Our Gun Culture Versus Our Gun Rights

The consensus view of both pro-gun and anti-gun people in America is that our gun culture protects gun rights.

I believe this needs to be questioned.

Individuals who face the highest risk of being violated are the most likely to not have full gun rights. American gun culture is joined at the hip with attitudes that limit the rights of traditionally disadvantaged groups, attitudes which run counter to philosophy underlying gun rights.

It’s true that if you have access to guns, you have access to a wider array of types of guns and have more freedom to have them on your person than you would in virtually any other developed nation. But you’re not as likely to have that right if you’re from a disadvantaged group or on the wrong side of the law.

Another bipartisan belief is “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun.”

This is the catch phrase of NRA types, and it’s bought into implicitly. You might see good guys as cops and private citizens who pass a background check or you might narrow that list down to just certain cops. Unless you are of the minority opinion that no one should have guns, you can’t truly say you disagree with the statement.

The question is who we consider bad guys. That often means criminals. Who commits crime? A better way to phrase the question is “whose livelihoods are criminalized?” The answer of course is disadvantaged groups, people driven to taboo and illegal activities by discrimination, which means the same people most likely to experience violence.

Gun people are quick to point out the alleged hypocrisy of pro-gun control politicians protecting themselves with armed bodyguards. And their detractors are quick to point out the silliness of the belief that everyone is under equal threat of violence.

It’s true that public figures are at a greater risk of assassination attempts than the general public is of murder attempts. But that’s not the only dividing line. Lower income individuals face more violence than middle-class individuals and Black individuals face more violence than White individuals. LGBT+ individuals, especially trans women, especially trans women of color face extraordinarily high rates of violence. Unlike public figures, most of these people can’t afford bodyguards.

In addition to facing higher risk of violence, for which gun proponents offer guns as a solution, disadvantaged groups also face more reductions in their civil rights and hence their access to guns. Despite breaking laws against drug use in equal numbers, Blacks make up a larger proportion of drug arrests than Whites.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, points this out in a blog post:

In 2005, for example, 4 out 5 drug arrests were for possession and only 1 out of 5 were for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity. Nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests in the 1990s — the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war — was for marijuana possession, a drug less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. In some states, though, African Americans have comprised 80 to 90 percent of all drug convictions.

It’s very telling that a lot of the difference in rates of control by the criminal justice system come down to victimless crimes. LGBT individuals are also more likely to be on the wrong side of the law, either due to being driven to illegal activity by discrimination, such as LGBT youth who have been kicked out of their home or due to being targeted by cops because of stereotypical beliefs about LGBT individuals, especially trans women.

And once again victimless crimes, sex work in this case, are part of the problem:

Many queer youth are forced onto the streets and become targets of the criminal justice system as a result. Social stigma and rejection, feeling they have no choice but to leave, or being kicked out have all caused queer youth to leave home. Now, about 40% of homeless youth are believed to be queer. Interviews with queer youth suggest that many are often driven to commit crimes such as robbery or prostitution in order to survive. These are the crimes for which queer youth are most often arrested, and estimates indicate that queer youth compose anywhere from 4% to 10% of the juvenile justice population.

LGBT individuals also face more violence due to a legal system that allows their attackers to absurdly get their sentencing reduced by appealing to “temporary insanity” also known as the “gay panic defense”:

There are no laws or rulings barring the so-called “Gay Panic Defense.” This is a defense in which a person claims to have committed a violent crime against a person of the same sex because they allege that the person made unwanted romantic or sexual advances towards them. The defense is usually unsuccesful (sic.) in winning acquittals, but it is often able to reduce the defendant’s culpability and mitigate the punishment he receives. […] The defense has also been used in recent years by those accused of murdering queer people, such as in the much-publicized Matthew Shepard case in Wyoming.

(Note that contrary to what this says, the “gay panic defense” is illegal in the State of California)

If, despite all the potential obstacles, someone has the de jure right to guns or having guns on their person in public places, that doesn’t automatically translate to the de facto right. Laws, after all, threaten violence against those who break them, so if cops see any armed black man as dangerous, the right to carry isn’t real for them even in states where the letter of the law assures it.

In a country where a cop can gun down a black child with a toy gun and get away with it, it’s difficult to conclude that any African American truly has the right to carry. Since open carry laws don’t actually stop police from using force, open carry is only truly a right for individuals who don’t appear threatening to cops, armed as they are with both guns and society’s white supremacist beliefs.

