Paranoia Pushes Guns posted 3/11/2013
After the recent piece I wrote for the Concord Monitor about guns in the New Hampshire Legislature, I received an interesting opposing response. A former state representative from Georges Mills, Spec Bowers, wrote that mass shootings have occurred in a church, a shopping mall, a restaurant, a movie theater and a school. Bowers argued that victims who had guns sometimes stopped shootings by firing back.
He said would-be killers target and prefer gun-free zones as a place to shoot because they calculate they will run into less opposition there. Since evildoers could be anywhere, Bowers felt legislators who were armed were best equipped to protect themselves and others.
He went on to discuss the risk of a criminal opening fire against unarmed legislators and visitors at the State House and he described the risk as “improbable but all too possible”. I would ask: what does that convoluted formulation actually mean? Is such an event probable or improbable?
This is where it gets tricky because hard answers are difficult to come by. There is some very small percentage chance of such an event. Minimizing the possibility of a State House shooting could appear to be insensitive to legitimate security concerns.
I would argue that while almost any scenario is a theoretical possibility, 200 plus years of New Hampshire history have demonstrated the unlikelihood of a State House shooting. A rational response would not blow the possible risk out of perspective. As I suggested previously, metal detectors and security screening at any State House entrance would go a long way toward addressing the risk.
What has struck me since the shootings at Aurora and Newtown has been the irrationality, bordering on hysteria, of the pro-gun, no-regulation folks. For example, President Obama is routinely seen as an enemy of the Second Amendment. The NRA has called him the most anti-gun president in American history. It apparently matters little that Obama is on record supporting the Second Amendment. In his first term, he took zero action on gun control. He only acted after Newtown. If he had done nothing, I think he would have been widely condemned for inaction.
Nevertheless, he is seen as a modern day George III, intent not just on some modest gun control but on wanting to confiscate all guns. The gun store in Merrimack NH, Collectible Arms and Ammo, has had a picture of Obama on the storefront window along with pictures of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. The owner was quoted in the Union Leader saying that the picture montage was a nonpartisan statement.
Along with the irrational fear about President Obama is an obsessive concern about the threat posed by the federal government. Many gunowners are anxious to let you know that the Second Amendment is not about deer hunting. They say it is about protection from the federal government which wants to take your guns away.
From a critical perspective outside the pro-gun movement, that movement appears to be rife with conspiracy theories. There are a wide range of such theories and in fairness it is hard to know what percentage of pro-gun folks subscribe to the theories. Most feature President Obama who is cast as a James Bond-style super villain who is staying up nights, feverishly figuring out ways to get his hands on the estimated 280 million guns that are in the private possession of Americans. There is a racial fear component to many of these theories. Maybe part of this is simply fear of a Black president and the changing demographics of the country.
Since President Obama took his gun control initiatives, gun and ammunition sales have gone through the roof. Prices for guns and ammo have climbed dramatically. It is almost as if some gunowners think they must get certain weapons and ammo now because they might be off limits later. Why they feel so compelled to get these arsenals is a good question. The trumped-up fear mostly serves to profit gun manufacturers.
I do think there is more generalized anxiety now about the bad economy, global warming, and societal breakdown. I have met people in New Hampshire who have stockpiled weapons and food in preparation for some Armageddon-type events. They want to be prepared for the End Times. This perspective overlaps with those fundamentalists who see the end of the world approaching.
In his essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, historian Richard Hofstadter described an angry style of mind which accurately captures the pro-gun movement of our day.
“I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
Hofstadter wrote that a feeling of persecution is central and is systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy. I think the pro-gun movement is the latest incarnation of a paranoid trend that has been repeated many times in American history. In his essay, Hofstadter, who died in 1970, gave quite a few examples including Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witchhunt and the John Birch Society.
There is one other thing that bothers me that I wanted to mention. We lack public health research about gun safety because a decade ago the NRA managed to quash all federal money directed at gun injury research prevention. The NRA had been concerned about public health research done by a Tennessee ER doctor named Art Kellerman. Dr. Kellerman had looked at questions like “If a gun kept in a house is used, who did it shoot and what were the consequences?” Dr. Kellerman found it was 43 times more likely that a gun kept in the home would be involved in the death of a household member than it would be used in self-defense, NPR reported this story.
I think assuming public health research about gun safety is equivalent to gun control is irrational. In considering public policy, we should not fear evidence-based research. I suppose I may be part of a minority in New Hampshire but I question whether everybody having guns makes us safer.