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The problem of gun control: the myth of American uniqueness

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Thursday, 20 December 2012


When something is considered natural, it is bound to have been fictionalised to begin with. The debate on gun control in the United States is a case in point, the flipside of a fictionalised form of American exceptionalism. Gun control, according to such opponents as Steve Dulan, is not a viable proposition in the United States, since its citizens have no concept of it. The gun is magical – it will find its way into the hands of those who want it.

The myth of American uniqueness has its nasty effects, both direct and incidental. In a society where the gun is a commodity fetish, an infused symbol of freedom on steroids, its advocates have argued themselves into paralysis. Dulan, board member of the Michigan Coalition of Responsible Gun Owners is one such figure. He speaks with the cool reserve of a country gent on a rural shoot, a feature that makes the idea of having and using a gun prosaic. He supports proposed legislation that allows concealed weapons in schools and at this point other "gun free" zones. For Dulan, the American character is ineffably wedded to the cult of violence. Why stop it?

This is borne out in a statement made to the Huffington Post. "We know that armed citizens defend themselves all the time, in all kinds of different contexts" (Huffington Post, Dec 14). When pressed on matters such as the needless nature of assault weapons in the family home, let alone public, he retreats behind the sophistry of definitions. Americans are less inclined, he argues, to be "precise" about defining what exactly an assault weapon is. This is the mandate for total urban warfare. Imprecision in weaponry tends to be hazardous.

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Perhaps this is less incomprehensible if one consults the forms of pleasure that constitute American pass times. Las Vegas is not an excuse for anything but itself (do anything there, but leave it there), yet it is fitting to realise that one can use an AR-15, the weapon that was used in the Newtown massacre, in the complete comfort that one's homicidal fantasies are being confined. The target at the end of the shooting range can be a paper figure of Osama bin Laden. The bullets are real enough, as is the paper. Osama is not, but that shouldn't matter.

Martin Patriquin, writing about his accounts in the delusionary delights of his travels to Las Vegas, offers a description in Macleans (Dec 17). "In Las Vegas, a city that lives on the promise of narco-pleasure, this was a close to a sure thing as you can get: for a nominal fee, put very real bullets into a fake Osama, over and over, as fast as your finger could manage."

The temptation here is to ask what this proves. Fantasies of murder need not translate into actual records and tangible results. More to the point, the mistake here would be to regard such tendencies as natural, immutable and inevitable. The jump is an easy one to make. In the end, it is a false one.

Richard Feldman, formerly an NRA lobbyist and president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, provides one of the rationales, however insensible it may seem, in justifying the prominence of the gun lobby. "The whole fire arms community is very powerful, because gun owners see their relationship to this democracy through the eyes of the gun issue" (CNN, Dec 18). If it is not primordial and instinctive, it is political, dare one say it, American.

It should be added in this context that President Barack Obama is not disinclined to strum the necessary tunes to the gun lobby, providing fodder for the premise of a naturally inclined, gun-toting American. Killing, and endorsing its means, is all about context. Yes, when required, the President will make the necessary sounds over the needless slaughter of children (he is a father after all, a reminder conveniently dropped with rhetorical flourish into the national conversation when required), but he will just as well extol the virtues of hunting and gun ownership. The American gun owner is sacrosanct, even in the White House.

In 2009, the Obama administration bended to the wishes of the NRA, endorsing new laws relaxing gun bans in national parks and Amtrak stations. This might have been read as an example of good politics, but it might also be construed as a false acceptance of a condition that has been deemed immutable.

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Conservative Democrat Senator Joe Manchin (West Virginia) is another figure who takes the line. He is now finding himself in a spot of bother, wanting a "debate" on a subject that was, for him, sacred. "Everything should be on the table" (AP, Dec 17). The National Rifle Association has been remarkably silent. Their burgeoning Facebook group has vanished and the Twitter account has been notably unused. But this reticence should not be confused as a retreat. The NRA is considering its arguments, and the main one is bound to be that being American, even if it involves being peppered to death with bullets in shopping malls, cinemas and schools, necessitates an armed populace. Dreams do have their bloody allowance.

Other countries are cited by way of example by opponents of the gun cult. Would their gun control regimes work in the free wheeling maniacal atmosphere nurtured by the Second Amendment? Japan's murder rate from guns is a mere waft in the wind, having one of the most taxing regimes preventing individuals from having guns to begin with. The restrictions are bureaucratic and medical.

It is true that those in the U.S. are having an extended debate about the subject, and in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they seem more robust than those in the past. But a robust conversation is not discernable action. The myth of American uniqueness is a self-serving phenomenon, assisting lobbies and lining the pockets of weapons manufacturers. Guns and constitutional bolstering have gone hand in hand for decades. To establish a viable, national regime of gun control, the U.S. will have to look outside for examples. In the end, it will have to de-naturalise the fiction of American exceptionalism.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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