“Law and justice are not always the same.”
When I arrived to college, I wasn’t a great critical thinker. I knew enough by high school to question my parents’ authority and conclude that many of my teachers weren’t giving us the full truth about history or, say, the usefulness of calculus. I could also see inequality in my life without it being pointed out for me—like how my softball team practiced at the dilapidated fields miles from our school and the baseball team practiced on a manicured field on school grounds. I just hadn’t yet transitioned all of that questioning and seeing into a more complex understanding of the way things are and the way things should be and who gets to decide the space between.
I’ll always be grateful to my favorite professor in college for teaching me to love feminist theory. He described his romance with feminist thought like it were a pair of glasses that changed his view of the world. Once he saw gender in everything, this favorite professor said, it was impossible to unsee it. I felt exactly the same way as I read my way through his introductory course on feminist theory. I fell hard for all that critical analysis and swooned at the way it applied to my own life, both past and present. I started questioning every experience, unraveling every argument, and dissecting every inequality I read about. The glasses fit me perfectly.
Funny thing, then, about the day this favorite professor asked what I thought of the death penalty. I hadn’t given it much thought, but it was the way it worked—it was The Law. And, I reasoned, if someone killed my parents or my brother, death seemed like a suitable punishment. Favorite Professor talked me through the various issues with a position on the death penalty that doesn’t take into full consideration inequalities, biases, institutionalized discrimination, and downright mistakes that lead to severe injustice at the hands of the state. Think about the innocents who may be killed, but think also about what values a society that accepts such injustice promotes.
This collegiate moment jolted me out of a passive acceptance of our current laws as the best means of attaining the public good—and served as an important lesson in how weighted the endeavor of deciding the public good can be. Like anytime someone says, “that’s just the way it is,” we would be wise to question the inherent power dynamics involved: who set things up that way, why did they do so, and what does the person maintaining that paradigm gain by enforcing the status quo. Even more importantly, anytime someone seeks to change “the way it is,” there’s a lot to learn from assessing the kind of power dynamics at play.
I finally paused to think critically about guns to write this post. I lived through all of the school shootings and other mass violence atrocities like everyone else—I just hadn’t settled into anything beyond “getting” that guns are American and wondering if I shouldn’t buy a firearm myself. Seriously! I was a nervous progressive under W. and have seen Bruce Willis movies—guns aren’t all bad. I still believe that, and I still haven’t ruled out a gun purchase, but it was a neat thought experiment to see how my incessant critiquing and unpacking would apply to such a hot topic in the news cycle. Here’s what I came up with:
Although national data collection on guns was wrongly politicized by the NRA years ago and is thus hard to find, we know from at least one national survey that conservative, white men in rural areas currently own the majority of guns in America. And while gun ownership has declined in recent years, gun sales are up. So, white rural guys who vote Republican own lots of guns and are buying more guns.
This isn’t a coincidence. Gun control laws in this country were historically employed to prevent minorities from owning guns (if you haven’t read it, I really enjoyed Adam Winkler’s Secret History of Guns). Seriously, white guys in the south spent lots of time and energy trying to take guns away from black men. Even The Incredible Ronald Reagan signed pretty significant gun control legislation into law back when we was Governor of California to keep black dudes from bringing guns into public buildings. I’m still trying to find a historical analysis of women’s gun ownership, but generally assume that like minorities, liberally leaning folks, and those who live in urban areas, women haven’t historically been big players in the gun world.
Except as victims. It gets depressing, but women clearly get the raw end of the deal when it comes to guns. Intimate partner violence turns deadly more often if there’s a gun in the home. It’s a bad deal for African Americans, too—firearm homicides is the leading cause of death for black Americans and accounts for over half of all of the firearm homicides in our country. And enough people have pointed it out so I don’t even want to, but none of the mass shootings we’re grieving have involved women or minorities—except as victims.
This spring, when you hear politicians and pundits talking about guns, the Second Amendment, gun control, or even mental health services as it relates to guns – I think they’re really talking about how rural, white men are reacting to a changing world and uncertain future. Hunters don’t need military assault weapons. Registering your gun with your state or even the feds is about as controversial as registering your kid at school, your car at the DMV, or your address with the postal service. White rural dudes do need jobs, a good education, a decent health care system, clean air, fresh water—and lots of other life necessities that are in crisis because of Republican arrogance and disorganization.
What better way to smack our attention away from issues that serve the collective good—women and minorities, no less—than to focus our attention on the fears of the privileged and powerful. “Don’t take our guns,” isn’t code for a conversation about drug violence, internet sales, or even mental health services. It’s smoke and mirrors veiling a necessary discussion about what it means to be a conservative white dude in rural America today. We should talk about that instead of the Second Amendment. And we should pass some commonsense gun control measures while we’re at it.
Here it is in a nutshell: guns aren’t the answer. And the question itself isn’t even about laws, let alone justice.
The Pleasant Progressive