Friday, September 15, 2006

It's the Guns, Stupid: On the Right-Wing Ideology that Opposes Gun Control

Since the horrific assault on Dawson College in Montreal on Wednesday, there has been a great deal of public discussion about what causes certain young men to become deranged mass killers. Every time there is a school massacre, in Canada or the United States, the same narrative follows. We hear from psychologists, psychiatrists, cultural analysts and others on whether it is possible in advance of a mass shooting to spot the danger signs. Which one of the lonely, quiet, marginalized, social misfits who have fantasies about wiping out those who oppress them, whether they be the members of the school football team or successful young women, is pathological.

The problem is that the profiles of the eventual killers---Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the killers at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, or Kimveer Gill, the shooter at Dawson College---fit too many young men to be of much use. Yes, it’s a good idea for secondary schools, colleges and universities to establish programs to keep an eye on the misfits, to try to counter the social exclusion that drives some of them to the edge. Some unhappy young men can be coaxed back into a healthy life this way. It ought to be tried.

The trouble is that this method of anticipating who the killers will be is a crap shoot and it always will be. Next month, next year or five years from now, we’ll go through the same tortured agony in the aftermath of a mass shooting at another school. Perhaps the shooter or shooters will be students at the school, or perhaps not. We’ll review the warning signs in the behaviour of the killer that should have been obvious, but about which nothing was done. This kind of after-the-fact analysis may make gripping television, but it will do little or nothing to prevent the next mass shooting.

There is one way to get at the problem that is also not perfect, but will net much better results. Serious gun control. Unlike cars, which are also lethal weapons but have other uses, there are few worth while uses for guns. Hunting is, at best, an atavistic pastime, no longer necessary to feed the family. Target shooting is entertaining, but a state of the art video game can simulate it. Besides a shooter can take up billiards or golf or some other activity where the object is to put something into the right holes.

According to the Globe and Mail, 367,000 restricted firearms are legally in the hands of Canadians, who have been allowed to acquire them for use at gun-clubs. Kimveer Gill had one of those guns, a Beretta CX4 Storm, a semi-automatic, which is great for slaughtering people in a crowded room.

We need a law that would mandate the confiscation of every one of those restricted weapons. Let those shooters get a life doing something else. The price exacted from the rest of us is too high.

Meanwhile, the Harper government plans to dismantle the gun registry, which was put in place as a result of the 1989 Montreal massacre of fourteen women by another deranged loner, Marc Lepine. Even though it will be politically more difficult to go ahead in the wake of the Dawson College tragedy, this bone-headed government will persevere. Stephen Harper is no Mr. Dithers.

Those who want to dismantle the gun registry will argue that the Dawson school catastrophe was not halted by the gun registry. Therefore, it is useless and should be scrapped. All the tired rhetoric about guns not being responsible for how they are used will be heard once again.

Sensible people will respond to the recent tragedy by saying that we need the Gun Registry and much more.

Surely, we have a right to be gravely suspicious of supposedly responsible people who balk at the idea of registering their long guns. Long guns kill. So why do the shooters of the nation insist that to register their guns strikes at their basic freedom?

There is a reason for this and it’s a sick one. The Canadian gun culture is a watered-down version of the gun culture in the United States. In the U.S., the National Rifle Association and millions of gun owners cling to their right to own guns, a right which is protected in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

American gun advocates have an interpretation of history from ancient to contemporary times whose moral is that an armed citizenry is a free citizenry. Writing in Gun World Magazine, a gun advocate by the name of David Kopel laments that "the depressing historical ignorance of most Americans" is a major reason the Second Amendment is under so much attack from those who want to expand the power of the state.”

He tells the story of the Roman Republic, a virtuous historical model to the Founders of the American republic, because in Rome before Julius Caesar the citizens were armed and therefore, were able to resist tyranny. What allowed Caesar "the murderer of the Roman republic" to overthrow this exemplary system was his creation of a standing army. Kopel draws the moral: "As the Roman standing army secured the vast Roman Empire against barbarian incursions, the people of the Empire, having lost their martial valour, lost their capacity for self-government." Then came the inevitable denouement, the "degenerate Roman people" were overrun by the barbarians, the latter made up of German tribesman who were armed and manly, and who restored a spirit of freedom as they destroyed decrepit Rome.

