Readers on Guns: The Lynching Parallel

In the wake of Wayne LaPierre's announcement today that the only answer to bad guys with guns is good guys with more guns, I'm going to start showing samples from the thousands of messages that have arrived in the week since the Newtown massacre. I'll try break them into some thematic installments, over the next few days, and eventually offer some general themes. 


[Housekeeping note: As of late Friday night, Dec 21, I will actually be going off the grid for a week-plus, for real, in a way that has not been true in at least a decade. A number of items will appear in this space through this time, on guns and other topics, but I won't be able to see or use any response-response until after New Year's Day.]

Let's begin with a comparison to a previous "uncontrollable" phenomenon of mass American violence: the wave of lynchings in the early 20th century. From a reader in Florida. Emphasis added:

If you look at the yearly death tolls for mass shootings over the past three decades, they look an awful lot like the yearly death tools from lynchings from, say, 1900 to 1935. They ping pong around from as few as 10 to as many as 100, averaging 40 or 50. The Tuskegee Institute's count is my source for lynchings. Here is the source I used for mass killings.

I think you'll find many parallels between lynchings and mass killings. First and foremost is the irrationality of the violence, the notion that it's a uncontrollable condition that comes over the killer or killers. Both are a subset of violence in a violent culture carried out by people not considered professional criminals. 

As events, lynchings had common catalysts, just like mass shootings do. And in each, individual incidents seem to seed the air and feed each other  psychologically. Each new lynching or shooting increases/or increased the odds of the next one, it seems to me. And lynchings were considered just as inevitable and eternal as mass shootings are in America's modern gun culture.

A news editor wrote this after the Rosewood lynchings and pogrom in 1923 Florida: "We said that, whether justifiable or not, the impulse of primitive and even savage man, is to strike quickly in avenging a criminal assault upon an innocent woman. We were speaking, not of a theory but of a condition." 

Take out the obvious element of race for a second, and lynchings and mass shootings are almost photo negatives of each other. An individual doing to an anonymous crowd what an anonymous crowd does to an individual....

From the time that serious pieces of the establishment began to condemn and try to systematically stop lynchings (around World War I) to the time that real progress was made -- after World War II -- was 30 years. This is a long-term project. During which horrors will persist that we will feel. And lynchings weren't effectively eradicated until the late part of the Civil Rights movement. Eradicating mass shootings may be impossible and even reducing them to something less chronic is going to be awfully hard. Legislators and courts and law enforcement had clear and major roles -- once they decided to play them -- in suppressing the mob. It's much less clear, obviously, what will work on mass shootings.

But I have some thoughts:

1) Clean the air: We need "responsible" gun owners to help police the "from cold dead fingers", Joe Manchin shooting cap-and-trade for a campaign ad, bullshit bravado that dominates right wing gun culture. All of that bravado, like almost all bravado, is based on an irrational fear. The government is going to take my gun. Bullshit. And we all need to attack it as bullshit. It is the same level of bullshit as That negro is gonna rape my daughter. It's the exact same irrational fear of the other. While the angry gun culture may not carry out most shootings, they are willing to tolerate them, just as much of America was long willing to tolerate lynchings, because of this primal/tribal fear. The NRA, like the Klan before it, is kind of a shiny object. It's hugely important, but it's the wider bullying gun culture that is the core of the problem. If the NRA suddenly moderates into reasonableness, a new nasty "NRA" will form to accomodate the bullies. That would actually be progress. We need to split gun people.

If we can reduce the gun rhetoric pollution in the air somewhat through shaming, that may make these explosions less common. Think of it like global warming. Hard to attribute any specific storm to warming, but the pattern is there. Reduce the mass media fuel a bit, and maybe the storms become less frequent. 

2) Licensing v. Bans: Along those lines, your gun safety vs. gun control distinction is precisely correct. This is about meaningful licensing measures. Ways to assess the intersection of people and guns. Use the gun culture's own language. If you think people kill people, not guns, why do you object to closer monitoring of people? And I'd suggest working through concealed carry expansion. I would absolutely trade concealed carry expansion for stricter licensing and background measures. From what I can see, no law in place would have stopped this shooting. But closer monitoring of the intersection of gun and person might have stopped Aurora and Virginia Tech. And if they don't happen, then maybe this one doesn't happen because the notion hasn't crept into the type of mind that's open to it. 

3) The Drug War: So much of our gun culture and violence organizes itself around drug prohibition -- both through tools of business and means of enforcement -- that any act of violence, especially gun violence, is inseparable from it. Many lynchings and acts of irrational mob violence had their roots in prohibition enforcement, ostensibly in response to the violence of the illegal liquor business. The negro raping the white woman was always drunk. The 20s Klan, in most places, was first and foremost a drug enforcement organization. We'll never fully clean the air today without ratcheting down the drug war and moving toward as much legalization as possible. History is quite clear about this, I think. That's also the reason I am against most forms of gun prohibition. There will still be huge demand, and an illegal gun trade would cause all the same problems and more that the drug war causes.

4) Seize this moment: One place where I think this moment is different than others is the growing sense in the country -- even among conservatives -- that right wing cultural nihilism is the greatest short and long-term challenge we face. The fiscal cliff, debt ceiling, voter suppression, global warming, keep your government out of Medicare, etc. The resistance to any effort to combat gun violence with something other than guns needs to be understood -- the NRA needs to be understood -- as a subsidiary of right-wing nihilism. The same cultural instinct that unskews polls and restricts voting to factor out minorities is the same that wants to renege on our national bills is the same that responds to the execution-style murder of 20 children by calling for us to arm the same teachers they despise as union members.  

Over and over again, we ask what constructive suggestion do you offer to help govern your country to the benefit of all its people? And we get, fuck you, 47 percent. Arm yourself.

This is a tough nut to crack, but so was lynching. Gradual reduction, will lead to additional gradual reduction, over time. And maybe one day it will stop occurring so often to the addled mind to do this. And maybe when he tries, he'll find obstacles other than the lunge of principal.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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