Friday, December 21, 2012

Postal: It’s Not (Really) About the Guns

December 21, 2012 11:55 AM
By Daniel Luzer


Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, expressed a common reaction in the aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting, writing on Twitter: “We need action on gun and mental health policy in this country. Immediately. How many more children must die?”

How many, indeed? There have been 62 public shootings in the last 30 years, according to an article in Mother Jones. Before Newtown there had been six mass shootings this year alone. We now have them more often than we have presidential elections, more often than we have the Olympics and the Grammy awards.

Newsom’s reaction, while understandable, misses the real problem. The reality is that the American mass shooting probably has a lot to do with gun policy, a fair amount to do with mental health programs, and everything to do with the distribution of wealth in America.

While it’s true that the laws governing the possession of firearms are become more lenient than in 1980—thirty years ago, 8 states automatically licensed anyone without a criminal record to carry concealed weapons. Now, 38 states do—such changes cannot, in and of themselves, explain a massive increase in the number of shootings. Americans had guns in the 50s and 60s, too. What made them start to use them like this?

The public shootings began in the 1980s. There were two gun massacres in the two decades before Ronald Reagan took office, one in 1966 and one a decade later. There were, by some estimates, more than 30 mass killings during his time in office alone.

There were mass shooting prior to this, but they were mostly rational acts of violence, not random rage murders. On February 14, 1929, for instance, seven men were machine gunned to death in Chicago. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, while horrific, was a very a simple case of mobsters murdering rivals during Prohibition in order to retaliate for an earlier attempt to control the city’s bootlegging business.

The most dramatic change since then was not a modification in policy toward crime or guns but, rather, of the country’s economic structure.

Since 1980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States has lost about a quarter of its manufacturing jobs. Between 1990 and 2000 CEO pay increased 570 percent. The average worker’s salary, however, increased only 34 percent. Of the total increase in all American income from 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent went to the top one percent. The wealth of that top one percent of Americans now exceeds the combined wealth of the bottom 95 percent. America has the worst wealth distribution of any first-world nation. Income distribution in the United States, as Timothy Noah put it in a 2010 piece he wrote for Slate, is now “more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador.”

The American firearm murder rate is also starting to resemble that of a banana republic. The countries with highest rates of gun death in the world are Honduras, El Salvador and Jamaica. The highest rates of gun homicide, in fact, are intensely concentrated in Latin America and Caribbean, other places with vast wealth disparities.

What does this orientation of resources do to a society? In 2005 Mark Ames published Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond, in which he argues that the American public gun murder is essentially the 21st century equivalent of the slave rebellions that occurred before the Civil War.


The workplace and school shootings were motivated by similar things to slave uprisings, a sense of frustration in an essentially dehumanizing situation.


A culture that breeds revolt is one in which a vast army of ill-paid and largely miserable people toils in service to a soulless corporate institution or a few very wealthy people. The message this sends is that anyone outside of the top tier of American movers and shakers is not experiencing some temporary economic setback but, rather, is in some way fundamentally and irrevocably inferior.


The vast disparities in wealth don’t lead gunman to shoot the rich and powerful; they mostly kill people pretty much like themselves. It’s impossible to demonstrate causality in any individual case, and in fact it could be argued that many of the gunmen were insulated by family circumstances from the worst effects of the American economic policies. But the grievances and obsessions of American mass shooters seem mostly to center on issues of status.


As societies become more inequitable, they become more violent. That’s because gross inequities in wealth make people feel angry and impotent and irrelevant. Their sense of powerlessness is ratified and reinforced by a culture and economic system in which the small group of winners feels morally justified in dismissing the large and growing number of losers


Much like slave rebellions, mass shootings aren’t rational acts, but personal mutinies against a society that doesn’t make sense (“Shit is fucked up and bullshit”), a culture in which people feel alienated and alone.

The winners are those with good jobs and big TVs, the people who matter. The losers are the depressed and the unemployed.


This is not to say that these murderers are innocent or mere victims of circumstance; they were adults who chose their brutal actions freely. It’s also true that a rigorous and severe gun control policy, in particular, could dramatically reduce the number of people who actually die from public acts of violence;

----- [In the Newton case, it appears the shooter was menatlly ill, as in several other cases. One of the shooters was autopsied and found to have a brain tumor.]

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