One Nation Under Fire


“I think the end of the world has already arrived in this land.” — Russian ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, on the acid blinding of the Bolshoi’s director.

“Our levels of gun violence are off the charts. There’s no advanced, developed country on earth that would put up with this.” — President Barack Obama, on the latest school shooting, in Oregon.

“In a great democracy, it should not be more difficult to vote than it is to own an assault weapon.” — Bill Clinton

The cab is cruising up Central Park at dusk, passing tourists in horse-drawn carriages, just as all the Manhattan towers begin to light up, East Side and West Side, north and south. Visually, New York has many imitators but no equals. A soulful, auspicious moment for a traveler on his way to an excellent restaurant on the Upper West Side. But the driver has the radio playing, tuned to one of those Paleolithic rightwing talk shows that generate reliable revenue in every major city, even liberal New York. “An armed society is a polite society,” we hear the host reassure his caller, and the cab driver and I release identical sighs of exasperation, wordless expressions of our deep regret that we live in a world overrun with such idiots. The man at the wheel is an East African, I guess by his name on the dashboard card, and for the first time we catch each other’s eyes in the rearview mirror. For the big-city cab driver, who always works with his back to the clientele, this nation of concealed-carry lunatics must be an endless nightmare, no matter that he’s sure to have a weapon of his own in the glove compartment.

We didn’t speak of this; we let the sighs suffice. There are things about the United States of America that natives can no longer explain to a foreigner, that without profound embarrassment we can no longer discuss at all. The almost weekly school shootings, the posses of handgun yahoos waving loaded Glocks in McDonald’s — to a Dane or a Belgian these routine American folkways are like the plots of fantastic video games, where violent extraterrestrials run amok. If you don’t travel frequently, you may not know that Europeans speak of the National Rifle Association and its all-the-lead-you-can-eat gun cult with the purest astonishment, with the kind of incredulous distaste they reserve for cannibals or pedophile priests. Like stoning adulterers, like genital cutting, it’s beyond their grasp. In fact, in all the world outside our borders the only people who steer their lives by principles similar to the NRA’s are those Third-World gentlemen designated “terrorists” and “insurgents” by the hosts of rightwing radio. Perhaps the East African driver knows a great deal more about these gentlemen than I do. In Somalia, concealed-carry is for sissies.

In many countries, for many reasons, the kind of rational, fundamentally benevolent social arrangement we like to call civilization is under attack. Military dictators, chaotic civil wars, racial and religious hatred, petrified caste systems, misogyny, predatory capitalism and reckless environmental devastation still block most of humanity’s narrow paths to utopia. It’s possible that they always will. But there’s only one nation with high pretensions to civilization, one that has styled itself the Fortress of Democracy and the Light of the World, where a politically dominant sect dreams of a society where every citizen carries a device designed and intended only to terminate the lives of other human beings—-and can see that strange dream coming true. Shortly before Joseph Campbell’s death in 1987, Bill Moyers asked the famous mythmaster if he could predict the dominant symbols of the 21st century. “Weapons, of course,” said Campbell. “Every movie I see shows people with revolvers. There is the Lord Death, carrying his weapon.”

In place of a society where the mild and harmless can thrive, where we don’t have to be ferocious to survive, American gunmen are creating a paranoid dystopia more frightening and more morbidly ridiculous than anything a novelist or satirist can imagine. The late novelist William Styron, a Southerner, called the NRA “one of the most evil organizations to exist in any nation, past or present.” When the gun lobby defends a citizen’s “Second Amendment right” to own an assault rifle or a machine gun, when legislators respond to the latest school massacre with proposals to arm teachers and train them like SWAT teams, sane people like President Obama repeat, “You have to be kidding.” But kidding they are not.

A society where assault rifles are purchased on the open market and hoarded legally by secret psychopaths is devolving toward violent prehistory, back to a Stone Age before the concept of public safety. What could lie ahead but blood-soaked absurdity and chaos? Every fully sane person understands that, yes? At times the liberal broadcaster Rachel Maddow strikes me as flip and slangy, considering the serious issues she addresses. But when she calls our gun lovers “nutballs,” the only people she offends are in close sexual relationships with deadly weapons. Deploring rightwing bullies who forced Attorney General Eric Holder to cancel a speech at the Oklahoma City police academy, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan didn’t hesitate to identify them as “gun nuts and Republican elected officials — often a redundancy, I realize.”

