Death Travels West, Watch Him Go

[from The Baffler No. 14, 2001]

Baffler No. 14, published Spring 2001

THESE ARE GROTESQUE times. When the visuals of daily life are punctuated by shaky images of screaming children; of the bloody bodies of Rogers Park Hasidim and of Pittsburgh’s Indian grocers; of corpses posed in broken prayer circles and parking lots and libraries, it may help to remember that the lately stricken Ronald Wilson Reagan was a gun-owning man.

Recall him, now, ramrod tall against the die-cut Hollywood West, and forget for a moment the chalk outlines among which the rest of us live.

Reagan was a believer, a Life Member of the National Rifle Association back when such designations meant something. For while it’s impossible to imagine the permanent gun culture without it, today’s NRA is so bereft and so hungry for that good direct-mail cash that it has evolved all sorts of convertible-bed and Ginsu methods: shooting out thick info packs, desperate “threats to your rights!” mailings, and pre-approved “membership” cards. And lost among these appeals, among the NRA’s “Get tough on crime! Enforce existing laws!” party line, are the origins of the current epidemic of violence. As recently as the early nineties, the NRA was able to convince many that violent career criminals, pampered by soft-hearted liberal judges, justified unregulated arms for self-defense. But the population of shooters we live among now—Harris & Klebold, Barton, Baumhammers, Smith—are essentially the NRA’s own creation: Noncriminals steeped in the muck of mainstream revenge culture, they are the vicious product of thirty years of right-wing resentment. This shift from economic criminality to a cultural wellspring of rage—remember in this regard the scapegoating futility enunciated by Mark Barton, the murderous day-trader—can be tracked, like many elements of the contemporary rightist backlash, to the late sixties.

If Sixgun Reagan seems anachronistic now, a frail addled senior beside the steroid-pumped, Glock-toting race killer, one must travel much further, to an age visible now only in ghostly tracings, to find how the NRA was formed. In Under Fire (Holt, 1993), Osha Davidson portrays the organization as a reflection of innocent American ingenuity underpinned by darker paranoias. Following post–Civil War riots in which the National Guard performed badly, the NRA was set up to improve public rifle skills. For several years, the tournaments held at the NRA’s state-funded Long Island range attracted both international competitors and social swells. Following the abrupt withdrawal of state support, the organization collapsed in 1880, only to be revived in 1901, again through state monies, amid a bout of enthusiasm for “military preparedness” inspired by the Boer War. In 1903, the NRA urged Congress to create the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice, then secured a nice dispensation in which military rifles were made available at cost (later, gratis) to NRA members.

Membership swelled after World War II, and the organization’s public priorities shifted to the “shooting sports,” a telling euphemism for hunting. It was during this era that the NRA achieved its Shrineresque mainstream prosperity, a normalness best exemplified by the hard optimism of the steel-on-granite slogan emblazoned on its headquarters in Washington, D.C.: “FIREARMS SAFETY EDUCATION, MARKSMANSHIP TRAINING, SHOOTING FOR RECREATION.” But some decades knock out all the props, and in 1968, when NRA Executive Vice President Franklin Orth, testifying in favor of that year’s Gun Control Act, said in reference to the banning of mail-order sales that

We do not think any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing in this bill the instrument which killed the president

he marked both the terminus of the NRA’s mutability, and the death of the pro-gun moderation he espoused.

Over the next several years, an internal schism grew between older members, often war veterans, who hewed to the NRA’s more traditional, more benign missions, and an alienated coterie of younger members who found a leader in the person of Harlon Carter—a bulky Texan in the Hestonian mode, a former head of the U.S. Border Patrol, a onetime commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and an NRA member since age sixteen. Rallying a reactionary circle (including dozens of NRA employees fired in 1976), Carter seized control of the organization at its 1977 annual meeting. Known ever since as the “Cincinnati Revolt,” the uprising retains the hot-spark resonance of Chicago ’68 and the Boston busing riots: one of those moments at the thin edge of the wedge where a thousand angry Joe Doakeses, fed up with the liberal bullshit, cracked skulls and took names. In Cincinnati Carter’s clever band of Babbitts set the template for the NRA’s ever-after unwavering stance on gun control of any kind, adding in that same year to the organization’s charter an assertion of “the right of the individual of good repute to keep and bear arms as a common law and constitutional right.” Yet, as Davidson reports, Carter also possessed a darker qualification for his zeal, one he uncharacteristically obfuscated. In 1931, at age seventeen, he had been convicted of murdering a Mexican teen in a sort-of trespassing incident. The conviction was overturned on appeal; it seems the jury had been inadequately informed about self-defense. Carter later attempted to evade the tale, claiming it involved one Harlan Carter; documents then surfaced, including his original NRA card, confirming that Carter changed the spelling of his name two years after the shooting. Conceal the consequences of violence under comforting myths of home, hearth, defense: Carter’s dubious self-justification would become the NRA’s ideological stock in trade.

