‘When the burning moment breaks’: gun control and rage massacres

On 23 January 1924, a man opened fire with a .44 repeating rifle on the families picnicking in Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens. He shot five people, seemingly targeted at random, before the gun failed. Three died. The murderer, later identified as Norman List, ran from the scene. On 2 February, his body was found in the bush in Pakenham, where he’d killed himself.

Today, in the wake of the Colorado killings and the new atrocity in Wisconsin, all the aspects of List’s deeds seem instantly familiar, recognisable components of what forensic psychiatrist Paul Mullen calls the ‘autogenic massacre’. Mullen defines the crime thus: ‘A heavily armed male, or just occasionally males, enter an area where people congregate and begins shooting victims indiscriminately, continuing with the killing until they turn their guns on themselves, or are shot and killed by police.’

In 1924, such massacres were largely unknown. List’s killings were an outlier, an anticipation of a pattern that only became more general much later: as Mullen puts it, ‘reports of autogenic massacres do not even begin to appear until the twentieth century and only emerge as a recurring theme in the last thirty years.’

It wasn’t until 1966, when a young man opened fire on students and staff at the University of Texas, that what we might call the generic conventions of the ‘autogenic massacre’ established themselves. What was previously a vanishingly rare crime morphed into something increasingly understood as inevitable. In the last three decades, there have been more than 30 massacres in US schools alone, with six mass killings already in 2012. As Mullen says: ‘The autogenic massacre emerged in western society over the last fifty years and is becoming increasingly frequent.’

Why is this happening? What does it mean?

Considerable effort has gone into psychological profiles of would-be killers. But as Christopher Ferguson, Mark Coulson and Jane Barnett note in their study of school shootings: ‘Most scholars recognise that empirical evidence on school shooters is slim and that “profiles” of school shooters carry considerable risks of overidentification.’

Clearly, rage gunmen often have psychological problems, often profound ones. But it’s necessary to tread carefully here since there’s a certain circularity in diagnoses made after terrible crimes: normal people do not commit rage murders; by definition, anyone who does is not normal.

Interestingly, after analysing a number of killers, Mullen concludes, ‘they had personality problems and were, to put it mildly, deeply troubled people.’ But he goes on to add: ‘Most perpetrators of autogenic massacres do not, however, appear to have active psychotic symptoms at the time and very few even have histories of prior contact with mental health services.’

In any case, individual profiling cannot, by its nature, explain why ‘deeply troubled’ people today conduct massacres in a way that they did not fifty years earlier. What is required is a social and historical analysis.

Perhaps the most interesting attempt in that direction is developed by Mark Ames in his book Going Postal. ‘The rage murder is new,’ he argues. ‘It appeared under Reagan, during his cultural and economic revolution, and it expanded in his aftermath. Reaganomics has ruled America ever since.’

Ames’ thesis is that the rage massacre entered public consciousness in the US during 1980s, after a series of killings by postal workers (hence his title). At the time, the postal service was under particular pressure from what we’d now call neoliberalism, as market reform fostered unbearable stress and unhappiness among the employees. When Ames’ interviewed massacre survivors, they sometimes expressed a surprising sympathy for the shooters. The experience of work – the activity that most people spend most of their lives performing – had become a waking nightmare, with any sense of job satisfaction destroyed and solidarity between employees collapsing into bullying and minor harassment.

Ames draws a provocative parallel between rage massacres and slavery revolts in the US south: both involved, he suggests, a blind rebellion against intolerable conditions, expressed via homicidal destruction. With unions and other forms of collective redress marginalised, employees, like slaves, lashed out at what surrounded them. The argument thus echoes Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the roots of rage, an emotion that she saw as implicitly political.

‘Rage,’ she writes, ‘is by no means an automatic reaction to misery and suffering as such; no one reacts with rage to a disease beyond the powers of medicine or to an earthquake, or, for that matter, to social conditions which seem to be unchangeable. Only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not, does rage arise.’