In typical gun culture fashion, Kopel draws the lesson for contemporary Americans: "The ownership of firearms by modern Americans is important not just for practical reasons (such as protecting homes from criminal invaders) but for moral ones. A homeowner who never has to use his gun for self-defence still possesses something his unarmed next-door neighbour does not: he has made the decision that he, personally, will take responsibility for defending his family. The armed homeowner's self-reliance has powerful moral consequences, as does the disarmed neighbour's decision that his family's safety will depend exclusively on the government, and not on himself."

The fierce battle over guns and gun control in the U.S. is not some arcane controversy over the meaning of an eighteenth century text. It is a struggle between different elements of contemporary American society.

The gun lobby, whose most powerful organisation is the National Rifle Association, speaks for a highly defined constituency, overwhelmingly made up of white male gun owners and their sympathisers, who hue to a sharply right-wing political outlook. The lobby defends the right of citizens to own and carry semiautomatic weapons and armour-piercing bullets. It opposes the extension to gun shows of the Brady Bill, which requires a three-day background check on gun purchasers before they get possession of their weapons. And it opposes any background check requirement for the sale of weapons by gun collectors who are not gun dealers.

Charlton Heston, until 2003 the president of the NRA, lent his status as a famous personality to the pro gun position. After all, not every lobby has a guy who starred as Moses on the big screen as its spokesperson. He buys into the gun lobby's in-your-face right-wing ideology and has been criticised for displaying an exclusionary outlook where gays and ethnic minorities are concerned. Heston is the pretty face for a lobby whose less famous exponents adhere to a culture, which is narrow, macho, sexist, homophobic, and virulently anti-liberal.

In this neck of the American political woods, right-wing Republican politicians are the standard bearers. One, who represents the right wing of his party is Bob Barr, a member of the House of Representatives, who was one of the House managers in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. In the spring of 1999, after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Barr was a point man in the gun lobby's effort to prevent the outrage of the American people from being translated into new gun control legislation. In television appearances, he made the case for freedom for gun buyers, insisting that a three-day waiting period for the purchase of a gun should not apply to gun shows because it could adversely affect the shows, which usually last only two days.

You get an idea about Barr's politics from the fact that in June 1998, he turned up as a speaker at a meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens in Charleston, South Carolina. The Council is a white supremacist group which is opposed to marriage between people of different races and which wants to ban non-white immigration. Some of its members favour the deportation of all non-European Americans to third world countries. The Council was expelled from the Conservative Political Action Conference, because as David Keene, the head of CPAC told the Washington Post, "they are racists."

In 1995, in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in which Timothy McVeigh (executed in 2001), a right-wing former marine, killed 168 people in the Murrah federal building, I drove to northern Michigan to get a close look at the Michigan Militia, a shadowy organization of right-wing extremists who carry guns to prepare themselves for the day when they may have to take on the U.S. government in a second American Revolution. What follows is an edited excerpt of that trip from my book Stalking the Elephant: My Discovery of America, published by Penguin Books in 2000:

I am on the road early in the morning, heading north on the Interstate. My destination is the tiny hamlet of Alanson, located just below the point where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet. About twenty miles from Alanson, I am overtaken and passed by five shiny black Chryslers, roaring down the highway in tandem and doing about ninety miles an hour. What is this, the FBI, I wonder? Are they heading for the same place I am?

When I pull off the Interstate, I stop to check a detailed map I bought of this region of northern Michigan. Every hamlet and crossroads is marked on it. I work out exactly where Olson's house is and I head there. I figure I should take a look at the house before I telephone. Maybe I still have those shiny black Chryslers in the back of my mind.

The ranch style house with a shed at the side is right next to a crossroads in open country. It looks reassuringly quiet. Anyway it's not in the middle of a forest.

I drive to a gas station about a mile away and I call the house of Norm Olson, founder of the Michigan Militia. The voice on the line tells me to come right over.

As I pull up in the driveway in front of the single storey dwelling, I notice that the curtains are pulled tight in all the windows. On the shed beside the house, which doubles as a gun shop, there is a sign on the door that reads: "Closed until further notice." I knock on the front door and a tall man wearing olive fatigues and boots and a militia cap emblazoned with the slogan "Enough is Enough" pulls the door open and welcomes me inside. It is Norm Olson, the preacher and gun dealer who founded the Michigan Militia. Olson who is in his late forties is tall and fit looking. He has big hands and big ears.

