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Just another day in America: on guns, identity and mass shootings

4 minutes to read
Column
Christian Chun
27/02/2018

On February 14, 2018, a 19 year-old male opened fire on his former high school in Parkland, Florida. He had legally bought an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a military-grade weapon which can fire 45 rounds of ammunition in one minute. It was the 18th school shooting and 32nd mass shooting in the U.S. so far this year. It was in fact, just another day in America.

Guns, the Second Amendment and slavery

The U.S. news media addressed this issue from the usual perspectives, framing it as an issue of a mental health illness of the assailant (who soon confessed to the police he committed the murders). Another frame by the more liberal media outlets such as the New York Times blamed the easy access for Americans to purchase guns as the main enabling factor in these mass shootings. The day after the mass shooting, an article in the Times argued that the number of mass shootings in the U.S., which far exceeds such occurrences in any other country, is directly related to the number of guns owned by Americans. This is estimated to be anywhere from 270 to 300 million handguns, hunting rifles, and semi-automatic assault weapons like the AR-15, or almost one gun per person in the U.S.

Owning a gun seems to hearken back to ‘the good old days’ in which the hierarchy of race, gender, and sexuality was unchallenged.

People around the world who keep hearing about these almost twice or thrice-weekly school shootings (along with other mass shootings such as the one in Las Vegas, Nevada in October 2017 in which 57 people were killed at an outdoor country music concert by a gunman firing from his hotel suite windows) may not know or indeed wonder why gun ownership is still legal in the U.S. The legal status dates back to 1789 when the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was written, which it proclaimed that “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.” This Constitutional amendment has often been presented as the absolute necessity of common citizens (i.e., free men in 18th century America excluding indentured servants, slaves, and women) to be able to rise up and protect the newly-won war of independence from Great Britain and any other potential foreign threat to the new nation in 1789 and thereafter. 

However, what is almost never mentioned in either the media or U.S. high school history textbooks is that “the real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says ‘State’ instead of ‘Country’ (the framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the Southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote” (Hartmann, 2013). 

As the word ‘militia’ is usually disseminated in both mainstream media and historical discourse in the U.S., it seems to suggest either a localized community or government-formed armed unit of people (almost always men) willing to fight for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But in fact, as Hartmann (2013) points out, these 18th and 19th century militias formed a police state in which armed patrols comprised of Southern plantation owners and their male White employees literally aimed to violently suppress whenever necessary the frequent slave uprisings and rebellions.

Gun ownership as an identity emblem

Since then, gun ownership has become both an identifiable and indexical way of life for some in the U.S. Rooted in this historical legacy of enforcing the system of slavery, gun ownership in the U.S. is actually not for all, it seems. In the 1960s, a revolutionary socialist organization was formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Originally called the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense”, it became known as simply, the Black Panther Party. 

Exercising their Constitutional rights as specifically articulated in the aforementioned Second Amendment, they organized citizen patrols equipped with guns for their self-defense in carefully observing the Oakland Police Department for any potential police brutality against the Black community, which was known as ‘copwatching’. 

Although there would eventually be numerous gun battles between the Black Panthers and the police across the country, the Mulford Act became law a mere 7 months after the founding of the Panthers and before any of the aforementioned gun battles. This law was passed in California in 1967 and signed by then Governor Ronald Reagan that repealed an earlier law that permitted people to publicly carry loaded guns. The Mulford Act was specifically in response to the Black Panther Party who conducted their armed patrols in the Black communities, which were essentially ‘militias’.

For some White working-class males and/or those originally from the working class, having a gun gives them a sense of power missing in their everyday lives. And this is exactly what the system known as capitalism wants. 

But the ownership of guns for the most part is not exercised within communal groups or citizens’ militias. It is individualistic in the sense that for the people who own guns, it appears to index a particular cultural and social identity. This identity partially rests on the premise that owning a gun signifies an independence from the ‘system’. This system seen by some appears to be conformist, socially liberal, and ‘politically correct’. Owning a gun seems to hearken back to ‘the good old days’ in which the hierarchy of race, gender, and sexuality was unchallenged. In this sense, gun ownership would seem to index a specific identity of heteronormative masculinity in which ‘real men’ have guns. 

Guns and class

There is of course also the issue of class in all of this. From my own experiences and observations, upper class and upper middle-class Americans do not own guns by and large. Their identities are based on other commodities; having two homes or nice art for example. But it appears that for some White working-class males and/or those originally from the working class, having a gun gives them a sense of power missing in their everyday lives. And this is exactly what the system known as capitalism wants. 

Gun manufacturing and sales have become a booming (pun intended) industry with profits soaring from guns sold in stores, conventions, and outdoor markets in many states in the U.S. What better way to continue to perpetuate a commodity-based identity that ‘safely’ allows (except when shootings erupt as they do on a regular basis) a token measure of power allocated in the proverbial crumbs to the dispossessed and angry White working-class male in the form of a gun while raking in profits?

References

Hartmann, T. (2013, January 15). The Second Amendment was ratified to preserve slavery. Truthout. Retrieved from (20 February 2018)