This is not to say that the NRA hadn’t protested gun control laws in its various previous incarnations. On the contrary, an intensive letter-writing campaign it organized ensured that the 1934 National Firearms Act contained no handgun regulations, and focused instead upon “gangster” weapons like fully automatic guns and sawed-off shotguns. (Given that handgun market saturation was basically achieved in the 1960s, the NRA here scuttled perhaps the only opportunity for viable gun controls in the United States.) Generally speaking, however, before 1977 such actions were grassroots and semi-organized, tangential to the NRA’s larger priorities. Only under Carter’s leadership did a militant stance against any and all gun restrictions become the NRA’s sole priority, such artful initiatives as the “Eddie Eagle” gun safety for kids program notwithstanding.

The NRA’s shift was of a piece with the general culture of sourness that exploded in the seventies. Mirroring the anti-government mood of the era’s right-wing groups, Carter’s NRA began to target the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) for a series of petty, backbiting attacks; a few years later, President Reagan actually announced his determination to dismantle the ATF, fulfilling a little-noticed campaign promise to firearms interests. (According to Davidson, the plan was scuttled when the NRA realized that abolishing the feeble ATF would transfer firearms law enforcement to the Secret Service, a far greater menace to NRA dreams of manly independence.) Out in the larger culture, guns took their place in the topsy-turvy class war of the backlash. Witness the post–Easy Rider/Walking Tall tendencies of backlash cinema, in which primal images of bodily violation and vengeance became ubiquitous features of populist morality. The genre found its apex in the “crime in the streets” films of the seventies and eighties, including Ms. 45, Assault on Precinct 13, Vigilante, The Star Chamber, and all the other bastard offspring of Death Wish and Dirty Harry: gory fantasies in which Bronson, Eastwood, and lesser lights like Joe Don Baker raised to archetype the figures of the rogue cop and the armed civilian, taking God’s side as they greased sundry punks and humiliated liberals along the way. Unfortunately, backlash culture also left many grossly miseducated in firearms reality. To sample: Wallboard does not stop rounds, even when convenient, and if you fire your overpowered handgun an inch from your boy-buddy’s nose (as in the kill-happy opener of 1994’s True Lies), you will set his face on fire.

THE TEMPLATES REMAIN, weirdly unchanged after twenty-five years. Decades after Hunter S. Thompson and his biker pals first stared down an enraged burgher’s .357 Magnum, the quasi-libertarian firearms culture continues to speak in terms of a perverse class defiance that has now come to dominate even our coolest lowbrow and pseudo-lowbrow entertainments: From mall-rat hero Eminem to porno rockers Nashville Pussy, and from white trash almanac Hustler to white trash hipster Jim Goad, we can all, vicariously and up to our credit limits, put our hands on the Glock. Moreover, liberals’ anti-gun hysteria serves only to stoke the NRA’s increasingly isolationist bent. Here, as in other precincts of the culture wars, denunciation just makes the persecution fantasies of the extreme right more credible. This is why the NRA benefits so immensely from anti-gun statements in the mainstream media: Using its direct-mail connections, it is able to portray the organization, and every last God-fearing gun owner along with it, as rope-a-doped by the big combo of effeminate cultural elites and spineless politicians. Ultimately, every pious exposé of the gun culture’s old-boy seaminess, in venues like the New York Times, merely rains fresh checks upon the NRA’s bought-and-paid-for men like Tom DeLay, who nimbly attributed Columbine to the absence of the Ten Commandments only months after taking sage cover beneath his desk while his security guard took the hollowpoint of Capitol shooter Russell Weston. This is why “Today’s NRA,” despite the insensate pronouncements of Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, continues to hold such valuable cultural real estate, the ombudsman by default for all American firearms owners.

More important than the cultural camouflage of gun rights are the precarious economics of the gun industry. NRA members may prefer to elide the darker possibilities of their “curious indulgence” in the bland language of hobbies and collecting rather than the red tones of mercenaries, armorers, and obsessives, but they are no more or less a market demographic than the underworld of crotchety libertarians, right-wing paranoids, conspiracists, separatists, and drug war foot soldiers whose consumerism ultimately underpins the “legitimate” firearms market. And heading off any simple, disinterested economic analysis of the firearms boondoggle is the NRA’s greatest semantic bullseye. Turn away from the organization’s endless Red-Scare bombast for a moment in order to follow the money, however, and a curious narrative begins to emerge.