Ames suggests workplace massacres migrated into the US school system in the 90s, precisely because the education system manifested the worst aspects of the Reaganite industrial culture. There was, he argues, the ‘continuity of misery and entrapment from school to office … Even physically, they look alike and act on the mind in a similar way: the overhead fluorescent lights, the economies-of-scale-purchased industrial carpeting and linoleum floors, the stench of cleaning chemicals in the restrooms, the same stalls with the same latches and the same metal toilet paper holders …’

The values of the schoolyard represented, in concentrated form, the values of the society around it. School shooters, like workplace shooters, often complained in their suicide notes of bullying. ‘One reason why our society has failed to curb bullying,’ Ames says, ‘is that we like bullies. Hell, we are bullies. Research has shown that bullies are not the anti-social misfits that adults, in their forced amnesia, want them to be. Rather, bullies are usually the most popular boys, second only on the clique-ranking to those described as friendly, outgoing and self-confident. […] Many kids (and adults) believe that the victims of bullying bring it upon themselves …’

The power of Ames’ case stems from its attempt to periodise the phenomenon, in a way that most commentators don’t even attempt. But one reason that such crimes resist analysis is that they often seem so undirected. The postal workers might have opened fire on the workplace that seemed the locus on their misery but often rage killers gun down random strangers (as in Colorado). How to explain that?

Contextualising rage massacres shouldn’t mean understanding them simply as goal driven. Or, at least, not exclusively. We need to also consider the act itself – about the attractive power of deadly violence itself.

In his memoir of the Second World War, the philosopher J Glenn Gray remarks how combat constituted, for some of his comrades, ‘the one great lyric passage in their lives’. It’s a surprisingly common sentiment. One Vietnam veteran, a sniper, talked of a long-range shot as an aesthetic pleasure, almost like a poem or a great painting: ‘A kill at two klicks, that is beautiful. It stays with you … the bullet vaporizes the guy, explodes into him. Satisfying … hitting the target – beautiful.’

Much of the most overt writing about the pleasure of violence, about the attraction of war, emerged from the First World War. Indeed, the outbreak of the Great War led to mass celebrations, in almost all of the combatant nations. How to explain that enthusiasm?

As the historian Eric Leeds explains, ‘It was commonly felt that with the declaration of war, the populations of European nations had left behind an industrial civilisation with its problems and conflicts and were entering a sphere of action ruled by authority, discipline, comradeship and common purpose.’ The pleasure of war represented, in other words, an indictment of the peace that it shattered.

Peace meant that men and women were atomised, alienated and alone, impersonal cogs in the gears of industry; war offered an organic collectivity in which there would be a meaningful place for everyone. Again and again in the literature of 1914, you come up against a perception of modernity, with its factories and its technology and its bureaucracy, as soulless and anti-human: a world that was ‘old and cold and weary,’ as Rupert Brooke says. Battle, by contrast, was thought to restore the values of an age that was passing, understood (in idealised terms) as honour and purpose and camaraderie. Modernity was emasculating, dominated by those Brooke called ‘half-men’; combat restored a traditional virility.

Julian Grenfell, another soldier poet (and Great War casualty) expresses the sentiment neatly. Grenfell, who seems to have genuinely enjoyed combat, famously wrote, ‘And he is dead who will not fight/And who dies fighting has increase’, lines that replicate Brooke’s sense of war as a kind of resurrection, an antidote to the bloodless half-life of industrial civilisation. The conclusion of that poem reads like a hymn to the berserker state of the rage murderer.

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And only joy of battle takes
Him by the throat, and makes him blind,
The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

Now, other twentieth-century wars spurred outbreaks of patriotism. But not on a comparable scale – where the First World War began with delirious celebration, the Second World War commenced with a kind of weary resignation. Crucially, the world away from which men were turning in 1914 was one in which the industrial order was still new, a process that had only recently brought millions of people who had previously lived on the land under the sway of commodity relations. And the wrenching novelty of that experience, the sense of shock and dislocation generated by what was then a new phenomenon, helps explain the visceral enthusiasm for war.

There are, however, parallels in the twenty-first century. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the emotive response to the 9/11 attacks replicated, in many ways, the outbreak of the Great War. Broadcaster Glenn Beck named his Tea Party group the 9/12 Project, in recognition of what he called ‘the feeling of togetherness’ Americans enjoyed immediately after the terrorist strikes. By explicitly seeking to restore 9/12 rather than 9/10, Beck implies that the outbreak of war actually improved the country, in much the same way as Edwardian militarists thought the European conflict would save Western civilisation.

In 2001, modernity was not new in the way that it had been in 1914. Yet, since the 1980s, the United States, like most industrialised nations, had undergone decades of neoliberal reforms, a process that had extended market forces to every nook and cranny of human existence in a way that previous eras would not have believed possible.

The generation of 2001 could thus share with the generation of August 1914 a sensation of everything they held dear vanishing, a vague feeling of collective identities dissolving before the autistic logic of the cash register. The experience of 9/11, the beginning of the war on terror, provided an overwhelming contrast to isolation, fragmentation, to the collapse of established authorities, an answer to the widespread yearning for meanings and belief.