He guides me to the round kitchen table and offers me coffee. I accept and pour lightener and sugar into the black pool in the cup. Just then a slight blond man, younger looking than Olson enters the room. He is nattily dressed in a fashionable dark suit. He forms an odd contrast with big Olson in his fatigues. I am introduced to Ray Southwell, a real estate agent who was a co-founder of the Michigan Militia.

Olson is the man in charge here. He asks me what I want to know. What did you think of Clinton's all-out attack on the militias at Michigan State yesterday, I ask? This question gets Olson charged up. It is clear from the first word that Olson has contempt for the president. He describes him as a mere puppet. He says he believes the real strings are being pulled by evil figures in "a field of power" which surrounds Clinton. The picture that emerges is of a shadowy super-cabal that is actually running the United States.

Olson is a good storyteller. As befits the leader of a secretive band of men, Olson has mastered the art of monologues, which range from the sentimental to the ruthless, from historical ramblings to warnings of civil war. He starts one of his monologues softly, speaking scarcely above a whisper. The pace quickens and the voice rises until at the climax, the effect is harsh, physical. And while he tells you a story, he looks you right in the eye. It's hard to keep your eyes focused on Olson as he speaks. You feel the urge to drop your glance submissively, something I refused to do.

It was Olson who had the political imagination to capitalise on the deep alienation of his cronies and men like them. Along with 27 others, Olson founded the Michigan Militia in April 1994. Since then, the militia's state-wide membership has mushroomed to 12,000 and similar militias have been formed in many other states.

"Why the guns and the camouflage?" Olson asks rhetorically. "Because we wanted to get people's attention. We could have gone out with placards in three piece suits and no one would have noticed."

The high point of the conversation is about the bombing at Oklahoma City. Olson is in a rage on the subject. He insists that Timothy McVeigh, the former soldier, who has been charged with the bombing (and since convicted and sentenced to death), would never have killed women and children. McVeigh attended a couple of meetings of the Michigan Militia and Olson is well aware that a lot is on the line for the shadowy men in uniform who portray themselves as patriots, true defenders of the U.S. Constitution.

Olson, his voice rising in anger, rejects the very idea that a soldier "trained to fight other soldiers" could be guilty of the bombing. It is a conceit of the members of the private armies that call themselves militias that comrades-in-arms are the only ones who can provide the United States with leadership in its hour of peril.

Olson sees the Michigan Militia as the direct descendant of the militias of the American Revolution. He reminds me that when the British army ordered the colonial militia to put down their weapons at Lexington Common in 1775, the colonials refused.

"No one knows who fired the first shot, the shot heard round the world," he says, and quips "maybe it was the CIA." Then he makes his point: "We hope a second shot will not be necessary."

This allusion to the potential for a civil war in the United States is the central myth that sustains the militias.

Olson has resigned as commander-in-chief of the Michigan Militia because of the fallout from his widely publicised insistence that an international conspiracy was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. But he remains the charismatic inspiration behind the Michigan Militia.

In a country where conspiratorial and violent bands of men have often sprung up in the South, the militias have a distinctly northern feel about them. These are white men, often Vietnam War veterans, who feel pushed aside in the strange new world of information technology and cultural heterogeneity.

In their attacks on NAFTA, GATT, the G-7, the Trilateral Commission and the White House, the militias have exhibited an undeniable populist flair.

At their core though, despite their rhetoric about being the defenders of the U.S. Constitution, they are deeply anti-democratic. Their faith is in their military training and weapons, leaders like Olson, and an interpretation of American history which, they insist, gives them the right to use force, if necessary, to resist an alien government.

The militias are a marginal force, certainly. But the terrifying simplicity of their vision is a feature of an American societal psychosis, which is anything but marginal.

How sinister, and yet absurd, to encounter men whose only conceivable purpose for assembling weapons and undertaking military training is to use force, if necessary, against their own government.

Back to the present: the political idea that underlies the American gun culture is that the only way to sustain a free society is to ensure the right of people to own and carry guns freely. Any abridgement of that freedom will lead eventually to the confiscation of guns and the choking off of liberty by an all powerful state. Allowing the state to assemble a list of gun owners (a gun registry) poses a deadly threat to freedom. Some day, the state will come and snuff out freedom when they take the guns away.

