Gun rights activists for years have fought for the free proliferation of firearms throughout the U.S., perhaps subconsciously imagining they were only arming themselves. But a shooting incident in Virginia on Wednesday, in which a 66-year-old white man named James T. Hodgkinson fired a rifle multiple times on a baseball field and seriously injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and others, illustrated this point: Liberals, who traditionally support gun control, also may use gun violence when they feel helpless.
Hodgkinson, apparently a strong critic of President Donald Trump, reportedly inquired before shooting whether “the team practicing was a Democrat or a Republican team,” and he was informed that it was made up of Republicans. National Rifle Association proponents including Scalise—who has an A+ rating from the gun-rights group—may do well to acknowledge that living in a society flooded with guns is dangerous for them as well as for the rest of us.
Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., one of Trump’s most ardent backers in Congress, wasted no time blaming Democrats for the shooting, saying, “I can only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric. ... The rhetoric has been outrageous: The finger-pointing, the tone, the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump, his supporters, really then, some people react to things like that, people get angry as well, and you fuel the fires.”
Collins, who has now vowed to carry his gun in public, acts as if gun fatalities spurred by right-wing rhetoric did not exist—and he is not alone. For example, when Robert Lewis Dear Jr. fatally shot three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in November 2015 while heated anti-abortion debates were taking place in Congress, Republican leaders refused to link their rhetoric to Dear’s actions. And over the past year, violent right-wing rhetoric and hate crimes have risen concurrent to Trump’s presidential campaign, his election and the early months of his tenure in the White House.
The Democrats have been strong in their language against the GOP and Trump’s agenda—it is easier to be principled when one is in the minority. But the nominally liberal party pales in comparison to its rival, which took the concept of an opposition party to new depths during the Obama administration. Add guns to our politically polarized society’s volatile mix that conservatives have stoked harder than anyone, and you have an explosive situation—literally.
Like many mass shooters, Hodgkinson had a history of domestic violence, which because of Republican intransigence over gun control laws, had no impact upon his ability to legally obtain a deadly weapon. Upon finding out that Hodgkinson volunteered for his campaign and supported his presidential bid, Sen. Bernie Sanders said he was “sickened by this despicable act [the shooting].” While the progressive response to gun violence has usually been to push for stricter gun control, the Republican reaction has been to lay the blame anywhere but on the easy availability of guns. In essence, we are expected to tone down our rhetoric and walk on eggshells lest we piss off our gun-toting fellow Americans or tempt them into using their weapon to obtain “justice.”
It has been just over a year since the deadly mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., where nearly 50 mostly black and brown queer Americans were gunned down. Because the shooter happened to be a brown-skinned Muslim man, that incident was dubbed “the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11,” even though there was no evidence of actual collusion between the shooter, Omar Mateen, and outside political organizations. Apparently the only requirements for labeling an incident “terrorist” are the skin color and/or religious background of the shooter. In the wake of that mass shooting, Republicans ardently professed their “thoughts and prayers,” but thanks in large part to their unwavering allegiance to the NRA, they remained silent on the shooter’s ability to easily and legally obtain an AR-15 assault rifle.
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When coordinated attacks took place on London Bridge and Borough Market in the U.K. recently, Trump took to Twitter to comment on the incidents, saying, “Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s because they used knives and a truck!” In addition to insulting the victims with his offhand remarks, Trump failed to recognize that if guns were as easily available in the U.K. as they are in the U.S., the perpetrators would have likely used them to far deadlier effect than they did with a van and knives. It is likely that strict gun control laws in the U.K. greatly reduced the potential death toll. (The issue of how the West’s foreign policy provokes such actions in the first place is another matter entirely, one that politicians of almost all stripes tend to avoid.)
Everyday gun violence is far more devastating than all the “terrorist” incidents in the U.S. put together. On the same day Hodgkinson fired on the Virginia baseball field injuring several people, a disgruntled UPS worker shot and killed four people, including himself, at a delivery center in San Francisco. That incident got far less attention than the baseball field shooting, perhaps because we are numb to gun-related fatalities that have no obvious political aspect. Americans are expected to swallow the fact that more than 30,000 people die of gun violence in the U.S. every year (from homicides and suicides) as an acceptable sacrifice to protect the sanctity of the much-misinterpreted Second Amendment.
Given the political moment we find ourselves in, it appears that even some liberal-minded people are beginning to see guns as a means toward justice (if that is indeed what motivated Hodgkinson to fire his rifle). Our president is disliked by a majority of Americans, as his consistently low popularity ratings reveal. But his supporters happen to overlap significantly with the same forces that insist on the supremacy of guns and gun owners. This is dangerous for us all. There can be no good ending to a society whose democracy is as distorted as ours, a society in which it is easier to obtain a gun than it is to adopt a puppy.
Some liberals and progressives believe in the right to self-defense by arming oneself with guns. Indeed, members of the Black Panther Party, heroes of the 1960s-era Black Power movement, used the right to bear arms cleverly in their struggle for racial equality. It was a political move, with optics designed to inspire fear and some admiration among the group’s critics. But in today’s America, it is foolhardy to imagine that more people brandishing weapons will achieve anything other than more needless bloodshed.
In examining war zones around the world, the flow of weapons is the greatest source of death and destruction. The U.S. stands out on the world stage for providing weapons to governments, even regimes with atrocious human rights records. It is no surprise that our government is obsessed internally and externally with disseminating firearms. The U.S. left has rightfully criticized our weapons sales in the realm of foreign policy. We should apply that same critique internally. Scientists agree that the mere presence of guns dramatically increases the potential for violence. It makes little sense therefore for some progressives to argue in support of arming themselves. The answer to gun violence cannot be more guns.
We already live with the brutality of poverty, deportations, incarceration, medical bankruptcy, job insecurity, student debt, racial inequality and so much more. Gun availability is an added and terrifying ingredient in the mix of American violence. Sadly, as a nation, we seem to have given up on the issue of gun control now that the Republicans are in control of Congress, the White House and, increasingly, the Supreme Court.
But the GOP should be careful what it wishes for. Pro-gun Republicans will not be happy to have guns trained on them by armed Americans disgruntled with government policies. Even if it scores political points to blame Democrats, Republicans’ lives are at stake as well. The only path to safety for us all is to control guns as strictly as most other nations have. Then the violence of American discourse can remain rhetorical rather than actualized, and we can get on to the important job of fixing the nation’s many problems without fear of being shot.