to do so, since tanks do not kill people and only gunners do.  A veritable arsenal was found in Paddock’s hotel room:  15-20 firearms have been mentioned in media reports, and around the same number of firearms have been recovered from his residence.  I doubt if in the entire city of Osaka, to take one illustration, there are as many firearms as Paddock had stuffed in suitcases that he brought to his hotel room.  (Osaka city has a population of around 2.7 million; the greater metro area is home to about 20 million people.)

The precise nature of his firearms is now being discussed:  should they be characterized as machine guns, assault rifles, automatic or semi-automatic rifles?  Most if not all of the assault weapons in Paddock’s room had a telescope.  It appears that only a few days ago he purchased three rifles, and passed a background check.  But of course: should one have expected otherwise?  How many rifles should a man be allowed to purchase?  Should background checks be more rigorous?  What if a killer moves from a state where firearms are regulated “tightly” to one where open carry policies are followed?  What does one do when the assassin is a “lone wolf”?  What if, like many a Nazi, he goes about the business of killing during the day, gassing a few people here and there, machine-gunning others for practice, before returning home in the evening to his wife and children and reading the Bible to his children before putting them to bed?  These “debates”, as they are called, will go on—assuredly, as  night follows day.  Meanwhile, Congress is preparing to vote on a bill which would remove a tax on gun silencers.  Perhaps, perhaps, passage of the bill will be derailed for a few days, or weeks, out of “respect” for the victims of the shooting:  par for the course.  And then of course it will pass:  more par for the course.

In a previous blog, then occasioned by a mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, I called for having a law passed that would lead to the abolishment of the NRA and having it declared a criminal organization.  It is necessary only to gesture at the arguments that I then advanced at some length.  There are countries such as Australia, which historically has shared a culture of addiction to guns and violence with the US, where gun buy back provisions have fundamentally removed firearms from the public domain.  Of course, the scale of any such measure in the US would be immensely different, considering that 300 million firearms are in private hands:  but if gun violence were viewed as a public health hazard, akin let’s say to the poisoning of the water supply of all major cities in the country, it would receive the attention it requires. It matters not a jot whether there are “genuine hunters”, which is another anomaly, and even less whether fidelity to an arcane provision of the United States Constitution should hold millions of people hostage to a wretched conception of ‘American freedoms’.  Adherents of the 2nd Amendment might suitably be given an extended course on “how to read a text”.

Paddock took at least fifty-nine lives.  But what he has done on the day of nonviolence is to eviscerate the voices of those who have resolutely stood for nonviolence, in word, deed, or thought.  He ensured that October 2nd would not be remembered as a day dedicated to nonviolence, and that the voice of Gandhi would be drowned out by a cascade of bullets and the cacophony of a mindless debate over something that Americans call “gun control”.  So, in that respect, the crime of Paddock is much greater—but the crime is not solely his.  He only pulled the trigger; he is only an assassin of ideas and ideals acting at the behest of others, whether those be members of the NRA, the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of guns and firearms, the politicians who extend their patronage to the gun lobby, and the myriad others who have turned America into a spectacle of murderous idiocy for the world to behold.

At the end of the day, then, we should let Gandhi speak. His most famous expressions have now been mass marketed, blanketed on t-shirts, coffee mugs, car stickers, billboards, and much of the rest of the paraphernalia of modern life.  But, at this juncture, even a clichéd aphorism from Gandhi stands forth as a salutary aphorism on how nonviolence alone can call us to the ethical life:

An eye for an eye only ends up

making the whole world blind.

BanksyEyeForAnEyeGandhiQuote

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