The Gun Control We Deserve

America already has gun control—all kinds of gun control. Start with the guns themselves: sawed-off shotguns are legal for general public ownership in Indiana; take one into Ohio and you’re looking at a felony charge. A pistol magazine that holds eleven rounds is a matter of indifference to Rhode Island; carry it into Connecticut and you’ve committed a crime. Even the definition of what makes a gun “loaded” differs from state to state. Or consider the laws governing concealed carry, which dozens of states have dramatically liberalized since the 1990s. In many states you don’t need to take a written test, sit through a safety video, or even prove you know how to fire a gun, let alone reliably hit a target, to be licensed to carry a concealed weapon. In other localities, you must do all of the above—and still you might be denied, because the criteria are black-box, subject to the discretion of the issuing authorities. In still other states you need no license at all: if you can buy a gun, you can carry it concealed. Complicating things further is a baroque network of reciprocity laws whereby some states recognize permits issued by others and issue permits to nonresidents. This landscape changes so rapidly that gun carriers who travel across state borders often rely on smartphone apps to alert them to local regulations.

The issue isn’t whether or not we should have “gun control,” but what kind of gun control we want to recognize as legitimate

Houston gun show at the George R. Brown Convention Center, 2007. M&R Photography.

America already has gun control—all kinds of gun control. Start with the guns themselves: sawed-off shotguns are legal for general public ownership in Indiana; take one into Ohio and you’re looking at a felony charge. A pistol magazine that holds eleven rounds is a matter of indifference to Rhode Island; carry it into Connecticut and you’ve committed a crime. Even the definition of what makes a gun “loaded” differs from state to state. Or consider the laws governing concealed carry, which dozens of states have dramatically liberalized since the 1990s. In many states you don’t need to take a written test, sit through a safety video, or even prove you know how to fire a gun, let alone reliably hit a target, to be licensed to carry a concealed weapon. In other localities, you must do all of the above—and still you might be denied, because the criteria are black-box, subject to the discretion of the issuing authorities. In still other states you need no license at all: if you can buy a gun, you can carry it concealed. Complicating things further is a baroque network of reciprocity laws whereby some states recognize permits issued by others and issue permits to nonresidents. This landscape changes so rapidly that gun carriers who travel across state borders often rely on smartphone apps to alert them to local regulations.

Against this complex backdrop, the temptation to focus obsessively on particular interest groups and pieces of legislation—namely, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Second Amendment—is understandable. Despite the endless talk about both, the history and role of each may be somewhat different than you think. For nearly a century, the NRA focused on hunting and the cultivation of marksmanship in patriotic rapprochement with the US military and supported firearms registration laws and gun bans. The NRA’s emphasis on guns as tools for self-defense only really arose during the turbulent political and demographic upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s—as did its vehement rhetorical focus on the Second Amendment. As for the Amendment itself, things are also more complicated: whatever the status of the individual right to bear arms in the nation’s Constitution, an overwhelming number of state constitutions guarantee it in no uncertain terms. If the Second Amendment were to disappear tomorrow, the on-the-ground legal reality in forty-four states would remain the same.

The fiery debates over guns that regularly suck the air out of American public discourse rarely acknowledge these realities. This is in part because reckoning with an endlessly complicated mess of technical particularities, local oddities, and regional differences makes for poor national political theater. But acknowledging the forces and structures that have gotten us to our present moment would also be an ugly business—revealing that no one’s hands are clean, and that they’re largely tied, too. Campaigning for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton thus accuses Bernie Sanders of being an NRA darling who dishonors mass shooting victims. Meanwhile, Sanders lambastes Clinton’s connection to a prominent former NRA lobbyist and lays the corpses of dead Iraqis at her feet. In the narrow political calculus of the news cycle, this kind of point-scoring, for all its vileness, is more expedient than frankly confronting relationships between adventurism abroad, violence at home, and the vast capital and influence of the US military-industrial complex.

