In the United States, calls for liberal, Band-Aid reforms do not work in the face of the carnage taking place. “The United States sees an average of 92 gun deaths per day – and more preschoolers are shot dead each year than police officers are killed in the line of duty.” (1) Mass violence in the United States has to be understood within a larger construction of the totality of the forces that produce it. Focusing merely on the more dramatic shootings misses the extent of the needless violence and murders that are taking place daily.
State repression, unbridled self-interest, an empty consumerist ethos and war-like values have become the organizing principles of US society, producing an indifference to the common good, compassion, a concern for others and equality. As the public collapses into the individualized values of a banal consumer culture and the lure of private obsessions, US society flirts with forms of irrationality that are at the heart of everyday aggression and the withering of public life. US society is driven by unrestrained market values in which economic actions and financial exchanges are divorced from social costs, further undermining any sense of social responsibility.
In addition, a wasteful, giant military-industrial-surveillance complex fueled by the war on terror, along with the United States’ endless consumption of violence as entertainment and its celebration of a pervasive gun culture, normalizes the everyday violence waged against Black youth, immigrants, children fed into the school-to-prison pipeline and others considered disposable. US politicians now attempt to govern the effects of systemic violence while ignoring its underlying causes. Under such circumstances, a society saturated in violence gains credence when its political leaders have given up on the notion of the common good, social justice and equality, all of which appear to have become relics of history in the United States.
In the face of mass shootings, the public relations disimagination machine goes into overdrive claiming that guns are not the problem, and that the causes of such violence can be largely attributed to people living with mentally illness. When in actuality, as two Vanderbilt University researchers, Dr. Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish, publishing in the American Journal of Public Health, observed that:
Fewer than 6 percent of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness. Our research finds that across the board, the mentally ill are 60 to 120 percent more likely than the average person to be the victims of violent crime rather than the perpetrators…. There are 32,000 gun deaths in the United States on average every year, and people are far more likely to be shot by relatives, friends or acquaintances than they are by lone violent psychopaths. (2)
It may not be an exaggeration to claim that the US government has blood on its hands because of the refusal of Congress to rein in a gun lobby that produces a growing militarism that sanctions a love affair with the unbridled corporate institutions, financial interests and mass-produced cultures of violence. The Oregon community college shooting is the 41st school shooting this year while there have been 142 incidents of violence on school properties since 2012. Yet, the violence continues unchecked, all the while legitimated by the cowardly acts of politicians who refuse to enact legislation to curb the proliferation of guns or support measures as elementary as background checks – which 88 percent of the American people support – or for that matter, ban large-capacity ammunition magazines and assault rifles.
In part, this cowardly refusal on the part of politicians is due to the fact that gun lobbyists pour huge amounts of money into the campaigns of politicians who support their interests. For example, in 2015, the gun lobby spent $5,697,429 while those supporting gun control paid out $867,601. In a New York Times op-ed, Gabrielle Giffords pointed out that the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the 2012 election cycle “spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.” (3) Outside money does more than corrupt politics; it is also responsible for people being shot and killed.
Many Americans are obsessed with violence. They not only own nearly 300 million firearms, but also have a love affair with powerful weaponry such as 9mm Glock semiautomatic pistols and AR-15 assault rifles. Collective anger, frustration, fear and resentment increasingly characterize a society in which people are out of work, young people cannot imagine a decent future, everyday behaviors are criminalized, inequality in wealth and income are soaring and the police are viewed as occupying armies. This is not only a recipe for both random violence and mass shootings; it makes such acts appear routine and commonplace.
Fear has become a public relations strategy used not only by the national security state but also by the gun industry. When you live in a country in which you are constantly bombarded by the assumption that the government is the enemy of democracy and you are told that nobody can be trusted, and the discourse of hate, particularly against Black youth, immigrants and gun control advocates, spews out daily from thousands of conservative radio stations and major TV networks, a climate of fear engulfs the country reinforcing the belief that gun ownership is the only notion of safety in which people can believe in order to live as free human beings. Under such circumstances, genuine fears and concerns for safety are undermined. These include the fear of poverty, lack of meaningful employment, the absence of decent health care, poor schools, police violence and the militarization of society, all of which further legitimate and fuel the machinery of insecurity, violence and death. Fear degenerates into willful ignorance while any semblance of rationality is erased, especially around the logic of gun control. As Adam Gopnik observes:
Gun control ends gun violence as surely an antibiotics end bacterial infections, as surely as vaccines end childhood measles – not perfectly and in every case, but overwhelmingly and everywhere that it’s been taken seriously and tried at length. These lives can be saved. Kids continue to die en masse because one political party won’t allow that to change, and the party won’t allow it to change because of the irrational and often paranoid fixations that make the massacre of students and children an acceptable cost of fetishizing guns. (4)
President Obama is right in stating that the violence we see in the United States is “a political choice we make that allows this to happen.” While taking aim at the gun lobby, especially the NRA, what Obama fails to address is that extreme violence is systemic in US society, has become the foundation of politics and must be understood within a broader historical, economic, cultural and political context. To be precise, politics has become an extension of violence driven by a culture of fear, cruelty and hatred legitimated by the politicians bought and sold by the gun lobby and other related militaristic interests. Moreover, violence is now treated as a sport, a pleasure-producing form of commerce, a source of major profits for the defense industries and a corrosive influence upon US democracy. And as such it is an expression of a deeper political and ethical corruption in US society. As Rich Broderick insists, US society “embraces a soulless free-market idolatry in which the value of everything, including human beings, is determined by the bottom line” and in doing so this market fundamentalism and its theater of cruelty and greed perpetuate a spectacle of violence fed by an echo chamber “of paranoia, racism, and apocalyptic fantasies rampant in the gun culture.” (5) The lesson here is that the culture of violence cannot be abstracted from the business of violence.