We know who they are, we know where they are, we know what they are. Statisticians step up at times to remind us how few they are, compared with the majority of Americans who live free of armed fantasies. According to a Gallup study for the year 2012, only a third of American households contain firearms, down 20% from 1973. (The catch is that some of these households contain many firearms.) Stranger still, when you consider the apparent political omnipotence of the NRA, 70% of American voters have always supported some gun control, and opposition to assault weapons runs nearly 4-1. Ninety percent of America’s gun owners, including many NRA members, supported the Brady Bill when the NRA opposed it in 1993. When we speak of the gun cult, we aren’t even including non-activist hunters and gun owners from rural areas, where prized long guns are passed down from father to son. I grew up in an Appalachian county where a deer rifle or a shotgun might be found in every house with a man in residence. Growing up, I never once saw a pistol except the one strapped to the hip of Gene Wigent, our one-man police force. In 100 years, according to our village historian, no one had been murdered with a gun.

At the service station where I buy my morning coffee, there’s a magazine rack including the titles Combat Handguns, Military Surplus and Home Defense. Their covers feature bristling photo-collages of high-tech weapons, large improbable ones like mercenaries and robots carry in violent movies for adolescents. This is uniquely American media, ballistic pornography for twisted souls who confuse homicide with sexuality. I’m naturally curious to see which of my neighbors find this material appealing. So far I’ve never seen a copy of Combat Handguns purchased or perused, though new issues disappear quickly. Are they stealthy, these consumers whose hearts beat faster when the sun glints off the barrel of an AR-15? Possibly they’re just not morning people.

There’s nothing stealthy, nothing subtle about these industry-driven magazines, loaded — literally — with ads for everything a citizen would need to start a revolution or sink an aircraft carrier. And nothing subtle, either, about the gun cult’s armed assault on common sense and logical discourse in America. “With a truly dreadful argument,” wrote philosopher John Searle, “you have to try to reconstruct it so that it’s clear enough that you can state a refutation.” The NRA’s essential “argument “ is so uniquely dreadful that it defies reconstruction. When you begin by insisting that the cure for a lethal plethora of guns is more and bigger guns — in the hands of “good guys” — you stop logical development dead in its tracks. Let the hail of bullets commence, then, and let God sort it out?

The gun lobby’s most effective appeal is the “slippery slope,” its repeated warning that legal restraints of any kind will lead to a wholesale confiscation of firearms (the NRA nightmare no gun control group has ever advocated). It never addresses the slippery slope in the other direction — if you can buy a machine gun, why not move up to a tank, or a nuclear warhead? Thinking never interferes with a gunman’s passion. I first encountered the NRA nearly 30 years ago, when it still wore the faded flannels and denims of a sportsman’s club, active in politics but not yet the bullying Goliath in special-forces camo that it has become. I participated in a debate about some local handgun ordinance, and what impressed me most about the two NRA spokesmen was their spectacular imperviousness to reason. They spoke well and argued glibly, but everything they said was nonsense. They were holster-deep in hogwash and comfortable there. As we demolished their presentations with a minimum of logical exertion, a debater’s version of shooting fish in a barrel, they betrayed no embarrassment and actually seemed to gather strength. Their job, obviously, was not to engage in dialogue or search for common ground, but to confidently repeat the gun lobby’s audience-tested gibberish for trigger-happy “nutballs” who keep it in business.

There’s little to be learned from revisiting that futile debate in the 1980s, except the impotence of language in a struggle against ignorance and fear. But there’s a certain fascination debating with Klingons, encountering visions of a world that is not our world. Outside the NRA’s congregation, is there anyone alive, old enough to drive, who still believes in a Manichaean, comic-book universe of good guys and bad guys, sane and insane, Dudley Do-Right and Snidely Whiplash — a light side and a dark side with no gray bits in between? In the real world, everyone falls somewhere along the infinitely graded spectrum between harmless and terrifying. No one is a truly safe gun owner unless he’s never given in to anger, never held a grudge or nursed resentment, never abused alcohol or drugs, never suffered rejection or humiliation — in love, at work, among peers — of any kind.

Who qualifies? Not me, apparently. Though I’ve never objected to private ownership of hunting weapons that can double as guarantors of home security, my dear wife, recognizing that I am no stranger to wrath, has never allowed me to buy one. Maybe someday, when I’m almost too old and arthritic to squeeze the trigger. But blaming inadequate mental health care for America’s ballistic atrocities is a morbid irony; if we could disregard the body count, it would be purely hilarious. The shooters rarely have criminal records, or any public records of mental illness, before their big day arrives. They’re peculiar loners, mostly, with low profiles and secret arsenals. Mental health? If our laws made any sense, the first thing that would disqualify a person from owning a firearm, on grounds of mental instability, would be his desperate conviction that he needs one.

