Trigger warning: gun violence, racism
Yesterday, ten people died and seven were injured in a shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Motivated by the public outcry, President Obama gave a speech on the event and the issues it raises yesterday which still dominates my newsfeed and in all likelihood yours as well. He laid out a basic argument for gun control and against a hypervigilance for over-regulation of firearms and related weapons:
We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.
And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation. Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out: We need more guns, they’ll argue. Fewer gun safety laws.
Does anybody really believe that? There are scores of responsible gun owners in this country –they know that’s not true. We know because of the polling that says the majority of Americans understand we should be changing these laws — including the majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.
That is understandably deeply moving. It taps into one of the great beliefs in the United States about this country – that we are an evolving country, tethered by traditions but not ensnared by them. We can – and do – blaze forward, the story goes, changing ourselves in order to make life better. This story is sometimes about this type of regulation on a product, but can also come in the form of appeals to how the franchise has expanded, widening the voting population towards something today considered to be an approximation of universal suffrage. Obama is, I suspect, quite consciously marrying those two tales together, crediting the ostensibly safer and healthier life of the average US citizen to the theoretically democratic achievements of this country. We can literally vote ourselves to safety.
Unfortunately, it’s increasingly unclear that any part of this narrative is true. Past regulations on firearms and present day regulations on cars and other products Obama later mentions were opposed at almost every step by a major industry if not several. Those two are some of the most successful campaigns for that matter. Even as cars have reduced the dangers in an accident, they’ve gotten better at concealing their emissions, disguising the threat they pose to a stable and useful climate for us and ultimately everyone else in the world. Almost all of these improvements are rooted in economic bottom lines. It’s better to make a product that doesn’t easily and regularly kill your customers – that’s just basic business sense. But longer term damage to its consumers, to their descendants, and to the broader world can just be “externalities“, at least for much longer than that other kind of threat.
When it comes to more general issues of social and economic security that same statistics crop up repeatedly showing that many problems have lingered or even worsened. Food insecurity remains prevalent in the US. Union membership – long a bulwark for lower and middle classes to protect their interests – has drastically declined, as has (for that and other reasons) the political effectiveness of unions. Fear of poverty, of want, and of homelessness are barely considerations in the economic and political system in which we live, and so have at best been allowed, and at worst encouraged as “motivation“. The idea that we have become safer than those before us downplays these concerns and denies the observable reality that sometimes things actually have gotten worse.
Suffrage, still full of historical holes like felon disenfranchisement, has recently taken a hit from the dismantling of the pre-clearance system. Already, Alabama appears to be coordinating mass suppression of voters of color in advance of the 2016 election with no effective federal oversight. Other states are likely to follow suit. Even before that structural link in US democracy crumbled, we were already facing an effective plutocratic check on at the very least national elections, and by one study’s standards, were no longer a democracy, but rather an oligarchy. A majority of people in this country – citizens or not – might want basic regulations on weapons, but does that mean anything? For years, in spite of popular outcry, it hasn’t.
New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, from here.
Further along in his speech, Obama presented what he viewed as a few analogues to what he hopes we could accomplish on gun control, saying among other things, “When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer.” One needs only point to Katrina as an example of how limited those improvements often can be. Over a thousand died, and over a million were displaced. More valued populations threatened by later hurricanes have been better protected, so perhaps the government learned something from that disaster. But those lessons learned in catastrophe haven’t been applied to repair the still hurting (and specifically Black) communities in New Orleans, but to preserve the business centers of Houston and the greater New York area. In fact, as the devastation of Hurricane Katrina created the opportunity for a wealthier and Whiter demographic to move in and replace dead or displaced residents, parts of New Orleans seem poised to attain a similar status, only without the people who originally lived there.
Progress appears to be a privilege, increasingly reserved only for some in this society. It seems vital that we ask who gets left behind, and not only when the answer is “almost everyone.”