From the Vault: Race, Taste and Gun Control

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Since we recently observed the first year anniversary of the awful mass shooting in Newtown Connecticut, I figured I’d repost these reflections.

It is interesting to note that the legislative push for stricter gun control that followed Newtown was a colossal failure. Federal initiatives spearheaded by the President himself collapsed, as did most State initiatives. Legislators in Colorado who passed a bill for greater gun control were humiliated in a State recall election, and only New York City seems to have introduced stricter gun laws without any public outcry.

The cause of this failure is hinted at in the article below: the arguments in favor of more gun laws have shifted so much over time that voters are seeing gun control as fetish of class and taste, not a concern for public safety.     

Since so many people have been writing about gun control since the horrific events of Newtown CT, I did not think I could offer anything new to the discussion. But in the last few weeks I’ve had a few thoughts on the subject that I have not seen anywhere else.

1) When I was a kid (say, late 80’s and early 90’s), the main focus of gun control proponents was handguns. Handguns, they argued, had to be heavily regulated (or even banned) because they were involved in so many crimes; besides,  no one really needed handguns for hunting or home defense.

Today, the focus of gun control proponents is on semi-automatic rifles, epitomized by the AR-15. No one, it is said, needs these weapons for hunting, and handguns are sufficient for self-defense.

Strangely, semi-automatic rifles are common in America, but they are not used in many crimes. Handguns are used in many crimes, but for some reason no one wants to ban them anymore.

2) When I was a kid, the poster boy for gun control, the ticking time bomb, the creepy other that was innately dangerous and needed to be disarmed, was a black, teen-aged boy. The thought of him carrying a “Saturday night special” (80’s slang for a cheap handgun) was enough to give respectable people fits.

Today, the poster boy for gun control is a middle-aged white guy with a John Deere hat. He has become the intrinsically dangerous other  that we as a society have to disarm. The thought of him carrying an “assault weapon” (contemporary slang for a semi-auto rifle) makes respectable folks’ stomachs turn.

Being white (though not yet middle-aged!) I feel a little guilty pointing this out, but statistically speaking the young black man is still much more likely to commit a crime than the middle-aged white guy. (Blame it on youth or poverty or city culture or a combination of the three, the last thing I want to be doing is perpetuating a hurtful stereotype, the important thing is to point out that the new stereotype is not based on reality. The middle-aged white guy is statistically harmless.)

What is going on here? Here is my opinion: the old focus of gun control, black boys with handguns, was based to some degree on reality (the scourge of black-on-black crime in America’s cities) and was based to some degree on prejudice: black people are intrinsically more violent and need to be disarmed. Maybe I have a hunting rifle, but if I don’t see the point in owning a handgun, no one should own a handgun.

It is a good thing that Americans today are not as conditioned to see black youths as intrinsically violent. But the new stereotype (middle-aged white guy with an AR-15) is pure fantasy. The new irrational prejudice is that middle-aged white guys are intrinsically violent and need to be disarmed. Maybe I have a revolver, but since I don’t see the point in owning a semi-automatic rifle, so no one should own one.

In both cases, a major theme of the gun control argument is the intrinsically violent “other” who carries a firearm that is somehow more evil than the one I might have in my closet. What has changed is the race and the style of firearm.

A few external factors go into this transformation:

  • Violent crime rates in America have steadily fallen since the 1970s. Black on black crime is still the scourge of many cities, but it is not as awful as it once was, and so it does not fascinate us as it once did.
  • Americans are more sensitive about anti-black racism (thank God), but it is fashionable in some circles to bash on the middle-aged white guy. In our last presidential election, Mitt Romney’s race was actually seen as working against him!
  • Gun ownership, especially handgun ownership, has been rising for years, so it is harder to demonize handguns for the simple reason that so many people own them. Easier to demonize the semi-automatic, even if it is not commonly used in crimes.

So, as long as I can remember, discussions of gun control have always been clouded by racial mistrust and the demonization of certain styles of firearm. Maybe this is why politicians don’t do very much about crime, they are arguing about the wrong things.

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