When facts dispose of the mental-health argument and everything else in their pre-packed debate kits, NRA spokesmen fall back on what they honestly believe is their trump card, their one unassailable claim to legitimacy — the Second Amendment. In fact it may be the weakest plank in their platform. All appeals to the unchanging truth and wisdom of the Constitution, and the sacred Founders’ intentions, crumble before a few unchallenged historical facts. The authors of the Constitution supported and practiced slavery; for the purposes of the census, they designated each slave as three-fifths of a human being; they never intended white females to vote or hold office, or to participate in the great democratic experiment in any way. So much for the eternal wisdom of the Founders. But the Second Amendment, even if you interpret it NRA-style as a guarantee of the individual’s right to bear arms, is a logical casualty because it’s the only item in the Constitution that’s linked to technology. Bear arms? Which arms? Do modern Americans have a right to own assault rifles because George Washington thought their ancestors had a right to own muzzle-loaders? Should 21st-century automobiles observe the same speed limits as Washington’s carriage horses? That might save some lives.

Maybe we could live with muzzle-loaders or single-shot horse pistols, even in the hands of NRA yahoos. All of this is relevant only if you accept the NRA interpretation of the Amendment that reads “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens rejects that interpretation out of hand. In a new book — Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution — published in his 94th year, he notes that no Supreme Court previous to the current Right-loaded lineup (in a 2008 ruling) had ever upheld the broad interpretation gun groups favor. Stevens recommends changing the language of the Second Amendment to clarify what he believes the Founders intended — that an American’s right to bear arms applies only “when serving in the Militia.”

The late Chief Justice Warren Burger — -a Republican —- agreed and went much further, declaring in 1991 that the gun lobby’s distortion of the Second Amendment was “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” (It wasn’t so long ago that Republicans, including many of the fathers of my generation, said lots of sensible things.) Justice William O. Douglas, in 1972, could find “no reason why all pistols should not be barred to everyone except the police.” These distinguished jurists viewed the NRA’s Second Amendment jihad as a cynical scam, manufactured by the arms industry and marketed wholesale to paranoid morons.

In 1980, Chief Justice William Rehnquist — another Republican — joined in the Court’s majority ruling that “legislative restrictions on the use of firearms do not trench upon any constitutionally protected liberties.” But how could Stevens, Burger, Douglas and Rehnquist, with a mere 120 years of service on the Supreme Court between them, have gained enough insight into the Constitution to contradict distinguished legal scholars like Glenn Beck and Ted Nugent? (Nugent is the onetime entertainer and sometime NRA poster boy who called President Obama “a subhuman mongrel” and asked him to “suck on my machine gun.”)

While the courts split hairs about the Founders’ intentions, the carnage continues. Since the Newtown massacre in December 2012, there have been 15 fatal school shootings, not including the most recent ones at Cal Santa Barbara and Seattle Pacific Universities. Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control PAC, Everytown For Gun Safety, lists 74 campus incidents involving firearms since Newtown. In America there’s a gun death every 17 minutes; in Great Britain, one a week at most. Statistics and anecdotes document the pitiful slaughter. I keep folders full of newspaper clippings, a thousand of them, each story dreadful in its way. It’s hard to choose, harder to focus. Homicidal madness made routine. Finally the anecdotes affect me more, the local ones, the North Carolinians on their way to the morgue.

A 9-year-old shot fatally by his brother in a home accident, a 5-month-old girl killed by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooter; mug shots of two girls, 12 and 14, who carjacked a 35-year-old father of three and murdered him with a handgun; people found shot dead in parked cars, sprawled on lawns, in ditches; “Man dead in the roadway with a gunshot wound to the head;” “Man fatally shot at nightclub” (Mama Rabbits Motor Lounge); “Man charged with murder in shooting”——in Hillsborough, where I live. Gun deaths are such a staple of the daily media menu that most Americans consume them with minimal reaction. In sane countries, a few days of such headlines would send thousands streaming to the airports, certain that the end of their world was at hand.

Lately the headlines that trouble me most are about the police, about the gun culture’s terrible toll on uniformed officers. Greensboro, N.C.—-“Mikel Brady sentenced to 40 years in prison for shooting Trooper Michael Potts [a former major league ballplayer] in the face, hands and shoulder during a traffic stop in Durham.” Marion, N.C.—-“Forest Service Officer Jason Crisp, 38, and his service dog, Maros, shot dead while approaching a homicide suspect in Burke County.” New Bern, N.C.—-“Foot chase and shootout in New Bern left a suspect dead and two North Carolina police officers shot.” And in far-off Anchorage, Alaska, “a 19-year-old man shot and killed two Alaska state troopers from behind with an assault rifle as they struggled to arrest his father.” Not to mention the Bonnie-and-Clyde couple of white supremacists in Las Vegas, who murdered two policemen deliberately to show their contempt for the US government.