At the deepest level, the schizoid landscape of American gun control is the product of two phenomena, both baked into the American past and protean in their contemporary manifestations. First, a long history of skirmishes over who should be armed and how—fraught battles that pivot on questions of race, class, masculinity, and the role of law enforcement.1 Second, the synergy between American militarism and capitalism: a perennial entanglement that has produced a society in which there are more guns than civilians to own them. Together, these forces combine to make debates over whether or not guns should be kept in private hands theoretical at best and, more often than not, proxy conversations that distract us from ugly social realities and broken institutions.

Partisans on all sides are complicit in perpetuating this landscape. To take one example, Massachusetts is generally understood to be a liberal blue state, and many see its gun laws as “strict.” Near Boston, in the Democratic redoubt of Lowell, new municipal regulations will require citizens seeking concealed-carry permits to write an essay justifying their application and to spend well over $1,000 on a firearms training course. On the other side of the country and the political spectrum, in Arizona, anyone who can legally buy a gun may carry it concealed without additional paperwork, payment, or training, unless they want to bring their firearm into certain specific venues (for example, ones that serve alcohol). Legislation recently proposed by the state house’s majority leader, a Republican, will, if enacted, offer a tax credit to citizens who choose to pursue the training involved in formal concealed-carry licensure.

These are both “gun control” schemes. In both cases, the State shapes who can be armed, how, and where. In Massachusetts, people with large amounts of disposable income may acquire extra privileges; in Arizona, the field is open to all willing citizens. Crucially, in both cases, the private sector accommodates itself to the gun control regime and profits accordingly. Whether through checks written by Lowellians who can afford to shell out for training, or through the redistributed wealth of Arizona taxpayers, firearms-related industries cash in. In both cases, too, access goes hand in hand with restriction. Massachusetts looks to control guns, de facto, through class. Arizona, a state where debates over citizenship and immigration enforcement are never-ending, looks to do so through appealing to themes of civic duty, personal responsibility, and public safety—in other words, through an ideological configuration of authentic Americanness.

The issue isn’t whether or not we should have “gun control,” but what kind of gun control we want to recognize as legitimate.

The Massachusetts case exemplifies a position I like to call “Aversive Minimalism.” This is when the State seeks to minimize opportunities for guns to be carried and to minimize their place in the public gaze—leaving them visible only on the hips of “proper” authorities or concealed in the (typically deep) pockets of “respectable” citizens. For Aversive Minimalists, gun ownership and carry are contingent privileges, trivial in comparison to free speech, the right to assemble, voting rights, and so forth. In contradistinction, the Arizona situation represents a particularly vivid example of what could be termed “Ardent Maximalism.” For Ardent Maximalists, gun ownership isn’t just a civil right: it is the civil right upon which all other rights depend. Constructing barriers around it is unacceptable, striking at the heart of the polity and infringing on core individual rights. From this perspective, the “proper” place of guns is more or less everywhere, since they are simultaneously the guarantor, signifier, and prerogative of a fully enfranchised citizenry.

If we take a long view, it’s clear that the Maximalist and Minimalist positions do not track with traditional right/left, Republican/Democrat, or even libertarian/progressive binaries. From New York City to Silicon Valley, many self-identified Democrats are vehemently Minimalist when it comes to the gun rights of most Americans—with the crucial caveat that those rights remain accessible to those able to surmount the cost barrier of licensing, insurance, and approved training. Meanwhile, as Arizona’s proposed legislation suggests—and the courting of Northern gun manufacturers by states across the South confirms—many professed Republicans have no problem abandoning small-government, no-handouts principles in favor of quasi-socialist support for individual gun owners and corporate gun interests.