Murdering children in schools, the streets, in jails, detention centers and other places increasingly deemed unsafe has become something of a national pastime. One wonders how many innocent children have to die in the United States before it becomes clear that the revenue made by the $13.5 billion gun industry, with a $1.5 billion profit, are fueling a national bloodbath by using lobbyists to pay off politicians, wage a mammoth propaganda campaign and induct young children into the culture of violence. (6) What is clear is that as more guns are on the streets and in the hands of people a savage killing machine is unleashed on those who are largely poor, Black and vulnerable.
The widespread availability of guns is the reason for the shooting and killing of children and adults in Chicago, Boston, Ferguson, New York City and in other major cities. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports that “in 2010, guns took the lives of 31,076 Americans in homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings. This is the equivalent of more than 85 deaths each day and more than three deaths each hour. [In addition], 73,505 Americans were treated in hospital emergency departments for non-fatal gunshot wounds in 2010.” (7) And the toll of gun violence on young people is truly heartbreaking with almost 30,000 young people killed in a 10-year period, which amounts “to nearly 3,000 kids shot to death in a typical year.” (8) According to a Carnegie-Knight News21 program investigation,
For every US soldier killed in Afghanistan during 11 years of war, at least 13 children were shot and killed in the United States. More than 450 kids didn’t make it to kindergarten. Another 2,700 or more were killed by a firearm before they could sit behind the wheel of a car. Every day, on average, seven children were shot dead. A News21 investigation of child and youth deaths in the United States between 2002 and 2012 found that at least 28,000 children and teens 19-years-old and younger were killed with guns. Teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 made up over two-thirds of all youth gun deaths in the United States. (9)
Even worse, the firearms industry is pouring millions into recruiting and educational campaigns designed to both expose children to guns at an early age and to recruit them as lifelong gun enthusiasts. Reporting on such efforts for The New York Times, Mike McIntire writes:
The industry’s strategies include giving firearms, ammunition and cash to youth groups; weakening state restrictions on hunting by young children; marketing an affordable military-style rifle for “junior shooters” and sponsoring semiautomatic-handgun competitions for youths; and developing a target-shooting video game that promotes brand-name weapons, with links to the Web sites of their makers…. Newer initiatives by other organizations go further, seeking to introduce children to high-powered rifles and handguns while invoking the same rationale of those older, more traditional programs: that firearms can teach “life skills” like responsibility, ethics and citizenship. (10)
As the United States moves from a welfare state to a warfare state, state violence becomes normalized. The United States’ moral compass and its highest democratic ideals have begun to wither, and the institutions that were once designed to help people now serve to largely suppress them. Gun laws, social responsibility and a government responsive to its people matter. We must end the dominance of gun lobbyists, the reign of money-controlled politics, the proliferation of high levels of violence in popular culture and the ongoing militarization of US society. At the same time, it is crucial, as many in the movement for Black lives have stated, that we refuse to endorse the kind of gun control that criminalizes young people of color.
Gun violence in the United States is inextricably tied to economic violence as when hedge fund managers invest heavily in companies that make high-powered automatic rifles, 44-40 Colt revolvers, laser scopes for semiautomatic handguns and expanded magazine clips. (11) The same mentality that trades in profits at the expense of human life gives the United States the shameful title of being the world’s largest arms exporter. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Washington sold 31% of all global imports during the 2010-2014 period.” (12) This epidemic of violence connects the spreading of violence abroad with the violence waged at home. It also points to the violence reproduced by politicians who would rather support the military-industrial-gun complex and arms industries than address the most basic needs and social problems faced by Americans.
