Gun Control

To be honest it generally feels a little futile to write about guns in the US. Every now and then I try to write articles or prose that in some way connects to tragic events in the world. I think it’s important to do so. All art should, in part at least, lend itself to trying to make sense or translate the traumas which surround us. Not to offer solutions, or heal any particular sorrow or fear, but to contribute another medium for understanding them, another point to push people to think about them rather than just accepting them as the ever-present wallpaper of life.

Given the ubiquity of shootings in the states though it’s fairly easy to just give up trying. Certainly I couldn’t put something even vaguely worthwhile out every time something happens but even allowing for that the angles from which I, personally, can approach such events are finite. I run up against my own abundant emotional and intellectual ignorance, my supply of whatever perspectives I can comprehend well enough to write dried up. Still though, things happen and I, like most people, can’t escape thinking about them, trying to make sense of them and looking for a way around them.

The Parkland shootings are the latest in a long line and, as per usual, the same arguments have been kicked up in the wake of events. The pro and anti-gun control voices have trodden, yet again, the familiar ground of what is ultimately an American culture clash more than anything. The details of the discussion have changed a bit this time, all for the better I reckon, with the outcry from the kids who were actually victims of the attack. Beyond them though the front is as static as ever. Given the state of things in the US it looks likely to stay that way too.

The highest hope most seem to have at the moment is that AR-15s and similar weapons will be banned, a demand pushed by public outrage that seems more amplified than ever before. Hopefully they’re right, it’d certainly be no bad thing, but at the same time it’s a fairly paltry dream to have.

The US is saturated with guns of all sorts, swamped with them and every one is capable of killing. Some more quickly or efficiently than others, but a bullet from any one of them will kill a person. That’s an absolute and unfortunate fact about the situation. Worse than that, it’s almost impossible to see any legislation being brought in which could change that. Even a Quaker level pacifist government, or a draconian, authoritarian crackdown – if either ever existed – would find it almost impossible to take those guns out of the society. On a practical level if nothing else it’d take door to door searches; arrests, a genuine civil conflict to make a real change.

Even if that fantasy scenario played out (which some pro-gun types seem to desperately wish it would) it’d still do nothing to tackle what seems to me to be the more serious issue here. Even if guns were removed from US society the cultural landscape itself would still be one built on identities, myths and notions of ‘right’ that enshrine individualistic violence as a near patriotic national trait. A sizeable proportion of Americans, whatever the law, are reinforced daily with the notion that their security and their safety is a matter predominantly protected and defined by them as individuals, no one else. It’s not a community effort, it’s not a part of the social contract with the state, it’s not a collaborative human priority, it’s their job, their right to protect themselves by whatever means necessary. Even without the firearms that spirit wouldn’t necessarily fade.

It’s that problem of cultural sensibilities which seems too big for anyone to really comprehend. Even ardent anti-gun lobbyists, both for reasons of practicality and personal comprehension, can only really confront the issue as a physical, legal one. To take it in as the reflection of an almost universal cultural attitude is nigh on impossible. In fact even those who are pro gun-control, even those who are deeply moral people are still part of the overarching culture that rarifies violence from a societal ill into a cultural identity. There’s no way not to be given it’s insidious nature.

Hollywood (not a particularly moral place) has always churned out proofs of the individual right to force, literature, music and games do the same. Often in ways which seem almost innocuous even from a distance, turning into a fantasy what is, at its source, a real impulse in the mindset of many. By saying that I’m not going down the route of cultural condemnation, I don’t think there’s much use in walking the path of censorship or moral outrage at cultural output. If only because that cultural output is, at it’s best, an absolutely necessary part of processing the environment it comes from. You can’t alter the daily situation by just pretending it doesn’t exist and seeking never to represent it in any mass medium. Not that that’s an absolution to the culture industry – a lot of its output is terrible, or to be generous at least completely unaffected by any sense of responsibility. When it’s so absolutely driven by commercialism though I’m wary of marking it as the prime instigator rather than the lazy, unimaginative result of its creative environment.

I think there’s a greater issue in social and political history. Culture might reinforce the deeply unhealthy attitudes of some but it doesn’t come out of nowhere.

The US was founded by violence, more so than any other wealthy nation which can currently frame it’s own history as a ‘modern’ development. Through Slavery, the racial conflict that follows it to this day, the Civil War, the genocide of Native Americans, the ‘Nativist’ movements, attempts as workers unionisation, the ghettoisation of minority and immigrant communities – the functional necessity of violence has been constant and directly present. Not that that presents any kind of moral argument for gun ownership – the people with the majority of the guns in almost all of those situations have been the ones in the wrong – but it has created a top down and nodding acceptance of that individualistic duty to self defence, for some at least. A nodding acceptance which provokes the oppressed as much as the oppressor to embrace the idea that only by being individually (or collectively) armed is there any hope of security.