“Pro-gun” and “anti-gun” stances are similarly blinkered. The vehement single-mindedness of these labels—when considered alongside the historical record—suggests that they, and debates over guns more broadly, are proxy battles for deeply ingrained tensions over race, class, and rural versus urban ways of life. When the Black Panthers staged an armed open carry action in the California State House in 1967, the response from Republican legislators, organized by assemblyman Don Mulford, was swift, and inaugurated what many analysts see as the beginning of modern gun control regulation. As legal scholar Adam Winkler chronicles in his indispensable Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, then-Governor Ronald Reagan praised the ensuing legislation:

“There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” Guns, [Reagan] said, were a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” In a later press conference, Reagan said that he didn’t “know of any sportsman who leaves his home with a gun to go out into the field to hunt or for target shooting who carries that gun loaded.” The Mulford Act, he said, “would work no hardship on the honest citizen.”

In that moment, Reagan endorsed an essentially Aversive Minimalist stance. Meanwhile, the Panthers embraced and operationalized Huey Newton’s memorable aphorism, “The gun is where it’s at and about and in”—a clear statement of Ardent Maximalism if there ever was one. Flashing forward fifty years, the Maximalist activist vanguard is now represented by white open carry protesters, who flood legislatures in Austin and elsewhere while packing heat and winning unprecedented gun rights gains in the name of “taking [their] country back.” Where previously urban white conservatives turned to Minimalism in response to strident activism by radical leftist blacks, now urban progressives (and regulation-friendly urban whites in particular) feel threatened by Maximalist activism on the part of rural and suburban whites.

In the push-and-pull between Aversive Minimalists and Ardent Maximalists, what does the future hold? One feature of the status quo seems dependable: intense political polarization that cements structural inertia while fueling (and being fueled by) relentless market expansion. Guns are material objects, made, bought, and sold subject to laws of supply and demand. But their behavior as commodities is singular. A decade of consistently record breaking sales suggests they have become effectively inelastic—buyers feel they cannot afford to live without them, and will pay whatever it takes. Fear of scarcity helps drive this market, both when speculators buy guns to resell in the event of a future ban and when people hoard guns for future use in lurid apocalyptic scenarios. But the motives animating consumers are secondary to the bare fact that, despite two terms of a Democratic presidency and near constant hype from both Maximalists and Minimalists to the contrary, at no point has a federal ban on gun sales been a plausible proposition. Regardless of what Maximalists and Minimalists may yell at each other and fundraise over, gun sales soar. During the holiday shopping season of 2015, Americans bought three times as many guns as Australia collected over the course of its yearlong nationwide buyback in 1995–96. Meanwhile, the cost of implementing a similar program in the United States—simply in terms of purchasing-related expenses and not including enforcement costs produced by inevitable noncompliance—could easily surpass $100 billion dollars.

In 2016 and beyond, I can envision three plausible scenarios for guns and gun control in the United States. Each, of course, is a generalization, and each may partake of some features of the others.

The first is an it-gets-better scenario, in which our collective understanding of gun violence becomes more nuanced, capacious, and compassionate. We move beyond our fixation on headline-grabbing rampage shootings and begin to tackle urban gang-related gun violence, domestic violence, suicides, mass shootings, and police violence as the interrelated phenomena they are. This would also involve policy interventions in the mode of harm reduction. To give an example: for twenty-four years, the South Side of Chicago has not had a single trauma center. This means that anyone shot in one of the American localities most beset by gun violence must be transported some nine miles for care, despite compelling research that traveling more than five miles vastly increases mortality rates for gunshot victims. After years of dogged community activism, a new trauma center will open in 2017 at the earliest—and even then, numerous high-violence wards will lie outside that five-mile radius. A basic first step for the it-gets-better scenario would be investing in trauma centers in high-risk areas nationwide. While this might not immediately bring down rates of gun violence per se, it would diminish gun fatalities.

Meanwhile, federal, state, and municipal administrations would commit to proven “violence interrupter” initiatives, in which former gang members, faith leaders, and activists intervene between feuding parties to prevent retaliatory escalation. Insofar as such programs require collaboration with police, relationships between police and their communities would have to be overhauled to establish a threshold, if not of trust, of bare functionality at least. Strengthening domestic violence gun-purchasing restraining orders, streamlining reporting requirements, and fixing bottlenecks in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) would also be vital. Such initiatives would have to respect medical privacy concerns, remain mindful that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and extend sustainable mental health outreach services to vulnerable groups. All these measures, enacted in concert or piecemeal, would diminish the number of lives cut short by bullets.

