THE BLOG

Gun Lovers, as 'Normal' Now as Segregationists Once Were

12/18/2012 03:46 pm ET | Updated Feb 17, 2013
  • Jim Sleeper Lecturer in Political Science, Yale University
AFP

New revelations about reckless gunfire in Newtown, Conn, over the past two years have blown a .357 magnum-size hole in the town's reputation as a peaceful, close-knit community.

The astonishing "new normal" of heavy gunfire that took hold in Newtown long before last week's massacre only reinforces the parallel I drew here last week between today's gun enthusiasts and yesterday's racial segregationists.

Last year, Newtown officials -- among them a couple of hunters, police officers and, it's worth noting, Republicans -- tried to tighten restrictions on gun use because, as the New York Times reported yesterday, there'd been a sharp increase in "loud, repeated gunfire, and even explosions, coming from new places. Near a trailer park. By a boat launch. Next to well-appointed houses. At 2:20 p.m. on one Wednesday last spring, multiple shots were reported... right across the road from an elementary school."

It turns out that the Newtown area has had "many unlicensed gun ranges, where the familiar noise of hunting rifles has grown to include automatic gunfire and explosions that have shaken houses." Scott Ostrosky, who owns one of the ranges, insisted that "[t]he explosions his neighbors hear are targets that are legally available at hunting outlets.

"'If you're good old boys like we are, they are exciting,'" said Ostrosky, adding, for good measure, that "[g]uns are why we're free in this country, and people lose sight of that when tragedies like this happen. A gun didn't kill all those children, a disturbed man killed all those children."

Not only does Ostrosky want us to understand that he isn't as "disturbed" as Lanza was; his description of himself and his fellow shooters as "good old boys" seems to show, in my opinion, that he considers himself as normal and honorable as Southern good old boys considered themselves in the 1950s.

To understand what we're up against here, understand that many other gun enthusiasts think of themselves this way, too -- and that they see their critics as moralists addled by silly delusions about human nature. They alone uphold honor against depravity: Southern segregationists thought their way of life necessary to channel the violence at the bottom of all society toward a safer, more stable order, refined by codes of honor and masterful stewardship of Negroes wise enough to accept their place in it.

Many white Americans outside the South accepted this reasoning's death-grip on the Congress, where long-serving Southern senators chaired many committees. They dismissed as regrettable but necessary, and, someday perhaps surmountable, the ranters and ravers at the fringes of White Citizens Councils and among unruly poor whites at the fringes of town or in the hollows beyond, and among egregious and sometimes-embarrassing Klansmen at night and sheriffs at noon.

The apologists considered themselves as innocent of all this hatred as today's gun enthusiasts think themselves innocent of the gun lobby's death-grip on the Congress and innocent of the depredations and confusions of Jared Loughner, George Zimmerman, Adam Lanza and the rest, not to mention of militias camping out in the hills.

Lyndon Johnson knew better. As a son of the South he knew that defeating segregation's willful innocence of its own sometimes-brutal, sometimes fine-spun violence would require not only laws and federal marshals but a long, wrenching reconfiguration of millions of Americans' dearly held myths and gut instincts.

Some of those myths and instincts attached themselves to guns and to the merchants of death who were driving the country into a senseless war in Vietnam that Johnson proved tragically unable to resist. But he did know how to resist certain domestic evils, and he would have understood well why Newtown officials' attempts to curb the astonishing war-like shooting in their leafy community ignited a "tumultuous civic fight," as the Times put it.

That fight pitted not delusional pacifist moralists against crazed militias but most townspeople's "modest tolerance for bearing arms" against "the staunch views of a gun industry trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which has made Newtown its home," as well as the staunch views of many resident gun zealots like shooting-range owner Ostrosky.

Here, though, a hopeful parallel peeks through: When Johnson came to recognize in the 1940s that segregation was wrong and unsustainable, so did more than a few other Southern whites, a few of them brave and principled enough to become what the historian David Chappell calls Inside Agitators in the heart of Dixie. And now New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg insists that, similarly, many gun owners see that merchandising and celebrating mayhem as a path to liberty are turning our gun culture - and, with it, our political culture -- into a culture of death.

Gun apologists' rationalization that the best way to enhance liberty and curb mayhem is to get more guns and resist background checks and other sensible restrictions increasingly sounds as facile and tortured to gun owners themselves as the rationalizations of segregationists sounded to many whites by 1955.

Bloomberg calls on responsible gun owners to be inside agitators against the gun lobby's stranglehold on government and its rhetoric about freedom from tyranny. Those arguments have made the gun lobby a perfect mirror of the old segregationist establishment and, indeed, a repository of much of its racism.

The lobby's slippery Second Amendment logic was exposed succinctly and devastatingly well on Sunday by Nicholas Kristof. But his column's title -- "Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?" -- reminds us that ultimately this is not about logic. It is about finding the courage to defy this society's steadily advancing culture of death.

When poor, black Southern churchgoers wearing their Sunday best marched unarmed and trembling into hushed Southern squares ringed by armed police, they and white "inside agitators" could take at least some heart from Johnson's readiness to face down oppressors whom he knew better than they knew themselves.

Because Barack Obama is a beneficiary of the courage of Johnson and "inside agitators" including, in effect, his own Kansas grandparents and, through them, his mother, he understands well the gravity of the challenge that he must now mount against the gun establishment. But Obama doesn't have the same intimacy and hence credibility with gun owners that Johnson had with white Southerners.

On March 15, 1965, Johnson faced those fellow Southerners in the segregationist establishment and its apologists in a joint session of Congress and on national television and said that "It is wrong -- deadly wrong -- to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote" and that it was time to overcome "a crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice."

Then he paused, looked up from his text, and said, for the first time, firmly, in his West Texas accent, something that only he could have said with such power at that moment: "And we shall overcome."

That's precisely what several prominent sons of Gun Country -- not only MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia, but many more -- must now find courage to say, alongside Obama. This time, the struggle to reconfigure many Americans' dearly held myths and gut instincts may be even more wrenching.

As we try to free the Second Amendment of interpretations and statutory encrustations as destructive as the Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson decisions, we'll also have to free First Amendment of jurisprudence that equates the speech of citizens with disembodied corporate marketing's algorithmically driven desperation to glue our kids' eyeballs and rewire their guts as it inundates them not with artists' art, political actors' appeals, or real reporters' findings but with endless, empty titillation and intimidation for profit.

Do we really have the courage to stop the marketing of the culture of death that only brightens the fatal allure of its instruments? Not unless we can curb not only gun abuses but also our gladiatorial diet of doom. That will be the subject of my next post.