Rather than arming people with more guns, criminalizing every aspect of social behavior, militarizing the police and allowing the gun lobby to sanction putting semiautomatic weapons in the hands of children and adults, the most immediate action that can be taken is to institute effective gun control laws. As Bernardine Dohrn has argued:
We want gun control that sanctions manufacturers, distributors and adults who place, and profit from, deadly weapons in the possession of youth. We want military-style weaponry banned. We want smaller schools with nurses and social workers, librarians and parent volunteers – all of which are shown to contribute to less disruption and less violence. Let’s promote gun-control provisions and regulations that enhance teaching and learning as well as justice and safety for children, not those that will further incarcerate, punish and demonize young people of color. We’ve been there before. (13)
And Dohrn’s suggestions would be only the beginning of real reform, one that goes right to the heart of eliminating the violence at the core of US society. The United States has become a society that is indifferent to the welfare of its citizens, as the drive for profits has replaced any vestige of social and moral responsibility. Violence has arisen from the breakdown of public space, the erasure of public goods and a growing disdain for the common good. Gratuitous violence is no longer merely a sport or form of entertainment; it has become central to a society that trades on fear and fetishizes hyperviolent and punitive practices and social relations. Brutal, masculine authority now rules US society and wages a war against women’s reproductive rights, civil liberties, poor Black and Brown youth and Mexican immigrants. When violence becomes an organizing principle of society, the fabric of a democracy begins to unravel, suggesting that the United States is at war with itself. When politicians refuse out of narrow self and financial interests to confront the conditions that create such violence, they have blood on their hands.
Note: This article draws on a much shorter version that appeared in CounterPunch.
1. As Nicholas Kristof points out: It’s not just occasional mass shootings like the one at an Oregon college … but a continuous deluge of gun deaths, an average of 92 every day in America. Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns than died in all US wars going back to the American Revolution. If that doesn’t make you flinch, consider this: In America, more preschoolers are shot dead each year (82 in 2013) than police officers are in the line of duty (27 in 2013), according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI. See, Nicholas Kristof, “A New Way to Tackle Gun Deaths,” The New York Times (October 3, 2015). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-new-way-to-tackle-gun-deaths.html?smid=tw-nytopinion&smtyp=cur&_r=0
2. Amy Wolf, “Mental Illness is the wrong scapegoat after mass shootings,” Vanderbilt University Research News (Dec. 11, 2014). http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2014/12/mental-illness-wrong-scapegoat-shootings/
3. Gabrielle Giffords, “A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip,” The New York Times, (April 17, 2013). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/opinion/a-senate-in-the-gun-lobbys-grip.html
4. Adam Gopnik, “The Second Amendment Is a Gun-Control Amendment,” The New Yorker (October 4, 2015). http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/32756-focus-the-second-amendment-is-a-gun-control-amendment
5. Rich Broderick, “Our very own settler problem: America’s Culture-of-Gun-Deaths,” Twin Cities Daily Planet, (January 13, 2013). Online: http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/blog/rich-broderick/our-very-own-settler-problem-america-s-culture-death
6. Jenna Berbeo, “Guns R Us: The Stats Behind America’s Firearms Industry,” Truthdig (October 2, 2015). Online: http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/guns_r_us_the_stats_behind_americas_firearm_industry_20151002
7. Editorial, “Statistics on the Dangers of Gun Use for Self-Defense,” Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (May 11, 2015). Online: http://smartgunlaws.org/category/gun-studies-statistics/gun-violence-statistics/
8. Bob Herbert, “A Culture Soaked in Blood,” The New York Times, (April 25, 2011), p. A19 Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/25/opinion/25herbert.html?scp=1&sq=Bob%20Herbert
9. Kate Murphy and Jordan Rubio, “At least 28,000 children and teens were killed by guns over an 11-year-period,” News21 (August 16, 2014). Online: http://gunwars.news21.com/2014/at-least-28000-children-and-teens-were-killed-by-guns-over-an-11-year-period/
10. Mike McIntire, “Selling a New Generation on Guns,” The New York Times (January 26, 2013). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/27/us/selling-a-new-generation-on-guns.html
11. Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Wall Street, Invested in Firearms, Is Unlikely to Push for Reform,” The New York Times, (December 17, 2012). http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/wall-street-invested-in-firearms-is-unlikely-to-push-for-reform/
12. Sam Becker, “10 Countries That Export the Most Weapons,” The Cheat Sheet (May 19, 2015). Online: http://www.cheatsheet.com/business/the-worlds-10-largest-arms-exporters.html/?a=viewall
13. Bernardine Dohrn, “Watch Out for Fake Gun Control Reforms,” Truthout, (January 16, 2013). http://truth-out.org/news/item/13937
Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His books include: Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism (Peter Land 2011), On Critical Pedagogy (Continuum, 2011), Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability (Paradigm 2012), Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty (Routledge 2012), Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm 2013). Giroux’s most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), are Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, America’s Disimagination Machine (City Lights) and Higher Education After Neoliberalism (Haymarket) will be published in 2014). He is also a Contributing Editor of Cyrano’s Journal Today and member of Truthout’s Board of Directors and has his own page The Public Intellectual. His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.