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I’ve been a chronic reader and all-around learner for my entire life. A gift that was birthed in books, I found it especially advantageous as a high school dropout doing time in county jails and both Arizona state and federal prisons. These were places where learning was not a priority, made flagrantly obvious when President Clinton and his boy-in-the-Senate Biden pulled Pell Grants from Prisoners in 1994. Being an autodidact was a useful tool for a junkie intermittently drying out in stir, and it wasn’t until I was 42, after my fifth and final prison sentence, that I actually went to college.
Born in 1960, I grew up with the Space Race, and my interest in science led to a fascination with the tick-tock of history and its lesser-known works, politics and law. A close study of the latter two brought about not so much a shunning of religion, but certainly a suspicion, which fed my inherent iconoclasm.
What I discovered was that the founding of our country was based on the tenets of the Enlightenment, including reason, scientific empiricism, natural rights, and an excommunication of organized dogma. I’ve since come to believe that any interpretation of the Constitution based on the time of its adoption, also known as originalism, must begin with the Enlightenment. This, however, is clearly not the case. What was known as the Age of Reason has mutated into the Era of Idiocy because far too many Americans strive to poison the roots of our logic-based founding with child-like inanity and illicit-leaning lies, including some of our most learned individuals sitting our highest offices and courts. The Second Amendment was never intended to give 18-year-olds unfettered access to arsenals of war. Nor is it even remotely rational to suggest that flooding our streets with hundreds of millions of rapid-fire weapons will somehow make us safer. Indeed, the exact opposite has proven to be true. Nobody in their right mind can reason that this is what the founders intended. I don’t care who it is.
And yet, that is exactly their rational, made plausible because populism is driven by emotion. Trump, aping the NRA and its cold-dead-hands pathos, cashed in on this big time – the proverbial snake-oil salesman who has turned the entire country into a backwoods revival festival. The only difference is that, like the white supremacists who run our prisons, Trump and his mawkish minions hawk their serpentine lies in vials of hate. If you can lead people into fanaticism on communal loathing and total bullshit something has gone dangerously wrong with the founder’s original intent.
Unfortunately, critical thinking cannot be codified. Case in point is our latest mass shooter. Anthony McCrae was charged in 2019 with a felony, carrying a concealed weapon. Because the charge had been dropped to a misdemeanor, however, he was able to legally purchase the handguns he used to kill three students and wound five on the Michigan State University campus; a purchase made possible because Republican politicians put the rights of something as sadistically coldblooded as a firearm above the rights of schoolchildren. They did nothing after Sandy Hook, when six-year-olds and their teachers were slaughtered by a weapon of war; did even less after Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and finally passed what turned out to be watery drivel in the wake of Uvalde.
And yet, notwithstanding all of the above, and in a macabre rendition of Einstein’s definition of insanity, we keep Republicans in power; Republicans whom, under this inevitability, have zero impetus to change a fucking thing. Such backhanded doctrine is proof positive that we’ve wandered off the road of rational thought. Any real American with even an iota of common sense would have voted them out decades ago.
Instead, the evidence is overwhelming that we live under the mandate of a group of special interest arms dealers whose sole purpose is to hawk more weapons and ammunition. This minority and its fanatical sycophants exert unprecedented dominance over the will of the people in what James Madison termed “the violence of faction.” In Federalist No. 10, Madison argued that a strong, central government (as opposed to the chaos of then-unfettered states) would easier control violent factions, especially those that, as he put it, “are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
I would venture to assert that the enablers of mass shootings fall under this definition. The gun lobby and their toadies in Congress have discovered that the violence of faction can still function beautifully when followers are taught to barter reason for emotion – especially hate. Prison taught me that it’s pathetically easy to teach people to hate. Simply conjure a threat and designate tribes. Or factions. It’s indeed how prisons are run, and why they make such superb microcosms. The main reason I was immune to the collective hatred of incarceration is that I had taught myself to, well, reason.
