The gun — preeminent symbol of the impotence of the American citizen

A paradox embedded in many popular symbols of power is that their greatest appeal is often found among those who perceive themselves as the most weak. Nowhere is this marriage of power and weakness more evident than in the American fetish of the handgun.

Jared Lee Loughner is apparently none too enamored with the US Constitution (though chooses right now to seek its protection), but if in the coming weeks he reveals more about the inner workings of his mind, it should come as no surprise if it turns out that he targeted Representative Gabrielle Giffords not solely because of what she represented politically but also in part because she was a woman. For an alienated young man in America, it is all too easy for sexual frustration to seek violent release through the culturally-validated possession and use of a gun.

Predictably there will now be renewed calls for stronger forms of federal gun control, though if she recovers, whether Giffords will modify her own position on gun control seems doubtful. She believes gun ownership is a constitutional right and an “Arizona tradition” and like her assailant, owns a Glock handgun.

The rational arguments in favor of tight restrictions on gun ownership are so numerous and so easy to grasp, the one thing their lack of traction makes clear is that thanks to the efforts of the gun lobby, “gun rights” has been turned into such an emotive issue that it has effectively been sequestered from rational debate.

Were any other major country to suddenly declare that it was going to adopt the American way and provide its citizens with ready access to weapons and ammunition, most observers — including most Americans — would surely recognize this as an act of national lunacy.

Gun rights in America rest solely on the claim that they represent a dimension of America’s national heritage and the character of its people. In other words, the right to bear arms can be reduced to a reason impervious to reason: because we are Americans — the Second Amendment is just a fig leaf.

But in spite of this rational dead end, I still can’t help wonder whether some leverage might be derived from linking the issue to other aspects of the American way of life which are regulated by law with little protest.

There is as far as I’m aware no movement defending the right of Americans to drive their automobiles without a licence or insurance — even though nothing underpins the American way of life more clearly than the right to drive.

If this American right can nevertheless by girded by legal restrictions, why should there not be limitations at least as equally rigorous on the ownership of guns?

If the use of a car is potentially so dangerous that it cannot be allowed without insurance, why shouldn’t someone who wants to own a lethal weapon also be required to have insurance? If legislators can’t agree on the risks involved in gun ownership, I doubt that insurance actuaries would suffer the same problem.

And if someone driving a car is required to carry a photo ID showing that they are licensed to drive, why shouldn’t every American who owns a gun?

When Arizona last summer made it legal to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, one of the cockeyed arguments among the proponents of the law was that armed Arizonans would be able to defend themselves when under attack.

It turned out yesterday in Tuscon that only one man had taken full advantage of the new law: Jared Loughner.

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10 thoughts on “The gun — preeminent symbol of the impotence of the American citizen

  1. Leslie Garrett

    That is a very good argument comparing gun and automobile ownership and the responsibilities of government to regulate their use. Keep hitting on that comparison, and a few people may be swayed by the sanity of the comparison. However, what happened in Tucson is the kind of thing that happens now several times a week in Iraq and Afghanistan. Compare the hysteria over this incident with the indifference with which Americans day in and day out ignore horrific incidents in the many poor countries they dominate. As the US economy slowly crashes and the red necks come out to play, many in the rest of the world are watching with considerable satisfaction as America descends into into a well-deserved chaos.

    The remarkable thing is that America is so peaceful still and that in a land of 300 million people there are as few horrible incidents as there are. What is even more remarkable is that a nation that has destroyed the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Central Asia has suffered so little. If there really were terrorists intent on killing large numbers of Americans, it is difficult to believe that they would be so totally in competent as to do so little damage during the last ten years. American sports crowds are enormous, vulnerable targets, yet there have been astonishingly few attacks on American targets at home or abroad, compared with the possible. This is because the Americans are the violent ones in this world; just look at the statistics on crime and incarceration.

  2. delia ruhe

    Yes, Paul, you are probably right about the gender factor. There’s also, of course, a race factor — the congresswoman is, after all, Jewish. With the current decline of the West, the “angry white man” syndrome has become so ubiquitous and taken for granted that hardly anybody even sees it anymore. And in the US it is exaggerated, given that the American state has played — and is currently playing very badly — the role of macho globocop.

    Moreover, even white American women tend to identify with this image because, after all, it is the iconic image of what it is to be American — Uncle Sam, the Marlboro Man, John Wayne, etc. — which accounts for women like Palin, and Bachmann, and Angle, and lesser Tea Party femmes who resent not possessing the phallus. Finally, the connection with violent language, both verbal and body language, is all tangled up with this phallic gun-violence phenomenon.

    American historian Robert McElvaine tried to sort it all out a few years ago in his book *Eve’s Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History*, in a chapter entitled “Verbal Mounting.” I made it a required reading in one of my junior courses, and students are always absolutely stunned by the connections among guns, militarism, gender, race, and violent hypersexualized language (the chapter begins by carefully parsing the sentence “Fuck you!”). I wish there were a way of attaching a document here, as I have a digitized version of that chapter on my hard drive and would happily provide it today to as many Americans as I could.

