This reflects one of the gun lobby’s greatest feats: to make everything about gun rights.
Over the past few decades, this has meant transforming some of our most complicated and urgent social problems — crime, natural disasters, political instability — into a question of gun rights. The celebration of gun rights as a solution for a greater and greater array of social ills distorts not just how we solve our problems but also how we understand them in the first place.
Take Hurricane Katrina: Falling disproportionately on the impoverished Black residents of New Orleans, the storm’s suffering was sprawling, devastating and protracted. Infrastructure proved faulty; protocols proved ineffective. Tens of thousands ended up trapped in the flood-filled city, with little in the way of food or necessities. All told, the disaster lead to the deaths of over 1,800 people and $125 billion in damage. There was much — too much — to criticize about the actions undertaken and not taken during and after Katrina. But for Second Amendment advocates, the primary lesson was not about public infrastructure, structural racism or government incompetence. Rather, it was a tale of “unthinkable” tyranny: Police in Louisiana were confiscating weapons during a natural disaster and a mass evacuation. As the headline of an NRA story summarized 10 years later, “A Decade Later, Remember New Orleans … Gun Confiscation Can (and Has) Happened in America.” Soon after the storm, the NRA successfully lobbied to pass the Disaster Recovery Personal Protection Act of 2006 at the federal level as well as similar laws at the state level. These laws promised to prevent a terrifying prospect to hardcore Second Amendment advocates: the opportunistic seizure and confiscation of lawful guns during a state of emergency.
But hardcore Second Amendment advocates are not the only ones invested in guns in the face of an emergency. My conversations with gun sellers throughout 2020 — a blockbuster year for gun sales — revealed time and time again that even first-time buyers were purchasing guns because they simply didn’t know what else to do. One gun seller in Arizona told me that gun buyers were seeking “control”: “They were buying something [a gun] because they wanted to feel like they were in control of something.” Another Arizona gun seller told me uncertainty was driving the surge: “You don’t know what’s next. Is this a pandemic that’s going to wipe us out? Is this the apocalypse?” And yet another seller in California told me the panic among the gun buyers of 2020 was visceral: “There is panic, and I see it, and I feel it — I see it and feel it in people’s emails and their messages. Their phone calls. In person … we’ve realized that the government as a whole cannot stop or protect bad things from happening.”
Alongside the dramatic surge in gun purchasing, these words should give us pause. Yes, they resonate with the NRA’s fearmongering, but these are not people merely parroting the gun lobby. Distrustful of government and fearful of chaos, people are managing circumstances of insecurity, uncertainty and precarity with the only tool they see at their disposal: a gun.
And we should be careful who we blame for their predicament. Not just the NRA but also policymakers at the local, state and federal levels have worked hard to make this social reality palpable. Our social safety nets have been frayed for decades as welfare, education and other public goods have been undermined especially by Republicans but also by Democrats. Against the backdrop of an anemic state drained by decades of neoliberal policymaking, gun rights are one of the few stopgaps that many people in the United States say they can turn to.
As I have found in countless conversations with gun carriers, gun instructors and gun sellers over the past decade, Americans find guns appealing especially when other collective security apparatuses seem frail, flimsy and fragile. This explains not just why guns are particularly appealing to men experiencing socioeconomic precarity, as my research and other work have shown, but also why gun sales have skyrocketed over the past year as complex, multilayered crises — the coronavirus pandemic, the epidemic of police violence, political instability — have been uncannily reduced to problems only guns can address. As a Florida gun seller told me, “When you have uncertainty, you have to have a guarantee, and the only guarantee in this country is the right to protect yourself.” It also helps explain how gun rights can provide a discursive “big tent” for people embracing a cacophony of politics, from resistance to racist police violence to the very white supremacy that drives racist police violence: pro-gun Americans aren’t monolithic, and gun rights provide an accommodating political agenda as long as one concedes that expanded gun rights are a model way to solve social problems.
There is more to American democracy than the Second Amendment.
The recent outrage by Republican lawmakers indicates just how much today’s gun politics has managed to swallow up many of our most intractable problems, crowding out alternative ways of understanding, engaging and ultimately addressing the stark issues facing us. Meanwhile, rather than grapple with the difficult realities of a broken society made evident by the attempted insurrection, gun rights advocates are already warning that the riot was a “false flag” event aimed at ultimately disarming Americans. It’s a simplistic narrative that excuses its adherents from reckoning with Jan. 6 as an episode in our collective histories of white supremacy, domestic terrorism and political instability. As gun violence surges and political instability rocks the United States’ standing at home and abroad, contemporary gun rights discourse threatens to hollow out our political imaginations, diminish our collective efficacy — and ultimately, leave us ill-equipped to face the totality of the quandary that history calls upon us to address.