In recent decades that’s started to be challenged a bit. The steady stream of atrocities, mixed in with a generation that, in part at least, seems to be breaking off from historical paranoia is pushing the dialogue in part towards saner standards. The kids talking out in the aftermath of Parkland are the vanguard of that progress, not to say that there aren’t plenty of ardent and incredibly hard working gun control advocates out there, but those students aren’t, or weren’t, activists. I’ve no idea what, if any, political or moral views they had on gun ownership before they became victims of the issue but it’s probably a safe bet that they weren’t majorly involved with it. Which makes their speaking out all the better really, they’re not committed advocates (who are always a minority), they’re normal kids whose natural reaction to violence is repulsion and a desire for solutions. A society where that’s the majority norm is one which, in time, can get things done perhaps.

That’s the hopeful part at least. The less hopeful part is that the NRA has about 15 million self declared members (although only 5 million official ones). Beyond that it’s probably a safe bet that those millions have friends and families who, at the very least, are accepting of gun culture and who might be openly supportive of it – or simply being raised to accept it.

Not all of those people are going to feel that their guns are a necessary aspect of their self defence. Some are going to be recreational shooters, hunters, collectors, hobbyists etc. Maybe completely sincerely so. They still fall in behind the vocal totem of the NRA though, a group which in it’s opportunistic way does play up the the innate paranoia of a historically armed society. A sensibility which remains the socially and culturally dominant force for a lot of people. Shifting them from their beliefs, or rather their daily reality as they see it, is what it’ll take to alter the American attitude towards firearms. Again though, that requires a massive shift in the culture and identity of a nation.

How can that happen? As plenty of people are increasingly showing there is a vocal faction who already want change but as mentioned earlier their goals, by necessity, are immediate ones of restraint and progressive, incremental shifts. It’s no easy ask for them to drag historical or popular identities and myths into the spotlight, in fact if they even try they fall into what’s likely to be a trap that’ll see the rhetoric of cultural war ramped up even higher. After all it was only recently that attempts to remove Confederate statues was being held up as a liberal attack on a glorious heritage. Trying to encourage a real debate on America’s past and present self-perceptions is liable to meet with similar, Alt-Right style temper tantrums. Or at least an uncomfortable reluctance amongst the majority of broadly decent people who aren’t willing to see their foundations, no matter how dubious, being focused on.

It’s also a struggle to see impetus to real change coming from the ‘top’ of society. Trump himself is a reflection of how badly the assumption that top down progressiveness can equal absolute change can play out. Not just in the backlash he represents against a certain class of Democrats but also in the reaction he represents to his own Republican Party. Cultural identity can be exploited, no doubt, but not the GOP, or Fox, or anyone else can mediate or control it – not when the roots of what they’re looking to exploit tap into represent something so much larger than their fleeting attempts at right wing populism. Both organisations could disavow gun rights completely, you could even throw the NRA in on top but it’s still hard to imagine that the culture which they feed off of would fade away rather than just find new manifestations.

Looking for some optimism to offer is hard. Cultural evolution, at its quickest, takes centuries. Here in Europe a century has passed since the height of Empire and still our societies are too often framed by the hangover effects, both unspoken and overt, of that. In fact, for added despondency, you can trace the foundations of much of our culture far further back through Reformations, Revolutions and all the way to the fall of Rome. Through it all an ever more tangled line of identities, self-mythologising, guilt, pride and delusion lead up to the present and only rarely has there been enough of a move towards introspection to untangle any of it. Something that’s reflected in the almost nostalgic rise of the Far Right in parts of Europe, or the levels of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric which, at times, nears the point of losing itself completely and becoming calls for arms against the Caliphate or Ottoman Empire. Holding a similar measure up to the US it’s hard to have all that much hope of change coming any time soon.

I think, perhaps, the hope that there is doesn’t come from gun control efforts themselves. They might be the banner line issue as far as the media is concerned (for today at least) but the move towards an analysis of American history, culture and identity comes on a lot of fronts. Black Lives Matter, as a catch all for a lot of people, movements for gender and sexual equality, a small (but notable) resurgence of Democratic Socialist ideals – all of them are challenging what were consciously ignored or blindly accepted norms in the US. A process which involves digging through a lot of dirt and attempting to face what’s found. Again, much of their work is based on immediate necessities and realities – as it has to be – but they’re promoting something wider too, genuine reflection. And every step they take is one which, hopefully, will lead to the same willingness/determination to discuss gun culture, where it comes from and what place it really should have in US society.