The shooting industry is the real power behind the American gun battle. Although the major surviving firms are either owned overseas (Smith & Wesson, Glock, Beretta, H&K), precariously solvent (famously Colt), or threatened by novel lawsuits, there is nonetheless a great deal of money in the distribution, sale, and resale of firearms. An unjustly overlooked book by journalist Tom Diaz, Making A Killing: The Business of Guns in America (New Press, 1999), seizes on this unorthodox approach in considering our over-armed populace. Diaz sidesteps the ideological foam of the gun debate, examining both the semantics of firearm fetishism and the way market forces (firearm manufacturing is an almost completely unregulated industry) have elevated what he terms the “spiral of lethality” over other concerns. He describes the curious legal patchwork that both exempts firearms exclusively from any consumer safety standards and that reduces to a vanishing point ATF oversight of firearms distribution. Diaz has a keen eye for the free-market absurdities of the industry, which suffers from cyclical downturns and saturated markets, due variously to the decline of hunting and the ironic fact that a well-made gun never “dies.” More importantly, he explores how the increasingly dangerous hardware of recent years has dovetailed with certain rightist cultural tropes. Thus fears of rampant criminality in the sixties fed price wars between makers of snubnose .38 “Saturday night specials,” incidentally flooding the market with the ubiquitous concealable revolvers. Similarly, manufacturers harnessed Reagan-era survivalist paranoia to stoke sales of military-style semi-automatic rifles (so-called “assault weapons”); and after the 1989 Stockton schoolyard massacre gun distributors and the gun press pumped up fears of impending controls to spawn an overspeculated market for “grandfathered” weapons and cosmetically altered guns, including huge numbers of Chinese and Eastern bloc AK-47 clones. More disturbing to Diaz is the emergence of “pocket rockets,” high-capacity shortened pistols that manufacturers have promoted in recent years without heed for the dangers posed by the proliferation of powerful concealable handguns (and of high-tech hollowpoint bullets, nicknamed “flying scalpels” and valued for their “knockdown”). The elusive corporate histories that Diaz digs up are equally chilling. Consider, for example, California’s “Ring of Fire” companies, a family-owned group of small manufacturers that has flooded the market with low-grade pistols retailing for under $150; or Georgia’s Sylvia & Wayne Daniel Enterprises, which marketed crude, easily converted knockoffs of the once obscure MAC-10 to both Miami gangs and the white-sheet market. Such so-called “ugly guns” bob like feces in the market, disdained by nearly all serious shooters for their low quality and inaccuracy, but they are the weapons of choice for spree killers like Gian Luigi Ferri and Harris & Klebold. That’s how capitalism works, and Diaz makes a case for understanding the gun industry, with its constant upgrading of bodily harm, as the prototype for the reflexive savagery of the market.

Even more unsettling, though, are the ways in which law enforcement feeds the gun industry’s escalation of lethality. In the nineties, as Diaz recounts, police departments nationwide began to fear a perceived “gun gap” between their own long-standard .38 revolvers and the armaments available to the “bad guys.” And thanks in part to the fetishization of semiautomatics in Scarface and Miami Vice, there was some validity to this fear: Recall the 1986 Miami shootout in which two felons, armed with Magnum revolvers, a shotgun, and a .223 semiautomatic rifle, killed two FBI agents and wounded five even after being themselves wounded by 9 mm rounds. This had wide repercussions: Ignoring factors like agent unpreparedness, the FBI publicly denounced the 9 mm as insufficient for earnest firefights, and embarked on a sidearm review which, as Diaz documents, ushered into the civilian marketplace numerous new weapons in formerly obscure calibers. Law enforcement’s rush to over-powered ammunition had the unintended consequences one might expect from such a mixing of lethality and bureaucracy. Diaz digs up enough obscure stories—like the nest-feathering that Glock provided certain New York officials in order to promote two unnecessary upgrades—to suggest that law enforcement agencies foster gun technology proliferation even if their rhetoric officially opposes it.

A more insidious effect, perhaps rooted in the fact that many officers are required to range-qualify only twice a year, is the increasing incidence of what police call “spray and pray,” in which an officer squeezes off several rounds or the whole clip in response to real or perceived threats. It’s strange how quickly multiple-wound police shootings have assumed the cultural weight that ’banger drive-bys had in the eighties: poled TV lights and grim cops, enraged neighbors tragic in their shabby night-dress, a crystallized moment from a Richard Price novel.