Additional measures—for instance, voluntary gun buyback programs that offered not just cash but job training or employment opportunities—could further reduce the toll. For all this to become possible, Americans would have to demand that their legislators resist regulatory capture by gun-lobby interests. We would need more funding for gun-violence public health research by the Center for Disease Control and other groups. And we would have to recognize the intrinsic value of those whose suffering is too easily banished from the public eye—like victims of domestic violence, the poor (black, white, and otherwise), and the mentally ill.

It’s less cynical than realistic to see these propositions as extremely tall orders—more than our public discourse, perhaps, can bear. Which brings us to the second scenario: the neoliberal dystopia. In this scenario, the circle of compassion of “gun control” advocates is further constrained by identifications along narrow lines of race and class. The problem of “gun violence” is reduced to the problem of high-profile rampage killings: in other words, to irruptions of violence in spaces that nurture, facilitate, or at least symbolize the flow of human capital (such as schools, shopping malls, and office parks). Although such events represent only a minuscule fraction of gun fatalities nationwide, their undeniable horror and the widespread media coverage they attract generates donations, votes, and political capital for those politicians, Democrat and Republican, who are savvy enough to tap them. Generally, the Republican response has been to double down on the Maximalist frame, advocating that more civilians should carry concealed or that teachers should come armed to class. True to the Aversive Minimalist frame, many Democrats have used such events to call for token measures like a renewed Assault Weapons Ban (AWB)—despite the fact that assault weapons have been used in less than 2 percent of all gun homicides over the past three decades, and that the previous AWB helped cost the Democrats fifty-four seats in the 1994 House elections, put a fortune in the pockets of canny gun manufacturers, and sparked a gun-buying frenzy that hasn’t let up since.

Of course, even if the AWB increased gun sales and made a negligible impact on gun deaths, we could still try again, and perhaps impose even broader regulatory measures. We might reach this point thanks to political outcry combined with a profit motive—thereby imposing regulations that funnel money toward private-sector players. Legions of businesses are primed to exchange a narrowly Maximalist, anti-regulatory clientele for a broader base of “reasonable” law-abiding gun owners. A bitter irony here is that many schemes routinely touted on the left as representing public sector “gun control” solutions are already flourishing as private sector business models for those willing and able to pay for them. From firearms-liability insurance to lawyers offering retainer services for self-defense gun-use trials to boutique tactical training schools, there is no shortage of people and companies already making money from voluntaristic “gun control.” These parties stand to make even more if the State imposes new mandatory restrictions on gun ownership in the name of “safety.”

Gun manufacturers stand to gain the most. On January 5, 2016, the day President Obama announced his multipronged executive action gun control proposals, the stock of venerable firearm-maker Smith & Wesson rose 11 percent. This stock price—at the time, its highest ever—evinced more than just America’s appetite for investing in guns, which has driven up Smith & Wesson’s value more than 600 percent since Obama took office. It also represented a savvy move on the part of investors who understood the full significance of Obama’s invocation of government and private-sector “partnerships” and repeated appeals to develop “smart gun” technology. In March 2000, Smith & Wesson, battered by competition from Austrian-owned Glock, struck up a partnership with the Clinton White House and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that involved an unprecedented series of proactive, Minimalist-friendly concessions. First, Smith & Wesson agreed to supply-side alterations in its civilian product line, including adding new safety devices and designing its weapons so that high-capacity magazines could not be loaded. Then the company promised to cut ties to dealers whose guns frequently showed up at crime scenes, to let their dealers only work shows where all sellers instituted background checks, and, much in the spirit of President Obama’s recent appeals against gun traffickers, to forbid dealers carrying its products from making multiple sales to the same person within two weeks. Third, and crucially, Smith & Wesson agreed to perform ballistics tests on all its guns prior to sale and provide law enforcement with the records (a concession more or less analogous to what is currently envisioned as “microstamping”), and to invest a percentage of its profits in “authorized user technology that can limit a gun’s use to its proper owner.” Once such technology was realized, Smith & Wesson pledged to incorporate it into its entire line. At the time, Smith & Wesson’s preemptive attempt to seize an anticipated market for smart guns cost it dearly. Maximalists called for a boycott, the NRA condemned the company, and its stock fell 40 percent. A buyout by a former Smith & Wesson executive and years of image rehabilitation followed before the firm was restored to market prominence, not to mention NRA accolades.

