The radical left, including the Black Panthers, also contributed to the rise of gun vigilante culture in the United States, a phenomenon that later shifted to the right. (AP.)
A lot of what I hope to be doing with this blog I fear might verge on pedantry. Too much of what we observe today on the right we act as if started the day before yesterday. Always, we need to set the clock back further—as a political necessity. We have to establish deeper provenances. Or else we just reinvent, and reinvent and reinvent the wheel.
Or, in this case, reinvent the assault rifle. Some of the best coverage and reflection on December 14—the day of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary—has come from the outstanding folks at Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. And part of the mix over at TPM is its reprinting of e-mails from ordinary readers, offering marvelous worm’s-eye views and analyses of the issues of the day. Sometimes, however, the worm’s-eye view only views what the worm’s eye views. On December 15, as the nature of the fearsome arsenal took inside that first grade classroom—the Bushmaster XM-15, the 10mm Glock SF and 9mm SIG Sauer handgun—was becoming apparent, but before, I think, it had been established that the mother he stole the guns from before murdering her may have been a “full-on” prepper, arming for Armageddon, TPM printed this interesting e-mail from a reader identified as SS:
I was raised with guns. More to the point, my childhood was steeped in gun lore…. I bring this up to establish my bona-fides.
The gun culture that we have today in the U.S. is not the gun culture, so to speak, that I remember from my youth. It’s too simple to say that it’s “sick”; it’s more accurately an absurd fetishization. I suppose that the American Gunfighter, in all of his avatars, is inescapably fetishistic, but (to my point) somewhere along the way—maybe in, uh, 1994?—we crossed over into Something Else….
I can’t remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting range until the mid-1980s. Even through the early 1990s, I don’t remember the idea of “personal defense” being a decisive factor in gun ownership. The reverse is true today: I have college-educated friends—all of whom, interestingly, came to guns in their adult lives—for whom gun ownership is unquestionably (and irreducibly) an issue of personal defense. For whom the semi-automatic rifle or pistol—with its matte-black finish, laser site, flashlight mount, and other “tactical” accoutrements—effectively circumscribe what’s meant by the word “gun.” At least one of these friends has what some folks—e.g., my fiancee, along with most of my non-gun-owning friends—might regard as an obsessive fixation on guns; a kind of paraphilia that (in its appetite for all things tactical) seems not a little bit creepy.
The “tactical” turn is what I want to flag here. It has what I take to be a very specific use-case, but it’s used—liberally—by gun owners outside of the military, outside of law enforcement, outside (if you’ll indulge me) of any conceivable reality-based community: these folks talk in terms of “tactical” weapons, “tactical” scenarios, “tactical applications,” and so on. It’s the lingua franca of gun shops, gun ranges, gun forums and gun-oriented YouTube videos. (My god, you should see what’s out there on YouTube!) Which begs my question: in precisely which “tactical” scenarios do all of these lunatics imagine that they’re going to use their matte-black, suppressor-fitted, flashlight-ready tactical weapons? They tend to speak of the “tactical” as if it were a fait accompli; as a kind of apodeictic fact: as something that everyone—their customers, interlocutors, fellow forum members, or YouTube viewers—experiences on a regular basis, in everyday life. They tend to speak of the tactical as reality.
An interesting perspective, and I don’t question the accuracy of SS’s observations about his own experience. I do want to argue, however, that the culture he’s talking about—the one in which ordinary folk fancy themselves gunslinging avengers, rehearsing for the inevitable “tactical” scenario to come—goes back much further. It goes back at least as far as 1967, a time when there were no YouTube videos to document it—in Detroit, for example, where, as I wrote in Nixonland, that year’s historic riots touched off preparations among blacks and whites both for something approaching a race war:
A local black nationalist minister, Albert Cleage, observed to a reporter that the shooting ranges were packed and the city was way behind in processing gun registrations. “So naturally, any black man who can get ahold of a gun is getting hold of it.” A flyer circulated in white neighborhoods: “Are YOU READY NOW to PREPARE YOURSELF for the NEXT ONE? Or will you be forced to stand helplessly by because you were UN-prepared to defend your home and neighborhood against bands of armed terrorists who will murder the men and rape the women?” At an outfit called Breakthrough…organized workshops in VFW and Knights of Columbus meeting halls with representatives of the National Rifle Association, who suggested each family stockpile two hundred rounds of ammunition.