One must finally pin all these darker trends in law enforcement—the upgraded lethality, the reliance on cut corners—up on our contemporary equivalent of Prohibition. What few victories we have achieved in our scorched-earth War on Drugs—and what constitutes a victory in a nation where booze and pills are God-given rights, where “winners” do use cocaine and where the chemical apprenticeship of college is every middle class youth’s long-sought reward?—are dwarfed by the loss of public safety and the erosion of privacy. It is impossible to separate this war from the gun morass. Manufacturers on every tier benefit, from the “Ring of Fire” .25s that are sized to teenage hands, to companies like Colt that have fitted law enforcement agencies with devices better suited to Omaha Beach in 1944. Meanwhile police tacticians increasingly elevate doctrines of force over all else: Dozens of our bleak postindustrial towns now field fully armored assault teams, carrying the ubiquitous $1,200 Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun; a generation of young cops has come up with no compunction against using “no knock” warrants whenever possible; a class of administrators has learned how to use asset forfeiture to acquire land and funds that frequently vanish within insular departments; and also, visible only on the margins, the millions we have profitably incarcerated. We witness all this, passively, and then must also watch as an übermenschen “tactical” team dithers for hours outside Columbine High, unsure of how to proceed, while inside a martyred teacher dies on a classroom floor. Comfortable with kicking in civilian doors, our cops throw themselves back on procedure when confronted with one-plus sociopaths armed with semiautomatics.

It is true that the recent spectacle of the burly federal agent aiming an MP5 past the famous little shaver’s head while his pumped-up peers rampaged through the house, shoving and slamming, bodies fat with the arsenal of democracy, did cause some alarm. But the Elián Gonzalez debacle was the wrap-up to a public drama so scripted that Tommy Lee Jones should’ve been in there somewhere. During most “dynamic entries,” of course, neither the set-chewing Mr. Jones nor the balm of television lights attend the forcible discoveries of grow-rooms or the precious, financially stabilizing powder. That the public sees nothing wrong with such “extreme” law enforcement—witness the already wearily accepted police tactic of using pepper or tear gas to torment protesters—ensures that the new playbook will become the norm, and that civil life will degrade into something approaching the TV-ready spectacle. Many shall become acquainted with the battering ram’s crash, with the tiny apartments filled with immigrants or blacks or working folk, with the glinting MP5s, fine German tools of perfect precision.

Even so, in this age of downsized civil liberties, one feels a perverse empathy for the foot soldiers, the urban cops, and for those who patrol an increasingly tattered, volatile exurbia. Unwilling to face the politicized darkness of their work, the enforcers face instead a combination of weapon-clogged environments, a spreading population of the “controlled”—the poor, immigrants, those with addictions or criminal records—and immediate public approbation, whether earned or otherwise, in the event of a “bad day.” If some cops are racists or sadists, experience suggests a stout majority are not. But law enforcement by definition is dictated from above, and to get a glimpse of the future one need only examine the “resurgent” New York, where it’s an open NYPD secret that the statistical demands of Giuliani and Safir, as much as macho tac-squad culture, were behind the deaths of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond. Firepower is routinely chosen over less lethal options, from baton takedowns to beanbag guns, and if Dorismond’s shooting occurred during the proverbial struggle, it was still instigated by the weird “pressure point” tactics of “Operation Condor,” which evidently presumes that any African American male under seventy sells marijuana in his spare time. One can only imagine an NYPD initiative in which hardened cops dressed as Rastafarians hit up Phish fans, rave kids, and Wall Street interns for Ecstasy and LSD, and nothing is what it seems.

Which facet of our contemporary gun violence is most intolerable? Is it the racist edge-city rages of Smith and Baumhammers? The cracked-up, nerded-out boy who opts for early revenge at his underfunded hell of a high school in Kentucky or Arkansas or Washington—states where guns are common as grain? The Michigan first-grader who gleaned from his ragged home the coding that compelled him to shoot a classmate in the head? The Baltimore or D.C. ’banger who pulls the trigger of his cheap 9 mm for reasons that can barely be understood within their tragic seconds? Or the “tragic miscalculation” of plain-clothes officers who empty their high-capacity clips to put down a black man reaching for a wallet? Whichever, it’s hard to deny that the national love of guns is wreathed in a bloodthirstiness that somehow negates the caution of millions of responsible gun owners; is choked with a quickening rage that, from the penny-ante fascism of spree killers to the “acceptable” casualties of the Drug War, is fast approaching conflagration. How long will the nation remain lost to this violent dream of itself? We may be haunted by the bland suburban familiarity of those grainy stills from Columbine, but the NRA and its industry backers will continue to ensure that the blood of the poor, unkempt, and tawdry will continue to flow in the street among the distinctive 9 mm shell casings. It is the grease in the gears of the gun machine.

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