Behind our strong cultural belief in gun rights is the idea that the world is dangerous, it’s full of dangerous people, and you need to use force to protect yourself sometimes. This bodes well for the right of a rich white property owner to have a gun in their house in preparation for exotic threats like hot break-ins.

But not if you’re in the out-group, if you’re thought of as dangerous, if you ever got in trouble or got diagnosed. It’s not to the benefit of a trans women of color who’s been pushed by discrimination into prostitution and faces a much more realistic threat of violence.

Not only do pro-gun people blame gun deaths on neurodivergent people, but so do some who support more gun control, a misguided belief. Many gun people see neurodivergent people and drug dealers as a threat to their own gun collection and care nothing about them as people, much less their right to own weapons and protect themselves. A more realistic, and less sanist view of risk would have us realize that neurodivergent people aren’t any more dangerous than neurotypicals.

Gun ownership carries with it an increased risk of suicide and homicide by anyone else who may be in the household.

The estimates of the likelihood of defensive uses vary wildly but it’s likely that for the average person, gun ownership doesn’t pass cost/benefit analysis in terms of personal safety. This may differ if the likelihood of victimization, and hence potential for defensive use, is sufficiently high. Since anyone for whom that may be the case is likely to not have their full civil rights, we only really have a right to engage in an expensive hobby.

Since oppressive laws begin with disadvantaged groups first before spreading, we may all lose our rights to firearms in the end. The current associations notwithstanding, the gun control movement has a racist and conservative history with even the NRA partnering with Reagan as governor of California to restrict the gun rights of blacks in a wave of anti-Black Panthers hysteria:

The first major ban on the open carrying of firearms — a Republican-led bill that was drafted after Black Panthers began hanging around the State Legislature in Sacramento with their guns on display — was signed in 1967 by none other than Gov. Ronald Reagan of California. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 was primarily a reaction to the scourge of “Saturday night specials” — cheap handguns owned by the poor and the black. The National Rifle Association opposed neither law.

Given what I’ve said here so far about our gun culture, nothing should be surprising about this history. Gun rights have a long history of being for white men only, and with explicitly racist ends, like slave patrol militias. Recognizing that both the 2nd amendment and the movement for gun control have racist histories should further drive home the idea that embedded in the logic of our gun rights are tendencies that run counter to same.

The logic wasn’t about equal rights in the first place and it will be an uphill fight to actually win equal gun rights for all.

Most people identify with their own government to some degree. Even if they largely disagree with its actions, they see government guns as vital to their own safety as they see their own. The people who oppose reductions in military or police presence the most are the ones who oppose restrictions on gun rights the most, generally speaking.

This could be looked at as simply a matter of how the platforms happened to evolve here but I contend it’s also because the reasoning is similar in both cases. It’s not about viewing gun rights as a human right, it’s about “I’m going to be scary and dangerous to protect myself from danger”. This association means that guns can never be a way to protect against government tyranny. The idea of standing up to our military with our guns is so laughable, especially given the people who tend to have this fantasy, that it was the subject of one of Clickhole’s finer gags.

If you believe that protection from government tyranny is a valid reason to support gun rights, then you must be for massive reduction of government guns. Police are more likely than the general public to be domestic abusers, and domestic abusers can be trusted with guns the least. Police use their guns to enforce unjust laws; even the death of Eric Garner was regarding laws against selling loose cigarettes. Our military fights unjust wars. And yet “people who believe in gun rights” and “people who see the military and police as threats” scarcely overlap.

Where it does overlap is mostly libertarians, a group that unfortunately tends to have a lot of conservative baggage and hence many of the same problems as the mainstream pro-gun crowd. If disadvantaged groups aren’t central to your campaign to protect gun rights, then you simply aren’t protecting gun rights.

Whether you see gun rights as worthy of protection or not, the American gun movement and our gun culture aren’t your friends. If there are good arguments to be put forth, it’s by taking a firm grasp of reality and not escaping the problems inherent in our culture. We must not only dismantle the various laws that increase violence like the war on drugs (more properly thought of as the war on drug users) and the war on sex workers, but also strike at the root causes of murder and assault like toxic masculinity and white supremacy.

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