  3. Norman

    It seems that I’m about to step into a pile of . . . . here, but, on a slightly different note. I’m also sure that there will be many who disagree with it. The GUN, hand gun/Rifle, has been a part of this country since it was settled. If one were to count how many are in the hands of law abiding citizens, of which I won’t hazard a guess, they would far outnumber the bad guys. I also believe that it’s because of this, that this country hasn’t become a dictatorial type. There are howls every time some idiot goes off the reservation (at the risk of offending those who take offense to using the term) that there should be tighter regulations, confiscation, more restrictions, etc., but fail to address the underlining causes that precipitated the act of using a firearm to begin with. The percentage of idiots vs the percentage of those who have used & possess firearms might be equated to being similar to a BB in a BOXCAR. This by no means is meant to condone what the idiots do, for that’s breaking the laws that govern a civil society. But, at the same time, it’s up to the political establishment to to keep a tight zipper on the mouths of pundits who espouse violence of the idiots for their own self aggrandizement, spitting rights, or even pissing contests. Our present political atmosphere in this country, with the right wing bitching about having a mixed race P.O.T.U.S., not having the common sense to bitch at the money people, (read that as Wall street types), who financed his run, but are willing to continue to take handouts from those same people, even bending over backwards to please them. I might also add, that both parties are guilty of this very practice.

    Hate, vengeance, bigotry, has taken hold in this country, even though people know better, especially the ones who hold the power. I might add to, that those who fall for the B.S. going around about everyone should pay taxes, but no me, Then you should go live out in the bush in Mongolia, Afghanistan, or any of the other less developed rural countries. While your sprouting off about how the Government rips you off, you’re living in the one country that has allowed you to do so, bought by those who gave the ultimate sacrifice just so you would be free. You are allowing those who rip you & your country off, by doing their bidding, because they are cowards, mostly not having served their country. You are now disgracing those that came before you, especially raising a generation that thinks not with their mind, but with their finger, regardless of where its thrust.

  4. delia ruhe

    I have tried to keep up with the stats on “Armed America,” and the last reliable stat I read was that there are 200 million privately owned fire arms in the US. More recently, I heard on some TV show (i.e., not fully reliable) that the number had reached 250 million. That is far more than the number of American adults.

    We have a lot of guns in Canada too, but not much in the way of patriotism, and certainly nothing like the Second Amendment to inflame it. We also don’t have a lot of gun violence, although that has become less so since idiot Canada signed a Free Trade deal with the US and our idiot politicians began “harmonizing” our interests, values, and public sector norms with those of our American cousins.

  5. AMeshiea

    Paul. A very good post indeed. Your comparison with car insurance is on point. It seems so elegant and simple and it would be difficult for the traditional Right to refute a private sector indirect control on guns with any degree of reasonablness. To pass a law mandating insurance for anyone deciding to buy or own a gun. I love it. All the crazies would be forced into a black market for guns of course so it wouldnt solve the problem but its a step in the right direction.

  6. JT Lancer

    The events that happened in Arizona are certainly tragic and disturbing, and the individual responsible for these heinous actions should be punished accordingly.

    Yet, I believe it is hypocritical for some to blame certain groups for the violence that occurred, when so many of those same people embrace the state-sponsored violence that may have provoked this action in the first place.

    All government actions are violent in nature. Unlike market exchanges – which are voluntary, peaceful, and for mutual benefit – government acts require compulsion to enforce them. In the case of a government action, the ‘customer’ (the taxpayer) has no choice in the matter. He must consent to the demands of the state (say, by paying for a govt program he does not want or need), or face punishment if he refuses.

    In other words, government is nothing more than a monopoly on the LEGAL use of force – often against peaceful citizens.

    Virtually all government actions would be considered criminal acts if performed by private citizens.

    The government can steal from the citizens (via taxation, printing money, eminent domain, asset forfeiture, etc.). But if a private citizen robs someone, or is caught counterfeiting, the individual will be thrown in jail.

    The government can kill with impunity. How many thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade? How many US soldiers have been held accountable for these deaths? Yet, private citizens who kill innocent people are locked up, often for life.

    The government will even put people in iron cages for engaging in peaceful or consensual behavior that harms no other person (illicit drug use, prostitution, etc.).

    Except in cases of self-defense, violence is never the proper way to remedy a perceived wrong. Nonetheless, when that violence comes in the form of a government agent (politician, police, soldier, etc.), few question it.

    Perhaps it is time to question it.

  7. esteban

    my folks wouldn’t let me have a gun
    i was pissed back then
    but now i think i know why

    maybe it was watching the news each night
    and the fact that my dad’s brother
    was fighting in that war
    he did two tours

    that was after his wife
    and unborn child
    were killed by a drunk driver
    right in front of him

    maybe it didn’t seem so bad
    being over there

    he met a girl on leave in Hawaii
    they stuck together 10 years
    but no kids

    he has three teenagers now
    with a beautiful Croatian woman

    you will never know what
    life has in store
    unless you live it

    i’m glad they never let me have that gun though
    even if i took the nra safety course
    even if i got the rifle merit badge
    even if i was the best pistol-shot
    that summer at camp

    no – they didn’t want me
    to be a soldier

    thank you
    mother and father

  8. esteban

    and [uncle] mike’s
    very kind reply-

    You nailed it Steven;
    thanks for putting it so eloquently.
    In all the time I spent in combat,
    I never had to use a weapon
    in anger or self defense.
    I sure as hell don’t need one now!
    Thanks again.
    Love you Brother

  9. Gracie Fr

    If one can’t win an arguement in an escalating show of in-your-face diatribe , the logical next step is simply taking down the “messagee”. In the blink of an eye there is no more standoff and the political point has been won. Americans never do like to loose.

  10. Gracie Fr

    If one can’t win an argument in an escalating show of in-your-face diatribe , the logical next step is simply taking down the “messagee”. In the blink of an eye there is no more standoff and the political point has been won. Americans never do like to loose.

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