The Prussian novelist Ernst Jünger described, in 1914, how ‘the heroic feeling that a commercial age had slammed into the museums burst out, bright and living’. The same sentiment was expressed, over and over again, back in 2001. For instance, the influential columnist Peggy Noonan wrote of how 9/11 had restored John Wayne, banishing the domination of enfeebled sybarites. Prior to the attacks, America had been like Wayne’s hapless sidekick Barry Fitzgerald – a ‘small, nervous, gossiping neighborhood commentator … who wanted to talk about everything and do nothing’. For Noonan, the Duke’s return signaled the death of the neurotic and empty world of the twenty-first century, in the same way as Brooke turned from ‘the sick hearts’ and ‘half-men’ of his day.

This, it seems to me, provides a background to the proliferation of rage murder. On the one hand, ordinary Americans have been, as Ames says, experiencing a concerted assault from neoliberalism for some decades now, producing a profound social dislocation. The traditional bonds between people dissolve, with the normalisation of an ideology of radical individualism. In Europe, the austerity agenda has provoked substantial resistance, and even where those struggles have failed the prospect of collective responses at least provide a framework in which the world can be understood. In the US, however, the traditions of the Left are much weaker, with the result that individuals are more likely to perceive their misery as an existential personal failing.

What’s more, more than any other industrialised nation, the US remains deeply embroiled ongoing imperial adventures, conflicts that foster a twenty-first century version of the militaristic values expressed so forcefully in 1914. Throughout the early phases of the Iraq war, the army recruited under the slogans ‘Be all you can be’ and ‘an army of one’, catch cries that replicate the Edwardian sense of battle as an experience that will restore the individuality crushed by capitalist modernity.

In that setting, is it really so surprising that Grenfell’s joy of battle takes a certain proportion of damaged men by the throat, that some of those who know themselves to be among the detritus of a neoliberal order seek the power and clarity that comes from aiming a rifle and pulling its trigger?

Ames recently discussed the rage murders conducted by One L Goh in Oakland California, who shot eight people, killing three, in Cleveland early this year: ‘He failed at everything; he was one of those faceless, anonymous losers. But there was one thing he could still excel at, something that could get him attention, something that this country perversely celebrates: mass murder in a blaze of anti-glory. So long as you’re ready to make that transformation-of-character into a death row inmate, that option is always available here.’

What conclusions can we draw?

Most obviously, the rise of rage massacres represents a profound social derangement. At the very least, it’s positively perverse to talk about gun massacres without some discussion of America’s permanent imperialist wars and the impact they’ve had on the culture. The Great War lasted four years; the US has been occupying Afghanistan for eleven years and Iraq for nine. You cannot maintain combat operations for that length of time without fostering, both deliberately and otherwise, a militarism closely connected to a sense of personal liberation through violence. War is carcinogenic to the body politic, and the cancers it generates appear in all kinds of unexpected ways.

Yet that context – the unprecedented legitimation of violence provided by years of brutal war – almost never enters the debate. If, as Ballard once said, the suburbs now dream of violence, shouldn’t the first question be why? Consider: after the Colorado shootings, well-meaning journalists anguished about how the news might be reported without inspiring fresh crimes. Their worries were not unfounded – immediately after the massacre, tribute pages to the killer proliferated on Facebook; within a few days, a would-be copycat was arrested. But what does it say about a society if random acts of murder now exercise so great an attractive power that it becomes dangerous to even speak of them?

Instead of addressing such questions, the media discussion tends to move immediately to technical responses. The discussion of gun control provides a good example, since, wittingly or not, it channels the tremendously disturbing social implications of these acts in familiar and thus reassuring territory. Because all right thinking people already know that gun control offers a solution to gun crime, this new willingness of ordinary people to commit unthinkable atrocities need not provoke any particularly uncomfortable social reflections.

But, of course, gun control in the US is not nearly as simple as most Australian pundits suggest. As soon as you move from abstractions to real history, you discover a much more complicated narrative about guns in the US than the ‘Americans be crazy’ caricature so beloved by the Australian Left.

In a fascinating article for the Atlantic last year, Adam Winkler makes a point almost entirely absent from discussions here. ‘Indisputably, for much of American history,’ he writes, ‘gun-control measures, like many other laws, were used to oppress African Americans.’

