guns, dallas, and tyranny

Well, it’s been a long time since I was seen around these parts, but recent events in Dallas, and elsewhere, have driven me to come out of retirement. At least for now. Boy, aren’t you pleased?

Those of you who remember me probably realize that I’m not given to a great deal of subtlety, or tact, or even decent writing. And so, asking me to comment on Black Lives Matter and the shooting of police officers is unlikely to be a good idea. But, then again, in addition to lacking subtlety, tact, and writing skills, I also routinely make poor decisions. For example, I’ve suddenly started blogging again.

I’m not going to talk about racism here, at least not directly. Others can do a better job than I can and, in any event, my own direct experiences of racism leave me unqualified to discuss it. Instead, I’m going to talk a bit about guns, tyranny, and what Dallas tells us about American culture. In my own demented view, anyway.

Whether we’re talking about police officers shooting people of color, or people of color shooting police, we’re talking about guns. Guns are a hot button topic for many Americans: it seems like you either love them, and think that they should be included as the special prizes in boxes of Lucky Charms,* or you hate them, and think they should be thrown into the sea. I happen to own two firearms, and I generally think Americans should have access to guns BUT I also strongly support much more intensive regulation of guns. I mean, I have to do more paperwork, and pay more fees, to keep my dog than I do to keep my guns, and that is absolutely embarrassing. When you consider the problem we have with gun deaths in this country it seems obvious that more regulation is needed, and yet if anything what we actually see is a continual loosening of the constraints on gun ownership. Apparently to a large fraction of our law makers, the solution to too many gun deaths is to increase the number of firearms available. This is a bit like the old advice to rub ice on frostbite and, I suspect, works similarly well (i.e., not at all).

One argument opposing new gun laws that I see way too often is the claim that the right to keep and bear arms is the ultimate check on government tyranny. I find this claim to be, frankly, hysterical. If you have any notion of the combat power of a mechanized infantry company, you realize that a bunch of guys running around with hunting rifles and AR-15s are hopelessly overmatched. This is not the 18th century, when the disparity between the weapons and organization of your average army, and that of your average town, wasn’t that great. We have an extremely well-equipped, well-trained, and well-organized armed forces and I guarantee you that no citizen militia out there can stand up to it for long enough to matter. As such, I don’t think the idea that we need guns to thwart government tyranny holds water. Indeed, I think this entire argument really derives from a sort of male power fantasy that Neal Stephenson put his finger on back in 1992 with his novel “Snow Crash”:

Until a man hits twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Columbian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

All of the guys making this argument are really just using guns as a kind of prop, allowing them to indulge in the notion that, if they really had to, they could stand up to “tyranny” and save the United States. They could cast aside their jobs as copier salesmen and middle managers and turn themselves into the roughest group of patriots since Teddy Roosevelt did his Teddy Roosevelt routine. Guns are the security blanket that they use to protect their manhood from the monsters under the bed.** And frankly, all too often, the only concrete impact of this ultimate check on government tyranny is the determined defense of the ability to possess any guns you darn well please. So, we have to preserve our right to have crazy amounts of guns in order to prevent the government from taking all of our guns. If this seems a bit pointless, it’s only because you’re paying attention.

But this makes me wonder whether these armchair founding fathers have ever really thought about what tyranny looks like. Because it doesn’t look like the government removing Christmas displays from public property or taking race into account during certain phases of college admissions. It doesn’t even look like the government requiring you to take a test and acquire a license before you purchase a deadly weapon. Or ten deadly weapons. Or a dozen high capacity magazines for your ten deadly weapons. No, tyranny looks like summary incarceration, or execution, by the authorities for no apparent reason. It looks like the confiscation of property without due process. In short, it looks like many of the grievances that Black Lives Matter has been fighting against, and many of the things that the black community states quite clearly that they live with every day. If the Boston Massacre was an example of government tyranny when we were preparing to rebel, it’s hard to argue that what modern blacks are experiencing is much different.

Now, I’m not calling the United States government tyrannical. As it happens, I think we have an imperfect, but pretty non-tyrannical, form of government. And whatever objections you may have to the U.S. government, it’s more or less the case that democracies thrive not because they always make the best decisions,*** but because they make decision that most people can live with, and thus help reduce political strife. And by “political strife” I don’t mean arguments, I mean gunshots. But what I am saying is that the kinds of casual killings visited upon black Americans fits pretty closely with what our founding fathers construed as “tyranny” back when they were angry about the Boston massacre. It may not be tyranny de jure, it may not be the formally codified oppression of a group, but it may well be tyranny de facto.

The thing is, in a democracy, there should be means to address grievances short of violent conflict. That is, after all, the whole point- a democracy offers the ability to have a revolution and overthrow a political order without having to kill a third of the citizenry and burn down half of the country first. But it often seems to me that the group most anxious to preserve access to firearms as the ultimate check on government tyranny is also the group most often dedicated to preventing other methods of avoiding tyranny from being available. Electoral districts are gerrymandered to reduce the ability of certain groups to win elections, voter ID laws are made absurdly restrictive apparently to suppress the ability of these same groups to express their political will, and so on. I’m reminded of David Brin’s “The Postman”****, in which society wasn’t pulled down by war, or famine, or disease, but rather by the uber-survivalist “Holnists” who took war, famine, and disease as an excuse to start shooting people to prove what tough characters they really were. The problem isn’t just tyranny, but the efforts that make it seem like picking up a gun is the only way to make that tyranny stop.

Am I saying that the Dallas shooter was justified? Oh goodness, no. But I am saying that we need to have a broader conversation than one about race, or guns. We need to have a conversation about power, and insecurities, and the need for integrity in our political processes. We need to give up our fantasy opposition to a kind of mustache twirling tyrant who you rarely see outside adventure movies, and oppose real tyranny that lives in the organizational routines that shape the behavior of otherwise well-meaning men and women. All lives matter, but we need to focus right now on the lives that are most likely to be taken for no good reason. We need to give up high caliber security blankets that make us feel safe from imagined dangers, and pay attention to our neighbors who are dealing with real dangers every day. This may seem hard, and it will be for some, but fortunately we have some honored experts on tyranny to show us the way:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

A lot of the men who signed that document held human beings as slaves and went on to approve the infamous three-fifths compromise. If they could acknowledge such a fundamental truth as this, what’s your excuse?***** The United States has been, is, and always will be a work in progress, but nothing is more American than working to make it a better, fairer, and more just place than ever before. Let’s get to work.******



* Upon reflection, it’s pretty obvious that if Lucky the Leprechaun had a concealed carry permit and a Glock, those kids wouldn’t stand a chance.
** i.e., reality.
*** I could hardly stop laughing long enough to type that. Whew!
**** Actually a pretty good book, although oddly I think the climax of the Kevin Costner movie version did a better job of capturing the point of the book than the book’s own climax did, but that’s a different post entirely.
***** And yes, I know that they were also deeply sexist and maybe didn’t need to slip in the theological references. I trust my underlying point is clear.
****** That’s perhaps a bit advocacy heavy for the typical Scatterplot post. In my defense (1) we’re apparently the “unruly” darlings of sociology, (2) I think the others forgot they let me keep the keys to this place, and (3) I managed to slip “motherfucker” into a post (twice) so, frankly, everything else is just gravy at this point.

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