April 23, 2013

Distinctly American

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Why did last week’s gun legislation fail?

More aptly, how could it possibly have? Polls showed that 90% of Americans supported the type of background checks it would enact. It was a bipartisan effort headed by moderate Republicans and Democrats. There was an outlandish outcry of support from victims of recent gun-violence tragedies and from the President himself. And in a country where money is might — Bloomberg’s out-of-pocket $12 million was nothing to sneeze at either. It was considered a compromise. It was considered oh-so-doable.

And it failed.

How? There’s talk of Obama not getting down and dirty enough with the Senate. There’s talk of confusing public support for political power. There’s talk of that notorious bully, the NRA. What is it really, though? Meet the 45 senators who should be able to tell you.

In a nutshell: anti gun-regulation voters are intense. They’re much more likely to be single-issue voters, and  in other words, “psychotic hot-heads that run to the polls, pistols blazing, to pull the LaPierre-sanctioned lever,” whereas normal people are more likely to vote based on a range of issues. Senators who have a lot of these whackadoos in their states have to be pretty terrified of them. In fact,  The Washington Post published a handy little chart that showed the votes of Senators amid a graphical representation of the percentage of their constituents who voted against Obama in 2012 and the number of gun stores in their districts. The situation is fairly black and white.

Where do these NRA-worshipping hopped-up Yosemite Sams come from? And why do there seem to be so damn many (and why are they all so persistent in lighting up your Facebook feed)? Part of it is the distinctly American idea that we should be able to do whatever we want. E.g. “protect our homes and families”… with weaponry. Imagine there’s an intruder in your home and you actually manage to shoot him. No really, imagine yourself as capable of shooting a human person. I dare you.

Now imagine this: you are seriously more likely to be killed by falling down your own stairs. So maybe invest your pistol money in a one-story or some heavy-traction sneakers for the whole clan. Also, hello sad population fragment that hasn’t seen Home Alone, presumably you have never learned that BURGLARS DON’T WANT TO BURGLE YOU WHEN YOU ARE HOME. Why, oh why, did you watch The Sixth Sense so many times?!

But if you aren’t mesmerized by Macaulay Culkin long enough to learn some basic tenets of residential living, I guess that’s your “freedom.” Owning a few handguns to soothe your rampant paranoia is, I suppose, your own damn business. You’re a benign type of delusional. But if you really believe that there shouldn’t be background checks for people with proven violent mental illnesses or limitations on the type of mass-killing machines that a private citizen can buy, all in the name of freedom that’s when I’m going to come out and tell you that you are Fucking Crazy.

Americans don’t just want freedom. They want their freedom to be unique. And by “unique” I mean, “better than everyone else’s.” “Distinctly American,” is the phrase heard round the world, and it implies oh-so-many things. For one, in America, there are almost as many guns as there are people.  In America, there are fewer laws restricting gun ownership than any other industrialized nation. In 2010, 11,078 people were killed by them. Always second best, the U.K. gun-related homicide count rang in at 27 (losers)in the same year.

If you put legal restrictions on guns, some say, it means you’re taking them out of the hands of good, normal, law-abiding people and putting them exclusively in the hands of criminals. The obvious continuation of that sentence: “and the police.” You know, those people who are employed and trained to enact justice? America has this weird nostalgia for the vigilante (Batman. Nuff said.) and according to Nicholas Rombes of The Rumpus, “for the very system of injustice which provides moral justification to his actions.” That’s about heroism, probably. Though, in case anyone was curious, Mother Jones took a peek back at the last 61 mass shootings in America and helpfully pointed out that not a single one was ended by a civilian with a gun.

“As though you could use violent, unjust means and achieve peace and justice!” shouted Alduous Huxley, once upon a time. Yeah dude, but John Wayne is so fucking romantic. I shoulda been a cowboy. Sigh.

This particular nostalgia goes back to the American creation myth. Prof. Richard Slotkin of Wesleyan University says that the real founding fathers are those who “tore violently a nation from implacable and opulent wilderness. Regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience.” The Puritan work ethic, the Frontier Spirit, Manifest Destiny — America’s love affair with guns comes from a radical dedication to violent regeneration and obsessive individualism. We have a gun culture.

I mean, don’t we all just shiver with delight when Samuel L. Jackson says “Mr. 45 here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness”?   (Answer: Yes. Yes, we do.)

Don DeLillo writes sardonically of violent technology in White Noise saying, “It breaks away from complicated human passions to show us something elemental, something fiery and loud and head-on. It’s a conservative wish-fulfillment, a yearning for naiveté. We want to be artless again. It’s a reaffirmation of traditional values and beliefs. We don’t mourn the dead or rejoice in miracles. These are days of secular optimism, of self-celebration. We will improve, prosper, perfect ourselves.”

1893: first detachable magazine, 1903: first automatic rifle, 1980: first Glocks, aka“America’s handgun,” 1983: the Striker shotgun, 2012: Springfield’s compact XD’s, because “Who needs to carry parabellum when they can pack a .45 punch, and in the same sized package?”

“Improve, prosper, perfect ourselves.”

If you haven’t read former Arizona representative Gabby Giffords’ op-ed piece in The New York Times yet, it’s waiting for you. You won’t come out the other side thinking that we should call anything about guns romantic or “distinctly American.” She handily debunks my favorit

e argument about gun control — the iteration that we “can’t possibly prevent every act of violence.” It’s my favorite because the rebuttal is so damn easy. It’s true, we can’t possibly prevent every act of violence. But what if gun legislation prevents one act of violence? All it has to do is save ten lives. Five lives. One life. I’m on board.

Another thing that is supposed to be distinctly American is our ability to influence our own political system. When Americans speak out, someone is supposed to listen.  So, “mark my words,” says Gifford, “if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress.”  That is a distinctly American power. We have to be as outraged as the NRA’s cronies, okay? We have to be as terrifying.

“To do nothing while others are in danger is not the American way.”

Original Author: Kaitlyn Tiffany