After losing the Civil War, Southern states quickly adopted the Black Codes, laws designed to reestablish white supremacy by dictating what the freedmen could and couldn’t do. One common provision barred blacks from possessing firearms. To enforce the gun ban, white men riding in posses began terrorizing black communities. In January 1866, Harper’s Weekly reported that in Mississippi, such groups had ‘seized every gun and pistol found in the hands of the (so called) freedmen’ in parts of the state. The most infamous of these disarmament posses, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan.

Nor is that simply a matter of the distant past. Winkler reminds us of the relationship between the right to carry arms and the black militancy of the 1960s:

Before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X had preached against Martin Luther King Jr.’s brand of nonviolent resistance. Because the government was ‘either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property’ of blacks, he said, they had to defend themselves ‘by whatever means necessary.’ Malcolm X illustrated the idea for Ebony magazine by posing for photographs in suit and tie, peering out a window with an M-1 carbine semiautomatic in hand. Malcolm X and the [Black] Panthers described their right to use guns in self-defence in constitutional terms. ‘Article number two of the constitutional amendments,’ Malcolm X argued, ‘provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.’

Guns became central to the Panthers’ identity, as they taught their early recruits that ‘the gun is the only thing that will free us – gain us our liberation.’

Thus, contrary to what most commentators imply, the modern movement in support of ‘gun rights’ began not with the far Right but with the New Left. The key moment came in 1967 when the Black Panthers invaded the California legislature, rifles in hand. At that protest, Bobby Seale argued:

Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people. The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.

For blacks, the ownership of guns possessed an obvious symbolic importance. An armed black man or woman was someone who rejected the passivity of the slave or the servant, someone who not only asserted their constitutional rights but showed a willingness to defend them. Conservatives understood that message, too: that’s why, in the sixties, even the NRA supported calls gun control. The wave of laws passed in the late sixties to limit gun ownership was a direct response to the new black militancy. As one critic said, the legislation was intended, ‘not to control guns but to control blacks’.

It’s easy, from the safety of history, to dismiss Seale’s rhetoric but it should also be noted that, for those in the civil rights movement, guns weren’t simply symbolic. In a context in which activists were regularly murdered by racists and police, the possession of guns was also seen as crucial for self-defence. This was not some peculiar fetish of the Panthers but was common throughout the movement. Winkler again:

Civil-rights activists, even those committed to nonviolent resistance, had long appreciated the value of guns for self-protection. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in 1956, after his house was bombed. His application was denied, but from then on, armed supporters guarded his home. One adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as ‘an arsenal.’ William Worthy, a black reporter who covered the civil-rights movement, almost sat on a loaded gun in a living-room armchair during a visit to King’s parsonage.

At the very least, this not-so-distant history illustrates that gun control is not as simple as many here would like to believe; that, in fact, there are real reasons why some Americans – and not just homicidal hillbillies – might be less than enthusiastic about legislation restricting their ability to arm themselves.

It’s true that the political context today is entirely different. No-one is suggesting that James Holmes is an equivalent to Bobby Seale, much less Martin Luther King. It’s also true that people of colour, particularly the poor, suffer disproportionately from gun violence in the US. A recent piece from Salon noted that, while the Colorado massacre was an exceptional event, ‘mass shootings in Chicago are far from aberrations and any given weekend in the city can see reports of casualty figures that seem more appropriate to Kandahar than a Midwestern American city.’

Obviously, this is terrible; obviously, progressives need a response. There is no disputing that.

But you cannot simply wave away the particular history attached to gun control in the US setting.

In any case, while much has changed since the 1960s, plenty has remained the same. The Panthers first agitated around the right to bear arms as part of what they called ‘patrolling the police’. As a response to ongoing and systemic violence and brutality, they began following patrol cars as they came into the ghettoes, in order to make sure that local people weren’t mistreated. Because the Panthers were (legally) armed, the police had to think twice about attacking them – and, because they were monitored, officers were much less able to harass or brutalise ordinary people.

Since that time, the relationship between the police and ghetto communities seems, if anything, to have deteriorated. The last decades have seen an expansion of the US prison system almost unparalleled in history. In America today there are some 1.8 million people in state custody of some sort. As the Atlantic says, ‘the American inmate population has grown so large that it is difficult to comprehend: imagine the combined populations of Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, and Miami behind bars.’ Interestingly, the prison population remained stable throughout most of the twentieth century: the real increase took place from the mid-1970s onwards, hypercharged with the boom in private prisons from the 1990s. Naturally, this mass incarceration is highly racialised: almost one in ten black men are behind bars; one in every fifteen black children has a parent in prison; one in three African-American boys born in 2001 stands a lifetime risk of going to jail.

