Guns don't kill people: Bullets kill people

Guest post by Charles Fruehling Springwood

Worldwide, perhaps a billion guns? Where do guns come from? Who makes them? Who sells them? What kinds of guns do Colombian drug lords buy? Marxist guerillas in the Philippines? A middle-class doctor in Finland, where some 15 million Fins own guns? A poor farmer in southern Mexico? An American situated on the U.S.-Mexican border, sporting binoculars and a Glock pistol, scanning the horizon from atop his Winnebago RV? Who gives up or gives away guns?

Source: Flickr user Ayton, creative commons licensed.
Bullets. Credit: Flickr user Ayton, creative commons.

Questions such as these have concerned me for the past year, as I have conducted ethnographic research among gun-owners in the Midwestern U.S. In particular, I have been drawn to the prevailing meanings that highlight a growing movement encouraging the public “open carry” of pistols in addition to enhancing the right to carry concealed weapons.

Why do a growing number of gun owners in the U.S. seek to naturalize the visibility of a gun on a person in a growing number of public spaces? In unpacking this ‘penchant to pack,’ I have zeroed in on the desires for guns and how this fascination turns on the significance of the relationship of embodiment a gun has with its user, especially when the user “wears” her or his weapon? As cultural things — both material and semiotic in form — do guns become less an instrument of the mind and more a part of the mind and an extension of the self?

All of these questions assumed a new kind of urgency this weekend, when Jared Loughner attempted to assassinate Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), killing six bystanders and wounding 13 other people.

Arizona boasts one of the most liberal environments for gun ownership and usage, commonly allowing citizens to openly and publically carry guns on their person. I do not know if Loughner was exercising his right to open carry as he approached the Giffords public meet and greet event at the supermarket, but the gun he used for commit this horrific act was legally his.

As an anthropologist, I am especially interested in the “conditions of possibility” that surround events such as this shooting – those discourses, images, and actions – that fall short of causing such tragedies but clearly animate them and provide cultural scripts for their unfolding.

Even Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, speaking about this shooting, recognized that a number of cultural and social conditions have conspired to ignite “vitriolic rhetoric” that compromises democratic engagement.

By and large, the informants I have talked with this past year have taught me that concealed carry, but especially open carry, is a political performance designed to convey commitments to the Second Amendment, to naturalize the visibility of citizens with guns, and to advertise an investment in anti-government, Tea Party agendas. And these public performances turn on the object of the firearm, a materially and metaphorically overdetermined object conveying at once the phallus and violent death, protection and fear, desire and anxiety, freedom and control, and masculinity and liminality, to highlight but a few of its dualities.

The national conversation about guns over the last several decades has been woefully inadequate, too often plagued by obsession with privileged readings of the Second Amendment and contested readings of crime statistics. We need to critically reflect upon the very idea the firearms, as an everyday object shaping social relations. The emotional connection to guns far exceeds any utilitarian advantages they might provide, either practically or in one’s imaginary.

Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies material culture, encourages us to think more imaginatively when we examine how objects and human beings get along. From her work, Evocative Objects, she wrote:

We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. The notion of evocative objects brings together these two less familiar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of thought and feeling in our relationship to things. We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with. (2007, pg. 5)

So last summer, as the debates about health care and the emergence of the Tea Party were peaking in intensity, when a small but conspicuous number of folks showed up a town hall meetings, including one with President Obama, with openly visible firearms (including at least one assault rifle), I believe the nation was never quite able to fully digest the ramifications of such spectacles. Indeed, I believe the range of meanings conveyed by intentionally arming oneself in order to attend an event that embodies most all of what democracy can promise — a sincere but non-threatening exchange of ideas about government — were not fully unpacked.

This weekend’s tragedy in Arizona may not have been avoided had a Federal law existed that citizens shall not come armed to public forums with elected officials, but saw a law might give voice to those who agree with Abraham Lincoln’s commentary to Congress in 1861:

Our popular government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it: our people have already settled — the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains — its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.

As we reflect on the occurrences of this weekend, perhaps we should consider not so much causal connections between such tragedies and discourse such as that published by Sarah Palin last year, in which a political poster “aimed” at a number of democratic politicians who voted for the healthcare law by situating a rifle target over their districts. Rather, we should convincingly express displeasure at the use of such volatile hyperbole.

Moreover, we must not only empower, but in fact reward, politicians with the courage to confront organizations, such as the NRA, which have not attempted to offer any reflective or insightful understanding of the complex issue of firearms in the United States.

Charles Fruehling Springwood graduated from the University of Illinois in 1994 with a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. His areas of interest include semiotics, race, gender, visual culture, colonialism, ethnographic methods, sport, and alcohol usage. He has conducted research in Japan, Mexico, and the United States. He is the author or co-author of four books, including Beyond the Cheers: Race as Spectacle in College Sport (Suny Press), and he edited Open Fire: Understanding Global Gun Cultures (Berg), a volume on guns and their use in various societies around the world.

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