Sunday, February 6, 2011

Two Americas, Two Gun Cultures

The United States seems to have a fascination with guns that is difficult for people in other countries to comprehend. The purpose of this note is to point out that this attraction to weapons is poorly understood within the country also. It is as if there are two worlds, one urban and one rural, that persist in the inability to exchange and share their sets of values or their experiences. As a means of illuminating this dichotomy we will examine the published histories of two people growing up in the two environments and let them describe their introductions to guns and their resultant attitudes.

Let us begin with Geoffrey Canada. Canada is now a respected educator who has spent his adult career trying to develop improved educational approaches for use in poor urban areas. He has recorded his experiences growing up in a poor, predominately black area of New York City. In 1995 he publishedFist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America. His youth spanned the 1950s through the 1970s.

Canada begins his tale in an era when guns were not an issue for children growing up, but violence certainly was. His environment was one of children left to their own devices with parents (many with a single parent) busy trying to earn an income, and little if any police presence. Canada proclaims several times that children are not violent by nature, and that violence has to be taught to them. He then describes the children of his neighborhood forming themselves into a chain of dominance through fist fighting or threats of violence. Once the chain is established the leaders then have to assume some responsibility for protecting the weaker members and also for guarding against affronts from adjoining neighborhoods. This is exactly the behavior one would see in any number of herding animals. One can decide for themselves if this behavior is “taught” or innate. Canada also describes a major component of recreation between himself and his brothers as wrestling (taught or innate?).

Canada and his cohort formed a community where dominance was based on bravery and skill. He is almost wistful in the recall. With the advent of guns all of that changed. Power no longer belonged to the strong and the smart. The weak, the stupid, and the cowardly could instantly acquire power with a gun in their possession.
“Guns were rarely used to settle disputes during the mid-sixties and none of us owned one. Most of us had never seen a gun up close. Still, my peers could not help wanting to see what a gun could do, and they wanted to see it up close. We all knew that a gun was the ultimate weapon, little did we know that one day guns would forever change the codes of conduct that we worked so hard to learn and live up to.”
Canada ascribes the transition from a situation where guns were only in the hands of hardened, professional criminals towards one of ready availability to the development of the crack cocaine trade in the early eighties, and to the law enforcement response. He says a crack cocaine high could be had for as little as two dollars, making it within reach of the poorest of people. Suddenly there was a big market and a lot of money to be made selling drugs in Canada’s neighborhoods. The legal response was to impose severe penalties.

The so-called Rockefeller drug laws detailed mandatory sentences of 15 years to life for possession of relatively small amounts of drugs, and even more severe mandatory sentences for second offenders. Canada describes a classic example of unintended consequences. Drug dealers chose to shield themselves by incorporating children into their business (children would be treated as juveniles in court and not subject to the same penalties). Drug sales were a street corner enterprise in those days. A seller had to be where a buyer could find them, but visibility would leave them vulnerable. Using children as the points of contact and as the delivery and collection service made a perverse sense. There were many children with nothing better to do and no other way to make money. And there was plenty of money to be made.

A lot of young people walking around with money, or items that were bought with money, raised the opportunity for theft to a new level. The easiest way to steal from a person was to threaten them with a gun. The best way to respond to a threat from a gun was to possess a gun yourself. The availability of weapons exploded in this environment.

It is a short step from the dominance hierarchies of Canada’s youth to the gangs of today, except now disputes would be decided with guns rather than fists. Canada provides us with this bit of information to put all of this in context.
“The Children’s Defense Fund states.....that ‘between 1979 and 1991 almost 50,000 American children were killed by guns. More American children died from firearms on the killing fields of America than American soldiers died on the killing fields of Vietnam.’”
One view of guns and gun regulations is informed by this history.

For another vantage point let us once again turn to the ever-entertaining and ever-informative Joe Bageant. In his book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, Bageant provides us with a chapter on guns and what they mean in his culture.

Joe is from Virginia. He was raised in an environment where multiple generations of families have lived and passed down their traditions. He and his people connect directly with those who lived in this area when hunting meant acquiring food for subsistence. Some family histories extend back to the time when guns were needed for protection from the Indians. Guns are like heirlooms to be passed on to your children. Being given your first gun and going hunting with the adults for the first time were rites of passage for a young man. Personal and family episodes with guns and hunting are part of the cultural fabric in this region.

Needless to say, these people are suspicious of any attempt to limit access to weapons. Bageant blames urban-based liberals for poorly stating the case for gun control and for not really understanding the issue.
“So when the left began to demonize gun owners in the 1960s, they were not only arrogant and insulting because they associated all gun owners with criminals but also were politically stupid. It made perfect sense to middle America that the gun control movement was centered in large urban areas, the home to everything against which middle America tries to protect itself—gangbangers, queer bars, dope fiend burglars, swarthy people jabbering in strange languages. From the perspective of small and medium-sized towns all over the country, antigun activists are an overwrought bunch.”
Indeed, to these people gun possession is a safety measure for themselves and for their community. In their experience, crime decreases where gun ownership is prevalent, few women who carry guns are raped, and accidental deaths are rare. If there are places where guns and crime go together, then don’t blame the guns, blame the social conditions responsible for crime. Eliminate those conditions, not guns.

The gun issue gets conflated with generations of feeling of being isolated from the power and money that controls government. This feeling of disenfranchisement is exhibited in extreme fear of a domineering, freedom-restricting government. Many people associate gun possession with the need someday, perhaps, to have to defend themselves from their own government.

Bageant admits that not all is sweetness and light among this collection of gun owners. He encounters a significant subset that scares him.
“Most of these men were military gun aficionados and ‘personal weapons collectors.’ In other words, they bought and collected ‘antipersonnel firepower’—guns designed specifically to kill human beings. Without apology....and this is one of the more disturbing fetishes to be found in some dark corners of the gun culture. Hundreds of thousands of American men, maybe a couple of million, no one knows for sure, are obsessed with the micromechanics of lethality—the nuts and bolts and screws of killing human beings. It would be cheating to leave them out of a discussion of armed America, though everyone seems to do just that—pretending they are not there or are not aberrant. Of course, there are far fewer of them than there are ordinary American hunters. But they make up for their small numbers by their weirdness.”
So here we have a nation that lives in fear because their neighbors have guns; mothers who teach their children to look both ways before crossing the street and to immediately hit the ground at the sound of gunfire. We also have a nation that sleeps soundly knowing that they and their neighbors are all armed and ready for action. We have two nations, but one country, and one government.

So how are we going to satisfy everyone’s needs? Can we derive one set of rules? If you figure it out, let us know.

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