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America’s Gun Sickness Goes Way Beyond Guns

The ongoing debate about gun control points to a deeper rot that pervades this country's culture and political economy.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

My friend George recently suggested I watch Grimm, a sort of Law and Order-meets-Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show about a Portland cop with the ability to see the fairy-tale monsters who live, disguised, among us. (As in, the Brothers Grimm, get it?) We’re both connoisseurs of bad TV, and because we are both temporarily in long-distance relationships (his girlfriend is in another city for work; my boyfriend is abroad on a research grant) we have a great deal of time to watch them. You know, the thing that struck me about the show—more than its absurd supernatural premise; more than the cheesy creatures and special effects—was that in almost every episode, our cop hero shoots someone to death. Yes, they’re monsters, wolf-men and pig-men and snake-men and so on, but their monstrousness is part metaphor for criminality, and while the precise timeline of an episodic series is a little tough to pin down, it’s hard to avoid the sense that this detective is aerating uncharged suspects something like every other week.

I found myself thinking of this absurd premise and its frequently violent climax when I saw the results of a new CBS News poll, in which 44 percent of respondents favored “allowing more teachers and school officials to carry guns in schools.” (Fifty percent opposed.) We should of course be skeptical of polling in the immediate aftermath of any major news event, especially something as violent and traumatic as a school shooting. The fact that the idea has been frequently and widely reported in the national media in the days just prior to the survey surely affects respondents. As is often the case in polls related to guns and gun control, there is a huge partisan spread. It is nevertheless a disheartening number. It suggests a strong enough minority position to allow Republicans in Washington and in certain statehouses to push through precisely such measures, allowing—even encouraging—Mr. Smith, in tenth-grade World History, to keep a loaded weapon in the supply closet, or tucked into the waistband of his pleated khaki pants.

I am for gun control in the abstract, although I have my doubts about the efficacy of piecemeal legislation in a nation with 300 million guns already bouncing around in private hands. As is frequently the case in American political culture, the “issue” of guns gets discussed largely in isolation from other “issues,” although it’s lately become fashionable to link it to so-called mental health, a bowdlerized catch-all term that mostly serves to reinforce the canard that guns aren’t a problem so much as crazy people are. The only particular evidence that Americans are in aggregate any crazier than any other people on earth that I can find is that we have so many goddamn guns, but let’s leave that aside. At root, the only political considerations permitted into the gun debate are those that exculpate the owners, distributors, and manufacturers of the guns. Better background checks, higher age limits, specifically banned modifications? Marginal improvements to be sure, but they, I believe, skirt some fundamental social problems.

This year, the United States will spend about a trillion dollars for war—more than $700 billion in base “defense” spending alone. In the findings of a recent external audit, the Defense Logistics Agency (the purchasing and procurement arm of the Pentagon) simply could not account for hundreds of millions of dollars in spending. It seems they don’t keep the receipts. Back in 2016, the Office of the Inspector General found that the Army had made $6.5 trillion in erroneous accounting adjustments—a decade’s worth of defense appropriations—in a single year. And yet the money flows in, more every year; the military remains the most respected and beloved institution in public life, despite this endemic corruption and waste. And despite some desultory efforts to curb the practice in the Obama years, much used and surplus military hardware finds its way into the hands of police.

Our police, in turn, are some of the most violent in the world. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but relatively conservative estimates put the number of Americans killed by cops at nearly 1,000 a year. It is impossible to know how many violent but non-fatal encounters citizens have with law enforcement annually. But while movements like Black Lives Matter and growing coalitions for criminal justice reform have drawn some public attention to the issue, our culture—especially our pop culture—continues to valorize the heroic soldier-cop, the SWAT team bashing down the door, helmeted and black-goggled, rifles ready to blaze.

The radical right in America has an expression: “politics is downstream from culture.” Leftists often dismiss it as facile, and argue that much of what we consider cultural is a product of specific political and economic choices. I think the latter is true in a general sense, but I think the hard-right slogan is instructive nevertheless and points, if unintentionally, to a maddening feedback loop in American life. The political and economic choice to allocate so many of our society’s resources to endless, expanding war-making, to armed cops and barbaric prisons, has a deranging influence on our cultural life. Among other things, it makes warfare—a gun culture—quotidian and banal; it makes weapons of war perfectly ordinary tools; it makes TV cops taking body shots at suspects who are, obviously, always guilty, normal; it makes the idea of turning teachers and principals (and custodians! and guidance counselors!) into armed agents of the state, there to protect children against equally armed citizens, a topic for political debate rather than a notion as insane as fake moon landings and a flat Earth. And this, in turn, makes the billions and trillions we spend on warfare, at home and abroad, likewise seem like something other than the craziness that it manifestly is.

To consider the preponderance of gun violence in American society in isolation from the broader questions of how we allocate our collective resources—of how we determine social value—is inherently self-limiting. A strong anti-gun movement may make some marginal gains; I would be thrilled to see even a modest effort to move mental health out of the purview of police and prisons and back into the realm of counseling and medicine. But in the absence of a larger leftist agenda to move guns and war from their central position in our government and political economy, I find it hard to imagine that there can be really fundamental change, and I fear we will continue this slow drift toward more armed guards, more locked doors, more checkpoints, and more professions—educators now, then what: nurses? doctors? transit workers?—simply deputized as armed agents of a violent state whose citizens in turn enact in ever greater numbers the gun-happy antics in which they marinate every moment of their waking lives.