This isn’t a gun-control debate. This is Kulturkampf.
In the wake of the San Bernardino shooting, the actor Samuel L. Jackson said that he hoped it would turn out that the killer was a white man. David Sirota wrote the same thing after the Boston marathon bombing, in an article headlined “Let’s hope the Boston marathon bomber is a white American.” Jackson and Sirota were disappointed: Both atrocities were carried out by Muslims as expressions of solidarity with the worldwide Islamist enterprise. The massacre in Orlando was perpetrated by a Muslim, the son of an Afghan immigrant, a man of the sort we have been taught to call a “person of color,” I suppose. (Do Afghans count? This is never made clear.) He may or may not have been suffering from some sort of crisis of sexuality: It isn’t clear whether his earlier presence in the Florida gay club was cruising or casing.
But as a son of immigrants and a member of at least one minority group, Omar Mateen makes a poor poster-boy for the Left, which prefers that its enemies be white, male, Christian, and, if possible, middle-aged, middle-American, and overweight. Remember how, during the Tea Party rallies, so much attention was paid to the fact that some participants were obese and using mobility scooters? That wasn’t an accident. It’s loathing substituting for analysis. For much the same reason, cartoons purporting to depict gun-rights supporters after Orlando almost invariably depicted obese, aging, white, and downscale (rumpled, ill-kempt) subjects. That is whom the Left believes to be the problem when it comes to violence in these United States — and most other problems, too. The relevant psychology here is that of intellectual development arrested in adolescence. If you’ve ever heard a 50-year-old lefty raging about Middle America and thought that it sounded a lot like a 14-year-old raging about his stick-in-the-mud father, you’re not the first to whom that has occurred.
You’ll notice that we generally have these national crises about gun control when there’s a Newtown or an Aurora, not after a typical weekend in Chicago, during the course of which several dozen people will be shot, and many killed. Part of this is because we have a tendency to worry more about shark attacks (which almost never happen) rather than lethal bee stings (which happen all the time), but part of it is that the Left is not culturally inclined to organize one of these pageants of exhibitionistic grief over the low-level criminal escapades of young black men in Chicago or Philadelphia. For the same reason, almost all of the gun-control measures that excite our progressive friends — bans on so-called assault weapons, restrictions on gun shows — are aimed at the hobbies of middle-aged white guys, rural types, Second Amendment devotees who mistrust the federal government, etc.: the enemy, in other words. These proposals have little or nothing to do with the vast majority of crime.
The cultural role of the NRA is to be the fat white face that absorbs the Left’s hatred for the hunting, shooting, and gun-collecting demographics.
The cultural role of the NRA is to be the fat white face that absorbs the Left’s hatred for the hunting, shooting, and gun-collecting demographics. This has nothing to do with the NRA’s opposition to some kinds of gun control, a fact that can be readily appreciated by looking at the sort of thing gun-rights advocates generally do support in the way of gun control, which progressives either ignore or actively oppose. Consider the history of “Project Exile,” an experimental program in which Virginia firearms offenders were shifted to federal court and prosecuted under the Gun Control Act of 1968, meaning a minimum of five years in the federal penitentiary for those convicted. Who was in support of using the Gun Control Act to control gun crime? The NRA, for one. Who opposed it? The Congressional Black Caucus, civil-liberties groups, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, etc.
If you can figure out why that is, then you’ll know why our gun-control debate is mainly about punishing the law-abiding and ignoring violent criminals.
Chicago has Wild West levels of homicide. (Worse, in fact; the criminality and violence of the ungoverned West has been greatly exaggerated, and some of those old cow towns had lower per capita crime rates back when they had no formal government than they do today.) Do you know what kind of crime illegal possession of a firearm is in the state of Illinois? It is a misdemeanor. A 2014 study conducted by the Chicago Sun-Times found that in most cases, Cook County judges handed down the minimum sentence for gun possession, and in most cases, the criminals ended up serving far less than that, doing only a few months. Those charged with simple possession had an average of four prior arrests; those charged with the more serious crime of being a felon in possession of a firearm had an average of ten previous arrests.
Ten arrests, and the eleventh is for a gun-related crime. One wonders how many undetected crimes are covered by such criminal careers.
Many in Illinois have argued that, given the state of crime there, stiffer sentences are warranted. A bill was introduced to that end, and it was opposed by Democrats who argued that stiffer sentences for those actually committing crimes with guns would “unfairly target African-Americans,” as the Sun-Times put it. The NRA, to its discredit, opposed that bill, too, arguing that the penalties for simple possession in absence of other criminal activity were too stiff. But that’s an argument for liberalizing Illinois gun laws, not for forgoing the punishment of criminals. The NRA did support harsher punishment for felons in possession of firearms, and for the use of firearms in crimes. Democrats have generally opposed them.
Strangely, the same Democrats who are complaining about violent crime involving guns also are complaining about the purported problem of “overincarceration.” It may very well be that we are overincarcerating when it comes to low-level drug offenses (though Heather Mac Donald and others would argue that that isn’t the case), but how can we seriously argue that we aren’t locking up enough criminals, for long enough, on violent-crime charges in Chicago? We can’t. Not really. Not unless you understand that this is politics as described by the economist Tyler Cowen: It isn’t about policy, but about raising and lowering the status of competing groups in society.
African Americans constitute about 13 percent of the population but were 52.5 percent of the homicide offenders from 1980 to 2008, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data. And Samuel L. Jackson didn’t get his wish in San Bernardino. Meanwhile, the Feds keep preparing us for a wave of “right-wing” terrorism (read: middle-aged, white, middle-American, male) that never quite seems to come to pass. Intellectually challenged progressives such as Sally Kohn go on about abortion-clinic violence when it is actually more rare than death-by-selfie: More people died of selfie-related accidents in 2015 that have been killed in all abortion-clinic violence in the United States combined.
Yes, sometimes we get an Oklahoma City bombing. Sometimes, a shark does attack. But the reality of violence in the United States is practically unspeakable. And because this is fundamentally a question of social-status-jockeying rather than one of effective public policy, gun-control policies that might actually reduce crime are overlooked or opposed because they do not annoy the NRA. Indeed, gun control that doesn’t annoy the NRA isn’t considered proper gun control at all. We could be putting violent criminals away for gun-related crimes for longer terms and monitoring them more aggressively through an improved parole system. We could do that before they graduate to murder — remember how many of those charged with possession offenses have prior arrests and convictions. But this isn’t on any gun-control agenda.
For one thing, it probably would mean locking up a lot of young black men in Chicago rather than hassling a lot of old white guys living out weekend-warrior Rambo fantasies in Tulsa. And for the Democrats, that isn’t an option. The enemy is the enemy, and, guilty or not guilty, he must be punished.