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by Peter Werbe
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Neither Bob Dole spent much time during the recent
presidential candidate's debate talking about Republican promises
to repeal the law banning certain assault weapons. Each for their
own purpose probably would like to let the matter rest. Still,
the furor over the ban suggests more than the "right to bear
The gun is America's totem-a bizarre symbol of a land which has almost as many firearms as people. Guns play a strange role in our national life and, like cars, represent emotions far beyond what their utility is supposed to provide.
When you see men walking around with t-shirts declaring, "My wife, yes; My dog, maybe; My gun, never!", you know you're dealing with something more than a lust for hunting or the anticipation of defense against some future tyranny. You can hear the voices of the gun nuts seething with rage on right-wing talk shows, swearing they will die before giving up their weapons. Conservative politicians and aging rock stars make political capital out of the hysteria and guys who were playing splatball six months ago are forming armed militias to prepare for a showdown with the government in Montana.
Rather than there being any authentic threat to either our freedom or to gun ownership, all of the commotion seems more a growing pathology on the part of those white males who feel their traditional status and privilege eroding, their wages dropping, and who know blue collar jobs are going to Mexico and middle-level white collar positions are being hatcheted wholesale. Previously, the average white American male had a small piece of the pie and possessed a racial and gender identification with the ruling elite, giving them a sense of social superiority. Now, with their income and status under assault, many middle- and working-class guys furiously blame their woes on liberals, minorities, women, gays and the poor. This intense process of denial relieves them from confronting the real source of their anxiety and threat to their lifestyle-the continuing assault on the poor and middle-class by the rich.
To these guys, gun control represents the final emasculation-the severing of the last bastion of what they perceive as their power. The fantasy of perforating a trespasser with their Tec-9 assault pistol has been taken away from them by the politicians in Washington.
Although they chatter endlessly about the Second Amendment and their right to possess any gun they choose, these are people whose politics make them the least likely to object to government polices. They are involved in the circular reasoning of wanting to have guns to protect themselves from a government which might try to take their guns away. However, as we saw during the hideous government slaughter at Waco, stockpiling guns is a cop magnet and rather than providing security from the ravages of tyranny, assures it.
In any event, the Constitution is a weak pillar for supporting gun ownership. The founding WORMs (white, old rich men) sought political guarantees for their class of wealthy planters, but greatly feared the common people and made sure that only white, property-owning males benefited from democracy in the new nation. They had no desire to see the lower orders armed. The U.S. Supreme has consistently held that the real emphasis of the Second Amendment is in the "well-regulated" phrase, not the "right to bear arms" and has never overturned any law restricting weapons.
However, given the level of national concern, the question should be asked, is there an actual increase in violent crime or are we subject to the latest media spasm?
For most of the population, statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey show violent crime has remained at a fairly constant level for 20 years and has even dropping recently. Murder, for instance, has remained at a consistent 9.3 per 100,000 people, and while making us the industrial world's most violent nation, doesn't conform to the image of rising danger. The murder rate for white males is 4.6 per 100,000, little different than the statistics for males in France and Italy.
What has changed dramatically are economic conditions for much of the urban working class, minorities and the poor. During the Reagan/Bush era, the bottom dropped out for the lower third of the population and it is only common sense that the poorer you are the more likely you are to be the victim of a crime or commit a crime. For instance, blacks make up only 12 percent of the population, but are 50 percent of murder victims. The murder rate for black men is a staggering 32.1 per 100,000, a figure near the highest in the world.
The suburban middle class, isolated from the areas of actual increased violence, react with panic to media reports and nervously await shots to ring out in their neighborhood. But white fear of black crime bears little relationship to reality, either; 91 percent of white killings are committed by other whites, while 87 percent of blacks are murdered by blacks. Drive-by shootings, kids with guns, the murder of tourists and an increase in mass murders seem to have produced a new level of violence, but in reality it's the same old bloody nation with the slaughter magnified by media hype.
But regardless, support for gun control or opposition to it will remain the stuff of talk shows and posturing in the political arena. Legislation strictly regulating firearms is not on the political agenda and even if passed, such laws wouldn't work anyway. An attempt at gun prohibition would meet with the same mass disobedience which similar efforts against alcohol and drug have met.
But at this point in our history, guns have little or nothing to do with ridding this nation of its plague of violence. Real solutions mean addressing the problems of social justice and maldistribution of income, something neither Clinton liberals nor Bob Dole conservatives are willing to do.
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Last modified: October 21, 1997