This ideological hand-me-down from the American Revolution has come to Canada in a diluted form. But there is no doubt that it is the wellspring of thought from which the opposition to Canada’s Gun Registry derives. Today, the carriers of that ideology, the members of the Harper government, are in power.

Canadians have no need for hand-me-downs from the American gun culture. The American Revolution and the Second Amendment are not our founding myths and they have no place in our society. We ought to deal with the threat posed by allowing deadly weapons to fall into the hands of the potentially deranged without reference to a rancid ideology that has nothing to do with our history.

More gun control not less is what Canada needs.


Anonymous said...

Very well written post.

A few questions come to mind however. How do you respond to the fact that more murders and crimes are committed with knives than guns? Would it not make more sense to first carry this action out on knives and ban all knives from our country first.

The "guns kill" line doesn't work either, people kill, guns don't. Someone who is bent on murder given the lack of a gun will only find another means.

I guess the question is how much do we regulate society? I mean heart disease is the #1 killer, so it would only follow that all people should be banned from smoking, fatty foods, and be legaly required to exercise a certain amount of time per day.

What I do agree with however is the ease which someone can obtain a firearm. The background check is lame, the only requirements are a four hour course and a minor background check. There are flags in the system, but cutbacks a few years back have limited the manpower in the system to actually check up on all these "red flags".

As far as the registry, you'll never get all the old guns, but the new ones should have to be registered by the seller as far as I'm concerned. When applying for a permit, you must first have an RCMP check, and that system could be used as the registry with very little modifications.

I'm going to link this one up and see what my readers think.

Ti-Guy said...

a rancid ideology that has nothing to do with our history.

Hear, hear.

Anonymous said...

It's true that in Canada where there is more gun control than in the U.S., the use of knives to commit murder is higher relative to the overall murder rate than in the U.S. But, then, of course, the murder rate in the U.S. is almost three times as high as in Canada.

One thing I find fascinating about guns and deaths in the U.S. is that there are more suicides than murders there from the use of firearms.

And the largest number of suicides is among white males over the age of fifty, who use guns, especially in states like Colorado, Nevada, Utah etc., to kill themselves.

Anonymous said...

Interesting about the suicides, one of the benefits of living in a laidback country I guess.

Social mindset is doubtless a huge part of it, I wonder what we will be like in a hundred years given our current prosperity...

Harrap said...

Well written post, but I have to admit I can't see how the gun registry can help to stem gun crimes. For many aboriginal peoples and people from rural areas, hunting is a part of their culture and they're the ones who often unfairly get targetted. Many criminals will not bother to register their guns.

I think we do need gun control - especially handguns - but it needs to be balanced with the above considerations. Another solution would be more stringent border controls as alot of crimes in Canada are committed with guns smuggled from the United States.

Also there are those on the left who question gun control including many rural NDP MPs.

On an unrelated issue, there's a very interesting conversation in my blog entry on Fredericton-Silverwood about the prospects of the NB NDP - I hope you can visit and weigh in on the conversation. I'd be curious your insights on that issue as you were a long-time activist with the NDP and the Waffle faction.

Anonymous said...

I'm aware of the issue of rural residents and aboriginals. I did dismiss hunting in a rather cavalier way in my post.

I can't see any need for city residents to have guns and I think that the loophole that allows gun club members to have restricted weapons is crazy.

In the end, I think we should keep the gun registry, although it doesn't appear that the Montreal shooting would have been prevented by it. I see it as one tool among many. And I don't buy the argument that registering a long gun restricts freedom.

Thanks for the heads up on your site.

Harrap said...

It is true that there is no reason for people in cities to have guns - last I knew it's been a long time since they had moose hunting season in Toronto ;)

Anonymous said...

So it's ok for a moose hunter to have guns....providing he DOESN'T live in the city? Do you folks drive Volvo's and sip latte's as well? (Since you "choose" to play the stereotype game.)
Nevermind, I'll just drag my hairy knuckles over to the saloon for a suds and then maybe go find me a good shootout later!!

Typical Liberal Trash!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but in Canada the history of gun ownership has been that the right wing has been behind banning guns (with gun control being introduced immediately following the Winnipeg General Strike, and immediately preceding the release of Tim Buck), out of fear of the left. If you look at the typical Western gun owner, there's as good a chance he voted NDP as CPC in the last election. At least that was true until the NDP put Torontonian Layton in charge of the party.