That’s just a recent survey. Every day, nearly everywhere, someone shoots at an officer who’s trying to do his job. There are also stories about cops who fired too quickly and killed unarmed citizens, usually vagrants, confused seniors or teenagers who looked suspicious. A judge recently awarded $6 million to the family of a schizophrenic man who was killed by police officers in Albuquerque, N.M. But how much can we fault the police for being nervous and quick on the trigger? In addition to “law-abiding gun owners” packing 270 million weapons, every wife-beating, meth-cooking, drug-dealing, child-molesting, dog-fighting, game-poaching weasel-brained desperado in this nation commands an arsenal that would be the envy of a Taliban commando, thanks to the law-abiding and their powerful friends in Washington, D.C. When every victim of road rage, substance addiction or testosterone poisoning can legally outgun a peace officer, a society, as a society, has ceased to exist.

Politicians are rendered useless or dangerous by bad money, bureaucrats are devoted to domestic spying and even the judiciary is suspect, but a good cop—-conscientious, compassionate, competent—-is an American’s last, best protection against paranoia and anarchy. And which man or woman who fits that description, knowing that every traffic stop or domestic violence call is a potential death trap, is going to choose a law enforcement career in the trigger-happy USA? When the good cops are all gone, they’ll be replaced, if at all, by wild, quick-draw risk-lovers who will only add to the body count, before they become a part of it. Concealed-carry lunatics, convinced that public safety and law enforcement are best left to armed vigilantes, might well vote to eliminate the police altogether, instead of one by one. Are peace officers an expensive indulgence no he-man culture really needs? At that point, of course, I get out a map of Europe and head for the airport, though I’m way too old to emigrate anywhere.

Why are we, alone in the civilized world, regressing? Several letters to the editor of the New York Times have pointed out that the legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral, in 1881, was triggered by the Earp brothers’ attempt to enforce an ordinance against carrying firearms in Tombstone, Arizona. Today the Earps — obviously effeminate liberals — would be out of work and out of favor in Arizona, where concealed-carry is legal and popular in spite of the 2011 Tucson massacre that maimed Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six other innocents, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl. Arizona is now one of only three states that allow concealed carry without a permit. Here in North Carolina, a toxic new majority of rightwing legislators recently expanded it to bars, restaurants, parks, playgrounds and even campus parking lots (if the gun is locked in a car).

In Georgia, sometimes mistaken for a civilized place because Atlanta looks so cosmopolitan, the craziest Republican legislature in the whole bloody Republic passed the “guns everywhere” bill, expanding concealed-carry to unsecured areas of airports as well as all bars, restaurants and businesses. The NRA group Georgia Carry expressed disappointment that the law doesn’t cover college campuses and churches — you never know who might be drawing a bead on you from the choir stall or the organ loft. The good people of Georgia were immediately rewarded for their wisdom when a full-bore wacko, a gun-show regular who called himself “a Glock armorer,” staged a one-man military invasion of the Forsyth County courthouse. Dennis Marx, who was killed in battle, had armed himself with an assault rifle, two handguns, a hand grenade clipped to his vest and various explosives, tear gas canisters and smoke grenades. Marx had a minor rap sheet but no record of mental illness.

How did a once-proud nation come to this, where state legislatures outfawn each other to impress the NRA with deranged gun laws, where the president of the United States backs off his nomination of a Surgeon General, of all people, because the doctor has offended the gun lobby? The NRA bureaucracy is the creature of arms manufacturers, cynical death merchants who have overwhelmed a fragile democracy with money and fear. The armaments industry and its flacks are the moral equivalent of the tobacco industry, of certain executives at General Motors, of a company I recall that manufactured artificial heart valves it knew to be defective. They all have their tickets punched for the same inner circle of Hell. But the cult that keeps the NRA in business is a strange tribe, victims of some inner terror that only the reassuring weight of cold gunmetal can relieve. Their relationship to reality is much like that of climate-change deniers or creationists, or the true believers who waited for the world to end in 2011. They believe wild radio prophets who tell them the government is a communist tyranny, held at bay only by citizens with guns. Yet even a Boy Scout troop, armed with the Pentagon’s latest war toys, could annihilate the NRA militias in half an hour.

