There have been two trends in the response to recent gun-massacres that deserve more scrutiny than they’re receiving. One is the triumphant assertion by gun-enthusiasts that ‘an armed society is a polite/civil/safe society’, which reasons that either people will be deterred from violence by the fear of citizen retaliation or we don’t have to worry that any violence will ‘get out of hand’ because dutiful citizens will use their guns to stop it. This is often enough pitched as a response to an imaginary demand to ban all guns, even though there’s more concern with just getting stronger and more consistently enforced controls on gun-access. Then there are those who see the shooters as disturbed individuals that really needed mental healthcare. As far as I can tell they are in good faith trying to counter the individualizing effects of the gun-enthusiasts’ appeal, while also diffusing the anxiety around “more gub’mint regulations”. We wouldn’t need more controls, or at least wouldn’t need to realize the gun-enthusiasts’ worst fear of banning guns, if there was a place these people could go with ‘their problems’. That said, I think most of the time the mental health appeal is coupled with some increased or better enforced controls. What’s the matter with these responses?
Well, I’d like to turn to a penetrating passage from Sunday’s New York Times on ‘the freedom of an armed society.’
Gun rights advocates also argue that guns provide the ultimate insurance of our freedom, in so far as they are the final deterrent against encroaching centralized government, and an executive branch run amok with power. Any suggestion of limiting guns rights is greeted by ominous warnings that this is a move of expansive, would-be despotic government. It has been the means by which gun rights advocates withstand even the most seemingly rational gun control measures. An assault weapons ban, smaller ammunition clips for guns, longer background checks on gun purchases — these are all measures centralized government wants, they claim, in order to exert control over us, and ultimately impose its arbitrary will. I have often suspected, however, that contrary to holding centralized authority in check, broad individual gun ownership gives the powers-that-be exactly what they want.
After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism — I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings — and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be. The N.R.A. would have each of us steeled for impending government aggression, but it goes without saying that individually armed citizens are no match for government force. The N.R.A. argues against that interpretation of the Second Amendment that privileges armed militias over individuals, and yet it seems clear that armed militias, at least in theory, would provide a superior check on autocratic government.
As Michel Foucault pointed out in his detailed study of the mechanisms of power, nothing suits power so well as extreme individualism. In fact, he explains, political and corporate interests aim at nothing less than “individualization,” since it is far easier to manipulate a collection of discrete and increasingly independent individuals than a community. Guns undermine just that — community. Their pervasive, open presence would sow apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear, all emotions that are corrosive of community and civic cooperation. To that extent, then, guns give license to autocratic government.
What’s interesting and important about the article is not anything about regulating guns (a form of control of and power over individuals). Instead, it’s an indictment of the kind of individualism that underpins ‘an armed society is a polite/civil society’ claims, which is a tunnel-vision that fragments collective power with the spectacular promise of personal firearms. It’s a disempowering story gun enthusiasts are spreading and the flip-side of the ‘ban all guns’ rhetoric that they think they’re opposing. In other word, an armed society isn’t a more polite, civil or necessarily safer society. It’s a police-state.
However, there’re reasons to think that the ‘access to mental healthcare’ is a similarly misleading appeal. As my partner put it (on Facebook) responding to this livejournal posting about recent gun massacres:
This is a really great post and it tails nicely with problems I’ve been having with the discourse. I think gun control is the least useful angle to look at the event from, and I think a lot of people realize that, but the mental-illness angle has been striking me as off the mark as well. Mostly because these shooters don’t usually have an obvious psychological problem before the event, and even if they were suffering under ‘common’ stress & alienation, it’s not clear that they lacked access to support or would have availed themselves of it. It IS a mental health issue, but it goes deeper than ‘spotting’ and ‘helping’ troubled folks, it has to do with the ways our ‘normal’ forms of sociability feed into problems, while simultaneously making it appear that nothing unusual is going on. Because if you’re just pissed cuz you’re RIGHT, then why would you seek help?
Some might contend these were mentally I’ll people though! The issue isn’t whether there’s a ‘mental health’ crisis though, but the etiology of that crisis. There is certainly a need to improve access to ALL kinds of healthcare (I’m an unrepentant socialist here), but my partner and that blog-writer’s point is that calling these shootings ‘a mental health issue’ and framing that in terms of access /takes for granted/ the sick individual. This is not far off from the gun-nut’s reasoning that these types of events, these individuals, are to be expected. Stated so simply as it often had been, it just individualizes the solution in a different way. There are individual factors to be sure, and access to mental healthcare probably would correlate with reduced violence, but that’s a band-aid perspective when the gushing wound is a culture of toxic masculinity and toxic individualism. Lack of access to mental healthcare didn’t produce these shooters, didn’t produce their willingness to act as they did, even if it may have stopped some of them.