Nice right wing bugaboo you're putting up as a strawman, but Canadian politics are not a carbon copy of American politics. It did give you a chance to say NRA several times.

No, the reality in Canada is that it is overwhelmingly suburban middle classs white people who want to ban all guns, and it's working class ruralites that are fighting it. Class war basically.

Anonymous said...

Guns are not the problem. People are the problem.

In California a guy took a car and ran over 15 people, killing one.

What are they going to do now, ban cars?

Keeping track of guns is one thing, but saying you are going to take them all way from those that now have them legally only does one thing. It leaves those people defenceless.

The criminals will still have them.

In every state in the US that has a concealed carry law, violent crime has dropped by double digits. It's time we started be responsible for our own safety, and for our own victim prevention.

I am licensed, as a Canadian citizen, to carry in the US in any state (31 to date more are joining) that supports Concealed Carry. Funny how a foreign governement trusts me to carry a gun for self defence but my own government doesn't.

And also I agree with the poster above. Most anti gun folk are the same people that destryed the deers habitat in the first place by contributing to urban sprawl. I'd like to see them watch a deer starve to death becasue they just had to have that townhouse in a trendy new area.

Anonymous said...

If Canadians don't have a right to armed self-defense, then why do Securicor, Loomis, &c. guards carry handguns? (Or is someone's life more important when he's carrying a bag of twenties?) Semiautos--like the Ruger Mini 14 used in the Ecole Polytechnique shootings--[i]are[/i] used for hunting...including varmints, by ranchers and farmers. Vermont, Alaska and other juristictions in the U.S. allow [i]unlicensed[/i] CCW and have low gun crime rates; D.C. and Chicago completely ban civilian gun ownership, but have horrendous rates of gun crime. (The latter city also bans the civilian purchase of spray paint--really.) How does Mr. Laxer propose we ban and confiscate such weapons? Has this worked with crack, smack, and other nasties? The leftist anti-gun position is a joke, especially in light of the recent whining over proposed tougher sentences for paedophiles and rapists (who are just poor innocents that deserve chance after chance) and the crackdown on terrorists (who, after all, are part of our multicultural fabric).

BTW, Mr. Laxer, as a descendant of Ukrainian and Polish refugees of Stalinism I have this to say: "guns don't kill people--commie thugs do!"

Adam C. Sieracki

Anonymous said...

Oh please, before firearms existed there were psycopaths still going around killing people.

And by the way the whole idea of having guns in the first place is to protect the people from the state, in case they ever decided to pull some form of tyranny.

Go ask Jews if they will let the state take away their rights to own arms, after the Nazi's banned them in hopes of making Germany a "Safer" place for the "children"

Or how about the Tutsi's in Rwanda -- Im sure they are crazy for gun control, I mean those sweet Hutu's banned them from arms also - of course to "save the children" :P

By the way cars kill more people then guns, actually statiscally the most dangerous thing you can do with your life -- is get into and drive a vehicule.

Should we ban cars? And then knives?

P.S - The fundamental flaw in "gun control" is that criminals by definition do not obey law in the first place, and in fact gun control actually helps criminals -- since of course those who obey the law are left UNARMED.

Anonymous said...

History has given us many examples of what happens when you disarm the citizens, genocide starts.

Switzerland for instance is the most armed people on the planet, the government GIVES the people a standard weapon at 16. -- And there is virtually no crime, wonder why?

Criminals are just as scared to get shot as anyone else.

And of course you have your psychos.. but hey what you gonna do thats part of life.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I've ever seen so little logic packed into so many words.

You say, "Surely, we have a right to be gravely suspicious of supposedly responsible people who balk at the idea of registering their long guns." Of course, they balk. Just four paragraphs earlier you said, "We need a law that would mandate the confiscation of every one of those restricted weapons."

Registration has historically been a precursor to confiscation. Great Britain and Australia just in the last few years

Gun owners don't want to register their guns specifically because they know that your real intent is to eventually confiscate them.

Anonymous said...

"Liberty" scum of legislation for safety.
Enjoy the sales no trend persist indefinitely.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Canada should do what they did in Virginia after the Virgnia Tech shootings, they regulated the sale of guns to people who have a history of mental illness.

Then at least this way the guns don't fall into the hands of the deranged. Of course, there are other ways to get guns and those who want to do harm will never have any difficulty finding them. No amount of gun control really keeps down the real criminals.

-Socialized American