The growth of the prison-industrial complex has been accompanied by an enormous expansion of the police force. Stephan Salisbury notes that, with the money spent on armouring and arming law enforcement since 9/11, the federal government could have

rebuilt post-Katrina New Orleans five times over and had enough money left in the kitty to provide job training and housing for every one of the record 41,000-plus homeless people in New York City. It could have added in the growing population of 15,000 homeless in Philadelphia, my hometown, and still have had money to spare. Add disintegrating Detroit, Newark, and Camden to the list. Throw in some crumbling bridges and roads, too.

It’s not just that budgets have increased. The police forces have been militarised to an extraordinary degree. Salisbury points out that Montgomery County, Texas, now has a weapons-capable drone, that the Tampa police have an eight-ton armoured personnel carrier and two tanks; that the Fargo police have bomb detection robots; that Chicago operates some 15 000 interlinked surveillance cameras. New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg now boasts: ‘I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh largest army in the world.’

Not surprisingly, lethal police violence in the United States has reached epidemic proportions. Salon notes:

In the days bracketing the Aurora massacre, San Francisco police shot and killed mentally ill Pralith Pralourng; Tampa police shot and killed Javon Neal, 16; an off-duty cop shot Pierre Davis, 20, of Chicago; Miami-Dade police shot and killed an unidentified “stalking suspect”; an off-duty FBI agent shot an unnamed man in Queens; Kansas City police shot and killed 58-year-old Danny L. Walsh; Lynn police and a Massachusetts state trooper shot and killed Brandon Payne, 23, a father of three; Henderson police shot and killed Andy Puente Soto, 42, out in the desert wastes near Las Vegas. …

From January 2003 through December 2009, bureau statistics show 4,813 deaths occurred during ‘an arrest or restraint process.’

What those figures show is that interactions with the police are already responsible for a substantial proportion of gun deaths. Entirely predictably, these deaths are racialised – ‘If you are a young man, a person of colour, and live in a poor urban area, you are far more likely to become a victim of police gunfire than if you are none of those things.’

Once more, that’s the context in which the calls for stricter gun laws are made. The very proliferation of weaponry means that guns can be found throughout poor communities in the inner cities. Passing new anti-firearm laws and then enforcing them means, almost by definition, unleashing militarised police forces upon inner city populations, under circumstances where the police have a demonstrated track record of shooting suspects dead.

Yes, the tragedy of needless gun deaths constituted a genuine problem. But it’s a complicated issue, and the knee-jerk invocation of gun control as a magical cure-all, especially when abstracted from the real circumstances of contemporary America, is simply not good enough.

None of this should suggest that the current proliferation of guns is in any way progressive. One doesn’t have to be a pacifist to recognise that, actually, the Left succeeds, by and large, via collective social struggle rather than by mobilising individuals with weapons. The Arab Spring provides an obvious illustration: in the countries where the uprisings have been most successful, the revolutions have relied on mass mobilisations, with a turn to armed struggle tending to arise at the moment the movement begins to stall. The real threat posed for authorities by the Panthers lay not with the firearms they’d collected but with the widespread resonance of their defiant militancy within the black population. Indeed, in many respects, their military emphasis contributed to their downfall, by fostering direct individual confrontations with the state that the Panthers couldn’t possibly win (a tremendous number of the most talented black leaders of the sixties were shot dead by police).

Nonetheless, what the Panthers and similar organisations represented was a political alternative to the despair of the ghetto, a vision of responding to unemployment and crime and drugs and so on through collective social action. And in that you can see the embryo of what we might call ‘gun control from below’.

That is, calls to ‘get the guns off the street’ fail to acknowledge that the process matters as much as the aim. There’s a crucial difference between militarised police sending their tanks and drones into urban areas, and community groups within those areas organising themselves to drive out criminals, encouraging individuals not to carry weapons, picketing gun shops and gun fairs and other attempts to push firearms, and thus providing a collective security so that guns no longer seem necessary.

Grassroots activism of that type might also take up any number of other demands for palliatives to ease the violence, such as better mental health facilities or a stronger social security net for those under financial stress.

Most fundamentally, such efforts could begin to reknit the social connections severed by the neoliberal turn, and by so doing provide the sense of meaning and purpose missing in an intensely atomised society.