The Primal Country

The US is hard wired to a violent fixation. What other country since Rome can trace it’s own existence so clearly in flowing lines of physical conflict, oppression, panicked escape and reactionary vengeance? The earliest colonists were running from a continent riven by religious conflict and into a self-proclaimed new world where the borders were to be re-drawn by survivalist intent, the gun held not as a right but as a perceived necessity for existence. And like Rome the first boatloads become almost deified, an active denial of the eclectic nature of their intents – after all, no founding myth can be honest.

A nation was born by revolt, not for freedom – the US was never Haiti except in it’s own blurred and militant view of itself and it grew by genocide which was with every shot veiled with the comforting blankets of self-justification. Strength made it right, God made it right, civilisation made it right but an itchy trigger finger made it necessary above all else because the only identity to be had was one of force.

Slavery fuelled it, more righteous acts loudly proclaimed over the inhuman other shipped in to lend their blood and bones to the foundation of something that needed to exist because it needed to exist. Not towards some glorious end but because the violence had to be expressed. An export from an old world overflowing with it perhaps, a gladiator’s arena for the suddenly aloof excesses of a Europe obsessed since millennia before by the power of it’s own aggression.

A civil war fought to retain the right to stamped down human foundations for the land of the free and more and more violence. Ideas always secondary, concepts always divine only as far as they lent themselves to the ongoing quest to fight, oppress and expand.

More wars, endless wars, everywhere – no worse than any other continent or country but untempered, unsullied by the march of history which turned all other founding myths into functional self-perception. Rome slaughtered Gauls long enough ago for the violence to be honestly separated from the result by minds too young and too short lived to tie the two together. The Mongols who flooded through the great Empire were defined by that same impulse of the violent as the inescapable but they’re long gone too, subsumed into a far from peaceful history but one that has at least had time to assimilate it’s own fallacies of civility. Only the US stands in our working memory as a clear presentation of an earlier state, a flourishing human expression of cruelty born out of some necessity that but for kneejerk expressions met with tired horror we’ve come to abhor as alien no matter how common it may still be. Only the US is there to remind us of the megadeaths of history which brought us all to where we are, the Imperial equivalent of re-enactors spending a damp weekend in a field playing at being legionnaires or nomadic horsemen.

There’s no reflection here on the people of the country. Although from across the world we all search active shooters and twenty-four hour rolling murders for proof of who the inhabitants of the last conquering Empire are. People are people though, undefined by their country of origin when held alone, even if collectively the nature of the nation formed by all origins, all crimes and all acts does manifest into some sort of whole. A whole gone full circle now, revisiting the violent tendencies drained from the old world back upon it with smiling vengeance. Wars, music, film, art, games – the country founded by the necessary violence of it’s own existence reflects it all back on us. Daily trying to sanitise it, mythologise it and rationalise it – turning their own macro version of the Rape of the Sabine women into a blessing – looking for the victims to finally nod that yes, it was all for the best, or if they refuse demanding their silence in perpetuity. An easy desire to disdain if only we weren’t all as susceptible to it ourselves but for the jaded and comfortable ignorance blessed unto us by the dusty detachment of centuries.

What the US will be, what pedestal or grave it will elevate or entomb it’s vital sense of violence on to is now and for centuries to come unknown. All anyone can do is wait and see what lies history leads the giant to choose for itself and how bitter the truth beneath them will taste when the acrid burn of the first experience fades away.

Charlotesville & Violence

The reaction to events in Charlottesville has been a major part of the news and social media cycle recently. Rightly so, although it’s worth remembering that banner head events like this are just the peaks of what can and does happen on a daily basis throughout the US and here in the UK too. It’s size makes it more prominent, but perhaps not massively more important than the daily acts of intolerance and hatred that some people set out to encourage and take part in.

One of the strands of reaction, one which I find perhaps more confusing than any, is the condemnation of those people who set out to physically resist the Fascist presence on the streets. It’s not the loudest line, fortunately, but it does have enough prominence to be a disturbing one so I figured I’d throw in my 2p’s worth of opinion on it.