Think about people like Ted Nugent. He’s obviously a very stupid man, as coarse as he is hostile and tormented, but that doesn’t explain his firearm fetish. Does he sleep with an assault rifle cradled in his arms, does he spend his days oiling, polishing and fondling his shiny death-tools? What is it these people are afraid of, besides each other? As children we were told that bullies were secretly great cowards, that if we smacked one hard, just once, he’d run in terror. I tried that once with a bullying brute named Donny, and I’ve still got the scars to show for it. But maybe Donny was the exception. Many gun freaks are outrageous bullies. Todd Staples, a current candidate for lieutenant governor of Texas, had himself videotaped aiming a rifle while cursing President Obama. (Greg Abbott, the leading Republican candidate for governor, campaigns with Ted Nugent. I used to feel great affection for Texas, but lately I’m beginning to think the Mexican War was a tragic mistake.) In North Carolina, a Tea Party thug threatened us with “a Second Amendment solution” if Obama was re-elected in 2012 — which edges pretty close to treason. Does this kind of aggression actually mask a thumb-sucking, bed-wetting level of cowardice?

What we have here is a mental health problem, after all. But the problem’s not the few marginal psychopaths who might shoot schoolchildren, not the criminally insane who like the poor will be with us always. The problem is the “law-abiding,” garden-variety wingnuts who have made the psychos’ secret arsenals possible. Never underestimate the degree of pathology that’s rampant in the Far-Right reaches of the Republican Party where the NRA finds most of its allies. Compassion dictates that we should pray for Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin, a North Carolina native who is no doubt struggling bravely with an overwhelming wave of senile dementia. Boykin is the retired general of special forces who told an audience of rightwing legislators (the Pro-Family Legislators Conference in Dallas) that Jesus was returning soon, dressed for combat and armed with an AR-15 assault rifle. “I’ve checked this out,” said the general. “I believe that sword He’ll be carrying when He comes back is an AR-15. The sword today is an AR-15. If you don’t have one, get one. It’s biblical.”

The audience of way-Right legislators laughed nervously, but the general wasn’t joking, exactly. He doesn’t reside in a nursing home or an Alzheimer’s hospice, either. He’s the executive vice president of the Family Research Council, a reactionary lobbying group, and as recently as 2007 he was a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (for Intelligence!), helping the Bush administration manage the debacle in Iraq. Ravings like Gen. Boykin’s are not “conservative,” “patriotic,” “Christian,” or any of those euphemisms the Right employs to disguise its head cases. The general and the whole GI Jesus, assault-rifle crowd are, respectfully, way, way out of their freaking minds. Where extreme ignorance meets mental illness, there are several strains of aberrant thinking that infect America’s raging Right. Darwin denial and Biblical literalism harm no one; even climate-change denial harms no one yet. Gun fever is the only deviant neurosis that takes its terrible toll every day. It’s killing us now.

Among various academic attempts to explain this deadly virus that seems to affect Americans exclusively, the only theory that begins to persuade me points to the slow, stubborn death of the white patriarchy. Sweeping demographic changes are ending the reign of old Anglo males, in this nation founded and steered by old Anglo males, and the old boys are not going gracefully. This is their last stand, and they imagine they can fight off time, and truth, with bullets. With plenty of encouragement from the unscrupulous. “Some people in Georgia believe everything they hear on talk radio,” said a disgusted Democratic legislator after the “guns everywhere” bill was signed by the governor.

What is unthinkable anywhere else — in any nation without an active insurgency or a civil war — has become quotidian in the USA. An evil industry, manipulating a large minority of very sick individuals, is turning the United States into a black comedy, a grisly video game for the emotionally disturbed. It’s unacceptable and unsustainable.

What should be, what can be done? Without exception, military-style weapons must be limited to the military. Justice Douglas was probably right when he argued that handguns should be manufactured only for soldiers and policemen. The problem of 300 million guns already in circulation is not insurmountable — just bar civilians from buying any ammunition for these weapons, and let time do the rest. The need to hoard bullets would also clear the woods and fields of idiots blasting away, wishing they were shooting at Nancy Pelosi.

“Never happen,” shrugs the NRA, smirking, one pocket full of cash and the other pocket full of castrated or demented legislators. They’re probably right. For my part, I’ll vote for any presidential candidate who commits himself or herself, unconditionally, to disarming the gun lobby. Michael Bloomberg, anyone? I’ll vote with the greatest reluctance for any candidate who’s too chicken to try. We’ve all been sucking on Ted Nugent’s machine gun. I don’t care for the taste of it, myself. How about you?

Hal Crowther’s most recent book of essays, Gather at the River, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. His new book, "An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L.Mencken", will be published by Muse Books: The Iowa Series in Creativity and Writing, University of Iowa Press, Oct.1.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2014

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2014 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652