What becomes apparent when you hear veterans talking about war is that many of the pleasures of deadly violence are distorted reflections of the principles for which the Left has always campaigned. Combat appeals because, perversely, it makes life seem valuable, because it provides an immediate purpose and a common goal. War fosters camaraderie and connection; it promises to unite men in a way that’s diametrically opposed to the ultra-individualism of late capitalism.

One marine, a veteran of Fallujah, I interviewed for my book Killing explained it to me like this:

[N]othing I do from this point on in my life is ever going to compare. Ever. I do a lot of panel discussions and things, and I tell people, I could win the lottery today, have two hundred million dollars, have fast cars, mansions, you name it, and still, it’s not going to compare to that feeling of leading marines, other human beings, into combat and doing what we did there. It’s almost like I’m going through the motions now for the rest of my life.

That last line is of course the kicker, an extraordinary indictment of the world’s richest country, where nothing that peacetime offers can provide an experience of comparable richness to house-to-house fighting in one of the bloodiest punitive missions in recent history.

That’s why collective struggles for social change matter so much, and why they are what we should talk about, rather than calls for new state powers, for they contain within them the pleasures found in combat, albeit in a non-alienated fashion. Mass movements offer an alternative experience of solidarity, of collectivity, purpose, value and so on, an experience that can erode the appeal of violence.

‘Perhaps the best kept political secret of our time,’ writes Barbara Ehrenreich, ‘is that politics, as a democratic undertaking, can be not only “fun,” in the entertaining sense, but profoundly uplifting, even ecstatic. My generation had a glimpse of this in May 1968 and at other points in that decade, when strangers embraced in the streets and the impossible briefly seemed within reach. Insurgencies again and again engender such moments of transcendence and hope.’

If you experience life as ecstatic, if you see the world full of transcendence and hope, rather than old and cold and weary, you don’t have to turn away from it and you’re less likely to see killing other humans as, in Brooke’s words, ‘into cleanness leaping’.

Of course, none of this is easy. There’s no magical solution to deranged violence. But the creation of a Left that makes life seem more attractive than death would be a good place to start.

In any case, if that all seems utopian, consider the alternatives. Is the top-down gun control that John Howard and others advocate going to happen? No, of course, it’s not. There’s no serious prospect of any American politician introducing gun laws that are anything other than token. Why? Partly because campaigns for laws lack a popular constituency, since, in the context outlined above, many ordinary Americans are understandably concerned about a diminution of their rights and an expansion of those enjoyed by the state.

The same point can be expressed in a different way: any attempt to bring in real gun laws so would generate a ferocious campaign by the populist Right, which the liberal Left would be largely incapable of challenging.

Think of how, during the last presidential election, Obama’s passing reference to rural communities becoming bitter and clinging to guns and religion became a rallying cry for the Tea Party types who now dominate the Republican Party. Any anti-gun legislation – certainly any anti-gun legislation serious enough to make any difference – would produce similar consequences.

Again, to understand the role of groups like the Tea Party in the gun debate, you have to look at history. As Winkler notes, by and large, in the sixties, conservatives – including the NRA – mostly supported gun restrictions, precisely because they saw such restrictions as aimed at the New Left. It was only later, with the collapse of groups like the Panthers, that bearing arms became a totemic cause for the Right. The obvious example is the militia movement that emerged during the Clinton years: a version of right-wing populism absolutely centred on the same constitutional right to bear arms that the Panthers once invoked.

This was a new mode of conservatism, a paranoid defense of ‘liberty’ ostensibly mounted against the encroachments of Clintonian ‘socialism’. In other words, during a period in which liberals were embracing neoliberalism, the far Right was able to appropriate radical postures that had once belonged to the New Left. As the Left fell in behind Clinton’s corporate liberalism, the radical Right became the force most noisily hostile to US foreign policy (via suspicion of the ‘New World Order’ and its black helicopters), positioning itself in opposition to state power and as the representative of ‘freedom’ against the government and its agents. Guns were part of that – once more functioning as symbols of resistance, albeit in a deranged, distorted fashion.

That’s why, though the political prospect of serious regulation can be assessed at approximately zero, the Left’s call for state control of guns is a serious error, since it allows the far Right to claim the mantle of opposition to state power, at precisely a time in which that state power is increasingly discredited and distrusted. We’ve already seen what this might mean in the way that Ron Paul – a sinister, racist libertarian – was able to appeal to many young people by articulating anti-state positions now completely outside the liberal consensus.

