The NRA’s brief moment of sanity is over. On Tuesday, the gun group apologized for a statement published on its website that called gun rights protesters in Texas “weird” and “scary.” That statement, which the NRA put out last Friday, came after gun activists in the Lone Star State brought assault rifles into busy restaurants and stores to show off their “open carry rights.” For a moment there, it looked like Wayne LaPierre and company were actually being reasonable. But yesterday, the NRA’s director of legislative action, Chris Cox, called back his group’s statement, saying that it wasn’t the NRA’s job to “criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners.”
Since Cox made that apology, there’s been a lot of talk on the progressive side of things about how the NRA can’t escape the influence of the more radical parts of the gun movement – the people who, for whatever reason, want to bring an AR-15 to Chipotle. And while that’s an important discussion to have, it misses the bigger question: Why would anyone feel the need bring an AR-15 to Chipotle in the first place?
The obvious answer is that America is a gun-obsessed country with a frontier history and that open carry activists are just a small, but vocal, part of a much bigger subculture. But I think it goes deeper than that. Just saying that open carry activists are a symptom of American gun culture doesn’t tells us why they’ve picked right now, the spring of 2014, to protest.
I think this has everything to do with the economy and the destruction of the middle class. For the past thirty-three years, Reaganomics has blown a whole right through the heart of the American dream. Wealthy inequality is near Banana Republic levels, unionization it as at an all-time low, and the American middle class is now the smallest it’s been in decades.
The foundation of our society has been torn apart and people are desperate to get some control over their lives in an otherwise chaotic society. The recession and the fact that the Republican Party – since their sabotage conspiracy at the Caucus Room restaurant on January 20, 2009 – has blocked any efforts by Obama to fix the economy since then have only made things worse.
And so people who feel helpless, disempowered, and impotent, particularly men, turn to guns. When everything else is falling around you, the bills are stacking up and your job won’t pay, a gun can make you feel strong. After all, it gives you ultimate power – the power over life and death.
We really shouldn’t be that surprised. Our society tells young men from the moment they’re born that they’re real men only when they stake their claim and get a job that provides for them and their family. We expect them to be stoic and strong in the face of danger and we expect them to stand up for themselves when they’re threatened. But the dangers we face today in Reaganomics America are difficult to put your finger on.
With Republicans controlling the House outright and controlling the Senate with the filibuster, Obama can’t “fight” unemployment – and neither can these individuals. They can’t “punch” rising healthcare costs. Guns, because they’re physical things, give some people the chance to feel like they have some sort of control over their life and the world around them.
After all, who’s more of an independent man than the guy who can waltz into any store and command attention because he’s got an AR-15 slung across his back? He’s like a modern day gunslinger. I know in the past I’ve made fun of some people in the gun rights movement by calling them members of the “Small Penis Gun Club,” but this is serious stuff. Just take a look across the pond and you’ll see why. In Europe, a crappy economy has given rise to a whole new movement of far-right nationalist groups, many of whom have no qualms with calling Hitler a hero and who put weapons and violence at the core of their political theology.
America doesn’t have quite the same history of fascism as Europe does (although you could argue the Jim Crow era was fascistic), but make no mistake about it: the people joining up with Golden Dawn to attack immigrants in the streets of Athens are driven by the same emotions as the people who waltz into Chipotle carrying an assault rifle.
Until the economy gets better, more and more people will hold up their guns as a way to feel powerful in a society that renders them powerless. This is just a fact. That’s why it’s time to turn our back on the 33-year experiment of Reaganomics and bring back an economy that works. Only then will these men stop feeling so desperate, frightened, and disempowered that they carry assault rifles in public.