Ah, yes, the NRA. More on that later, but for now—continuing from Nixonland:
The NRA, once a hobby club for sportsman, was becoming a new kind of organization altogether. Its magazine, American Rifleman, had a new column, “The Armed Citizen,” which ran glowing accounts of of vigilantes. Connecticut senator Thomas Dodd, a conservative, had a bill pending to limit the sale of firearms through the mail. It had once seemed uncontroversial. Now white and black would-be vigilantes agreed the Dodd bill was a prelude to the confiscation of all firearms. Guns & Ammo called the bills supporters “criminal-coddling do-gooders, borderline psychotics, as well as Communists and leftists who want to lead us into the one-world welfare state.”
Sound familiar, kiddies? There’s nothing new under the wingnut sun. In any event, one of those supporters was Massachusetts’ young junior senator, Edward Moore Kennedy, whom the NRA’s American Rifleman said was following the “Communist line” for trying to outlaw the method by which his brother’s assassin had obtained the murder weapon. The tactical turn was well on its way.
Much of this information comes from a 1968 Esquire article by Garry Willls that he expanded into a marvelous book of reportage, The Second Civil War: Arming for Armageddon, and from a contemporary Time article you can read here if you’re a subscriber; sadly for history buffs and students, Time’s archives used to be, but are no longer, free.)
A bit more water would have to flow under the bridge before the transformation of the NRA into a de facto organization by, of and for for aspirant vigilantes would become complete. One historical transformation that contributed: the tactical turn on the left—among white revolutionaries and black power militants—had to die out. It began in earnest in 1966, when Black Panthers began patrolling the streets of the Sunshine State with guns. As I put it in Nixonland:
Here was one of the things that made these young men remarkable: beneath their berets and leather jackets, behind their bandoliers, they were also naively earnest. They believed implicitly in the majesty of the law. Revolutionaries in an only-in-America kind of way, they perceived themselves as a fully functioning ghetto constabulatory, apparently suprised when the response of the police—whom they called an “army of occupation”—was to wish them dead. “What are you doing with the guns?” a patrolman would ask them, a little afraid. ‘What are you doing with your gun?” Huey Newton would shoot back, and pull out one of the law books he always carried with him as other stood by with cameras and tape recorders.
(Yes again: nothing new—except the cellphone technology—under the sun.)
Huey would step out of his car and snap a live round into his chamber: California law only outlawed the carrying of loaded weapons inside a motor vehicle.
Things shifted, of course, when the Panthers started patrolling rich white neighborhoods, including the one where a right-wing supporter of Ronald Reagan in the state assembly, Don Mulford, lived. When the assembly debated Mulford’s subsequent bill to ban the carrying of loaded firearms in public places, Panthers strolled onto the floor of the state assembly fully armed. The Mulford Act passed right quick after that—and, ironically, one of the nation’s first high-profile gun control laws was signed by Governor Ronald Reagan. (We’ll see how ironic in my next post.)
Another 1960s scene of left-wing vigilante culture to contemplate: the time a pretty female revolutionary, a former Quaker who had once won a Decency Award from the Kiwanis Club, testified at the Chicago Seven trial about her practice shooting an M1 semiautomatic rifle. Why? the prosecution asked. “After Chicago I changed from being a pacifist to the realization that we had to defend ourselves. A nonviolent revolution was impossible.” She spoke, in other words, of the tactical as reality.
That left-wing world, of course, is long past. And once the gun nuts were mostly on the right, however, their long march to Capitol Hill hegemony began. In my next post, I’ll explain that process, and introduce an antihero into the story, who got involved in this business long before a lot of us knew, a little bit under the radar—long before, that is to say, he became the fortieth president of the United States.
Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes was able to kill twelve people and injure fifty-eight more with an assault rifle in July. George Zornick argues that a few key gun control regulations could have prevented the tragedy.