At first glance, Smith & Wesson would appear the least likely to court government partnership, let alone with an outgoing Democratic White House. But Smith & Wesson would also know exactly what it would be getting into, and it certainly has an incentive to play nice. The Army’s primary sidearm, the Beretta M9, has been in service since 1985 and is literally falling apart. The competition for its replacement is on, with the initial contract worth $580 million and more to come as additional branches of government and armed forces adopt it (as well as the civilian market, which gravitates to military-approved hardware). Smith & Wesson’s entry into the competition, a version of its popular M&P model, is a frontrunner, and its partnership with defense conglomerate General Dynamics—which makes $30 billion in revenue a year—will allow it to meet demand in a way no other American contractor could. Whether or not “smart guns” have a future (the result may be as minimal as voluntary microstamping), and whether or not there’s an endorsement of other technological regulations in the offing, investing in Smith & Wesson looks win-win. If Smith & Wesson wins the contract and makes propitiatory gestures toward the government before or afterward, it can easily absorb any loss of Maximalist market share in favor of decades of dependable military-industrial and police money. If it doesn’t, the ever-rising tide of gun sales will lift all boats, Smith & Wesson’s included.

Smith & Wesson is hardly alone in simultaneously betting on and hedging against appeals to anti-government, anti-regulation consumers while courting the possibility of accommodating regulations and “control” in order to cash in on military and law enforcement contracts and follow-on private sector demand. If the market for civilian guns is altered through regulations, or if it eventually plateaus, decelerates, or pops on its own—however improbable, given that the gun-buying bubble seems made of Kevlar—this calculus will shift and norms will, too. In other words, it may be that the only reason we don’t have “gun control” as many on the left envision it is because no one has figured out how to monetize it. But this may only be a matter of time. We are innovative people in a time of bold entrepreneurship, after all.

This brings us to our last scenario, the “atavistic, racist carceral security state comes home to roost” scenario. Many commentators who should know better conveniently forget that the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban was a mere subsection of the Biden-authored and Clinton-approved  Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. That legislation allocated $9.7 billion to new prison construction and gave money to states to pursue harsher sentencing guidelines while eliminating prison education programs—effectively writing a check for the New Jim Crow to leap into the 21st century. That crime bill was unprecedentedly sprawling, but bundled regulation of guns and targeting of minorities by those in power was hardly new. Recall the so-called Mississippi Plan of 1875, whereby white Southern Democrats sought to simultaneously disarm and disenfranchise freed blacks, and New York City’s Stop and Frisk program, which many liberals originally supported when it was presented to them as a way of getting guns off the street. Given that today’s Aversive Minimalists include many white liberals whose primary concerns vis-à-vis “gun violence” more or less boil down to making high-profile rampage killings disappear from their newsfeeds, the possibility that they will embrace measures that gesture at solving that problem while doubling down on militarized policing, surveillance, and America’s overcrowded prisons is depressingly easy to imagine. As many critics have observed, we would be naïve to think that heavy-handed gun control measures would not involve the same disproportionate racial targeting and police violence we rightly condemn in the War on Drugs and in everyday encounters in places from Baltimore to Ferguson to Cleveland to Oakland.