If the Left identifies with the idea that police should have more power to intervene in the communities of the poor at a time when there’s growing opposition to the prison-industrial complex (remember those 1.8 million people in state custody!), it’s an open invitation for the bigots of the far right to project themselves as the only consistent defenders of liberty.

By contrast, if the Left instead begins on the long and arduous business of establishing a bottom-up solution to the proliferation of guns, we stand a chance not only of isolating the Right and of dissipating the reactionary gun culture but of rebuilding a sense of solidarity, so that living becomes more attractive than killing.

Grey discussed combat as the single lyric passage in an entire life. But let’s also remember what Octavio Paz wrote about the experience of struggle in Spain in the thirties: ‘Anyone who has looked Hope in the face will never forget it. He will search for it everywhere he goes.’

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. If there is a decline in interpersonal violence in Western societies, surely chiming in on the gun control debate helps obscure the motivating factors anchored in capitalism that produce massacres like in Aurora?

    I would have thought more important than his access to guns was the desire and willingness of the Joker to massacre innocents. The motive is more significant in terms of trying to understand and prevent such horror. After all, he could have killed even more had he locked the doors and set the cinema on fire, or even yelled ‘fire’…

    1. In fact its interesting to note that the two biggest mass killings in the US in recent times were carried out using carton cutters and jet airliners (9/11) and fertilizer (Oaklahoma City bombing).

      1. But they’re terrorist acts, not rage massacres, so have completely different contexts, psychology, motivating factors, etc.

        And I’m confused by your first point. It almost sounds like you’re suggesting that gun control is the topic the left should be focussing on.

        1. I’m not sure how they are different at all, other than one is more organised than the other. I wouldn’t level a building full of people I had no antipathy towards…

          I am suggesting the Left should not contribute to the gun control debate as it legitimizes liberals desire to avoid focus on the social factors behind such massacres.

          1. Well I think it’s silly to not make a distinction between Oklahoma and Columbine, for example, and lump them into the one category of ‘general dissatisfaction with capitalism’.

            And isn’t Jeff’s whole essay an attempt to examine the social factors behind such acts?

  2. Wow. That might be the best post of yours I’ve ever read Jeff.
    I think I’ll just recall all mine and quietly crumple them in the wastepaper bin.
    I’m not on Twitter so can someone please tweet “Mindblowing post from Jeff Sparrow on gun rage. Read nothing else this week.”

  3. A truly excellent piece, Jeff.

    One interesting fact is that in the neoliberal period in most Western countries there has been a pacification of the population in terms of interpersonal violence (i.e. a decline in such violence measured in a range of statistics) alongside a series of other phenomena that point in a different direction. One, as you point out, is an increase in state coercion, both domestically and in terms of military conflicts.

    But two others stand out: First, an increase in media and state generated hysteria about violence and the need for the state to pacify the population even more. This usually takes the form of a moral panic of some type. A recent example close to me is the fulmination over alcohol fuelled violence in Kings Cross after a tragic random murder a few weeks ago. But when one looks at the propaganda of the lobby pushing for tougher restrictions on alcohol service, or opening hours of venues, or whatever, what is missing is any solid statistic to back up their repeated assertion that violent acts are on the rise. The gun issue is similar in the US.

    The second things, noted in a fascinating French study I read a while back, is how episodes of interpersonal conflict are now much more likely to end in channels of official complaint (from formal grievances to actual legal action to AVOs) than they were 30-40 years ago. That is, the pathway to resolving conflict between people has become judicialised, channeled through the state rather than sorted out between people. One way to express your rage, after all, is to demand the state does something about it.

    Just some observations.

    1. Thanks, Tad.
      The issue about the general decline in violent crime is really interesting. I don’t really know what the explanation is. I’ve heard it suggested that the massive scale of imprisonment in the US impacts on the stats but that wouldn’t explain the global trend.
      Off the top of my head, I wonder if the increasing atomisation means that there’s less interpersonal contact and thus less violence. But that’s entirely speculation.

  4. You have offered a pretty cheap value judgement on the enforcement of gun laws. You think it would be better to have the status quo than give police the power to restrict firearm ownership.

    You are entitled to argue that but you haven’t proven it. You haven’t proven that enforcing gun laws entails a substantial increase in police brutality, over the harms caused by widespread gun ownership. You haven’t proven why that ownership is desirable, in the sense that it offers some protection against police violence.

    I enjoyed this essay and it is well researched but a little too abstract for my liking.