I don’t understand how, or why, people try to analyse physical action as a political or philosophical act, I’m not sure everyone involved in it does at any rate. Even if you believe that some Fash or fellow travellers can be talked to and brought back from where they are (and I do) that’s a moot point when it comes to actual, street level action. The only question there is what effect their presence has on a community and what measures are needed to limit it, I don’t understand how anyone with any experience of the world can honestly try to break that down into a comfortable political talking point to be chewed over with sorry recriminations from a safe distance. When these people go out to march, or more usually just act up in their day to day lives, they’re not setting out to convert people, or convince people of their righteousness, they’re trying to assert their power, they do it solely to make themselves feel bigger and to intimidate and threaten the people around them. Saying no violence in return as a personal position might feel morally right to an individual, it might even be morally right to an individual but it’s still a myopic position and a selfish one to impose on other people.

Try to impose the same thinking on others, imagine it’s your family, your friends or your kids who are walking around that area when the Fash are out. Imagine it’s them being told they deserve to die, that they’re less than human, that they should be lynched or thrown in gas chambers. Imagine that it’s them being physically attacked for the colour of their skin, or their religion or for believing that Fash thinking is wrong. And that’ll all happen even without them being involved in any counter protest, it’ll happen just because they exist. It happens every day in fact. To condemn people who take physical action in return, or who defend those who are attacked in that way is, tbh, a fucking disgusted moral imposition to make on anyone especially if you’re taking your stand from a safe distance where you’re fairly sure you won’t face the same.

I’ve posted a statement from a former member of the clergy above (click to enlarge). To me that’s a truly decent position for any pacifist to take if they hold their beliefs honestly. You don’t have to fetishise violence or think it’s good or get a buzz off of it. You just have to accept that your moral stand (if that’s really what it is) isn’t viable or reasonable for everyone and perhaps even acknowledge that, if it were, it wouldn’t just be the philosophically peaceful counter-protestors who’d get a beating for it. If Fash felt they could act with impunity on the streets, whenever and wherever they are, it’d be whole communities who’d have to live with it. Day in and day out.

Punch Drunk

He could feel his fists clenching automatically. The first sign of the desire that was swelling up within him, a physical reaction accompanied by vivid memories of his own time in the ring. Flashes of a long surpressed satisfaction found in the first flurry of thudding punches – a distillation and simplification of everything he was into one pure and comprehendible moment of action.

It had been a bad idea to come along tonight. Already he was feeling oppressed by the triggered ressurgance of everything he’d spent so long training himself to manage without giving in to the impulses which used to dictate his entire life.

He should have guesssed what his reaction would be. No, he’d known what his reaction would be, he should have accepted the truth rather than ignoring it for the sake of self-indulgence. For six years he’d lived out everything he was as a fighter, touring pubs, barns and carparks to serve an audience of barrel shaped drunks who barked at the entertainments of bare knuckle boxers. A form of sanity, he’d always told himself, a release for that large part of himself that he couldn’t manage internally as a violent expression to an approving crowd.

He remembered the force of that life with crystal clarity – how could he have fooled himself, even for a second, into believing that he’d conquered that drive for release in and from himself? No amount of therapy, self help books, meditation and positive thinking could drown out his nature. He could only even restrain it with almost obsessive focus.

Within the improvised ring of hay bales the night’s first fighters were enthusiastically dancing around each other. Neither of them yet rattled into punch drunkenness. It was a poor bout though. They were big men, solidly capable of doing real harm, but they were both playing roles. Neither of them willing to stop looking like a fighter for long enough to lose themselves in the glorious release of the moment, if they even knew what that would feel like. The crowd could see it, see the restraint and paranoid control. No one was here to see a parade of controlled skill or style. They came to see what they wanted for themselves, an absence of control, an unthinking release of all there was to give. They wanted someone like him, someone who wanted to be as consumed by the violence as they did themselves in their unmentioned fantasies.

A few token cheers went up as one of the fighters gained the upper hand, a chain of punches to the head sending his opponent staggering away in confusion. Drunken expression more than anything, even with the blows this was still a bout managed by fear and self image. Steve realised he was on the boundary, leaning forwards into the ring, muscles tensed. One step more, one punch and he would be free again. Liberated form all the bullshit ideas about control he’d covered himself in so he could walk down the street without guessing at who was judging him. They’d applaud him for it too. They’d welcome him back to the violence, not caring how or why he’d returned but eager to sink themselves into the chaos of it.

He held himself back, forcing his fists to unball with more strength than he’d ever put into using them.

He had to leave. He had to gulp down fresh air and let his head bathe in silence. He had quit. He had spent years trying to find control for a reason. If he could get far enough away from there then he’d remember what it was, sweep away the heavy fug of almost drunken addiction. For now though he just needed to run, to sprint away from the beautiful promise of stepping back into that ring.

For more from me you can check out my collection No Cure for Shell Shock – available in paperback and digital formats. Or you can try any of my other work here – variously available as ebooks or paperbacks.