When it comes to gun control, many nominal “progressives” will express a remarkably candid willingness to suspend concerns about ideological principles in favor of “action.” In the aftermath of any high-profile massacre, commentators and interest groups propose a litany of measures that few on the left would tolerate for tackling other social problems (with the salient exception of international terrorism). From an embrace of Presidential powers beyond the pale, even in our era of the triumphant Unitary Executive, to an aggressive weaponization of the language of sedition and treason against their opponents, the terror frame can motivate many Americans to write blank checks to the surveillance- and security state when it comes to dealing with guns. Thus, after the San Bernardino shootings, many liberal Minimalists began aggressively framing all gun violence as “terror,” and calling attention to the threat posed by militant extremists who might legally buy guns. Tellingly, appeals from many politicians (including Hillary Clinton) consistently elided the Terror Watchlist and the No Fly List. While the former is a comparatively focused database, the latter is a trainwreck of a program that contains over 400,000 entries and has been condemned by the ACLU. But in the response to an act of high-profile violence, the distinction didn’t matter: the palpable imperative was just to do something, anything, on the issue—and to worry about the consequences for civil rights later. Meanwhile, the security state and policing apparatus grow.

A real fear here is that “gun control” measures will be used to produce new opportunities to entrap and criminalize people who are already disproportionately targeted, as well as those who might pose any threat to the status quo. From the perspective of the true power brokers, gun violence that takes the lives of disposable, marginalized people in inner-city ghettos may be a negligible cost of doing business—an economic externality within America’s own borders, if you will, or even part of their model for maintaining power and moving product. What these Deep State actors might have reason to fear—and what may discomfit many white liberals as well—is the possibility of a resurgence of disruptive, organized, and armed black radicalism. There is a simple way for the Deep State to get what it wants that would also allow white liberal Aversive Minimalists to eat their “we-did-something-about-guns” cake and reap the benefits of living in an over-policed security state: “gun control” measures that, in the guise of whittling away at some gun violence would lay the groundwork for the state to break the back of armed but nonviolent radical resistance before it even starts. Today’s Ardent Maximalists already have guns aplenty—in fact, research indicates that more than 6 million Americans own ten or more, and the data strongly suggests they are overwhelmingly white. Meanwhile, polls suggest that black Americans (like Americans overall) are viewing gun ownership with increasing favorability.

Clamping down now makes sense as a way to stack the deck against escalations in civil unrest, whether catalyzed by climate change, economic disruption, or further instances of racist police violence. The bottom line is that, in the worst case scenario, America doubles down on the carceral security state and uses “gun control” as a warrant for doing so. Meanwhile, the prerogatives of white supremacy—a foundational organizing principle of the US far more insidiously lethal than mere physical weapons—would be preserved.

It’s important to stress that not all gun control activists are perniciously colorblind Aversive Minimalists. Likewise, confiscationalists are not as common, I suspect, as many Ardent Maximalists believe. But I think it’s no coincidence that many of the most influential players in the best-funded sectors of the “gun safety” movement are white. Nor is it incidental that their rise to prominence was kindled by the Sandy Hook massacre, which, in symbolic terms, struck dead-center in the circle of compassion of white middle-and-upper class Americans; nor still that they are gaining traction just as America faces the possibility of reliving the race riots and political militancy of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Political momentum and earnest moral outrage have a way of exceeding the intentions of those who seek to apply them with precision. As we contemplate the new forms that the dialectic between Minimalists and Maximalists may take in our changing political landscape, we would do well to keep in mind what we already control, what we wish we could control, and what forces might also be controlling us.

  1. For an authoritative and frame-breaking analysis of gun ownership in relation to contemporary neoliberal configurations of citizenship (and masculinity specifically), see Jennifer Carlson’s superlative Citizen Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline. My perspective here is deeply indebted to Carlson’s work, and to conversations with Abby Kluchin, Sarah Jaffe, Alex Gourevitch, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Matthew Cheney, and Andrew Ryder. 

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