    1. Hi Paul,
      Yes, it is a very abstract case. But that’s because we’re not discussing a specific proposal in the wake of these killings, so much as the general idea that (an abstract) gun control is the solution to rage massacres. As I suggested, as soon as you look at legislative measures that are actually on the table, the argument becomes even clearer because they are so weak as to have almost no impact. What’s more, it’s not clear that they’re intended to have any impact, so much as to avoid any discussion of the substantive issue, which is what is it about our society that has made random murder seem alluring.

  5. Just a quick comment on this horrible story out of Wisconsin, which now seems to have been been political, with the killer linked to white supremacist groups and some kind of Nazi skinhead band. Since 9/11 Sikhs have faced consistent racism and harassment (often mistaken as Muslims), though there seems to be no adequate figures, because the authorities don’t record such cases and, indeed, rarely take them seriously. It’s a good example as to why the top-down approach to violence is inadequate. Giving more power to the state is particularly problematic for religious minorities because in the US the state has a long and ongoing record of, at best, ignoring their problems and, at worst, using its resources to harass and entrap them.
    Here, for instance, is an instance of how the FBI used gun laws to send a Muslim man to jail on terrorism charges on the basis of almost nothing.

    It’s an example of a broader trend.

    Nearly every major post-9/11 terrorism-related prosecution has involved a sting operation, at the center of which is a government informant. In these cases, the informants—who work for money or are seeking leniency on criminal charges of their own—have crossed the line from merely observing potential criminal behavior to encouraging and assisting people to participate in plots that are largely scripted by the FBI itself. Under the FBI’s guiding hand, the informants provide the weapons, suggest the targets and even initiate the inflammatory political rhetoric that later elevates the charges to the level of terrorism.

    1. “Political”? Rubbish. There just hasn’t been time for the media and authorities to create a posthumous pop-psychological account of the “mental health problems” that led him to be attracted to far Right politics.

      1. I think the emphasis on religion here is a mistake, and not at all representative of how racism manifests in society, particularly for white supremacists and neo-nazis.

        ‘Muslim’ is seen as an ethnic target for racists, rather than religious. With some further digging, I suspect we’d find that racism against South Asians in western countries has skyrocketed in the past decade, whether victims were Muslim, Hindu or Sikh – just as Persians and Arabs are regularly targeted, regardless of religion.

        Interestingly, Page was also a returned soldier, which the SPLC has warned are a group ripe for recruitment to right-wing extremist causes. He was dishonourably discharged in 98, which raises some questions too.

          1. ‘The idea that he was in the military and specifically at Fort Bragg at a time when there was a real scandal about Neo-Nazis in Fort Bragg playing this music, openly indoctrinating other soldiers. There was a black couple — a man and a woman — who were murdered right outside of Fort Bragg by Neo-Nazi skinheads who in fact were in the military.’

            The SPLC had been following Page for some time. Apparently he was given a general discharge (not dishonourable) and was only in psyops for a short time. He lost his job in 2010 and his house to Wells Fargo last year, but, according to the SPLC, there was nothing that distinguished him from the thousands of other members of these groups.

  6. I think some of us here need to stop pussyfooting around. As far as I am aware, the position of the International Socialist Tendency on this issue is to oppose gun control.

    I am not entirely sure if this entails opposing gun control everywhere at all times, or whether it is opposing increasing restrictions on gun control where these are threatened as a solution to ‘crime’.

    If this is not the IST position then please let me know. That there has been no statement on this in the US Socialist Worker publication is quite strange…

  7. Is much information available on Norman List’s workplace history/social background? (That tick, Stanley Bruce, was PM around that time, wasn’t he?)

    1. On List, the Australian papers are searchable online now. Here’s a story about the inquest.
      ‘Archibald Forsyth, farmer, of Laverton,
      said that List did harvesting work for him
      from November 28 until January 14.
      January 21 witness posted the cheque pro-
      duced to List at 21 Charles street, Rich-
      mond. When working for him List ap-
      peared to be quite sane, and he was a
      good workman. He had told two other
      men employed by witness that he was
      suffering from a disease which was “driving
      him off his head.”‘

  8. This piece remains timely and thought-provoking after the Sandy Hook school shootings. Here’s one thought the piece provoked in me. You mention the mass urbanisation of European rural people in the decades leading up to WWI. The same process is being replicated right now in China: an astonishing 250 million rural people have urbanised there in the last few decades. Are there similar symptoms of social dislocation in China? Yes, there are: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/12/22-kids-slashed-in-china-elementary-school-knife-attack/

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.