And, as a former prisoner of the war on drugs, I’m not only agog at how easy it is for felons to buy weapons, but also understand the criminal necessity for firearms; how it drives the Supreme Court’s often inane defense of the Second Amendment. In a nutshell, we need guns for self-protection, as if our streets are crawling with hordes violent criminals, so many and so deadly you should probably get a gun yourself just in case they start hawking methamphetamine in your gated community next Tuesday.
Those city streets that are war zones, however, were established by gangsters during the irrationality of prohibition, when massive amounts of illegal capital commanded both ruthless protection and murderous vigilance. Under these conditions, guns begat more guns. But being a gangster was also an act of iconoclasm that reinforced our propensity to hero-worship outlaws, possibly because the dictates of prohibition were stewed in the unreasonable ravings of a passel of insipid prudes. Fast forward to today, when being a gangsta (whether protecting profits earned dealing drugs or otherwise) has become even more fashionably iconoclastic, and we have certain streets crawling with armed and often very inebriated teenagers. Under this scenario, people are going to get shot. A lot. And millions more locked up. The sad part is that the fetishizing of firearms by street gangs have both the gun lobby and congressional Republicans laughing their fat off. All the way to the bank.
It took 13 years and a depression for us to finally reason that prohibition was doing far more harm than good, so we repealed it on alcohol, leaving it intact on both narcotics and prostitution. No mystery here. Crime is functional; consider the carceral cow alone and the law firms, courts, and cops getting fat on its teats, and never you mind that it’s proven to be a categorical calamity perpetrated upon the better part of the planet. I did over a decade in jails and prisons because a squad of Pence-like puritans felt it immoral of me to get high on anything other than the drooling drunkenness of alcohol, an endeavor not only baldly hypocritical but so too borderline absurd; a worldwide farce manifesting in the militarization of both the cartels and the police, all of which, of course, was and is more great news for arms dealers.
What we can deduce is that the adolescents doing these mass shootings cannot be lumped in with the gangster element. As I stated in an essay nine years ago, it’s easy to label school shooters and their ilk criminals after the fact. Before their rampages, however, they were not career criminals capable of obtaining illegal weapons. Dylann Roof, the South Carolina church shooter, could not legally purchase a firearm until he was 21. So he waited, nurturing his supremely white hate all the while. By that time he’d picked up a felony, yet was, unbelievably, still sold the weapons, proving again that our background checks (and so too, by that token, our fucking politicians) suck.
Want more proof? Nikolas Cruz, who murdered 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February of 2018, had had negative contact with police at least 30 times, while Robert Crimo, the Highland Park shooter, boasted an extremely violent online presence and two incidents involving law enforcement. Yet we are expected to believe that mandating a close examination of arrest records, aberrant behavior and/or disturbing social footprints before selling juveniles weapons would be unconstitutional?
In his essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant stated: “Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind … remains under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians.” Those who fetishize firearms fit this analogy perfectly.
But laying the totality of blame on resolutely benighted culprits like the gun lobby or even myopic Supreme Court Justices sidesteps more sinister perpetrators. Those most responsible for the unmitigated carnage that takes place daily under our lax gun laws – 71 mass shootings in the first 41 days of 2023 – are the moderates who turn out in droves for the GOP; the Log Cabin Republicans and Wall Street wonks of the world, who vote with their tax brackets in mind, are consciously dooming reason, natural rights, and everybody else along with them just to save a few bucks. It’s they who are propping up the pro-gun agenda; are indeed the only ones with any real power to stop it. Everything else is just red, white, and blue smoke blown up our asses.
Copyright 2023 Matthew J. Parker
Photo by West Midlands Police via CC 2.0 (source: Democracy Journal)
Matthew J. Parker teaches writing at University of California, Berkeley.
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Every word spoken from my frustrated heart (and head).
And, “No mystery here. Crime is functional; consider the carceral cow alone and the law firms, courts, and cops getting fat on its teats, and never you mind that it’s proven to be a categorical calamity perpetrated upon the better part of the planet. ”
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Thanks, Rose Mary. I agree with Matthew’s argument, and I feel sympathy for the time he spent in prison, and I’m glad he’s speaking out.
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I wanted to make a comment about “our” gun violence, but I haven’t the words to express my depth of my concern. We rant, pose endless columns of statistics, offer philosophical arguments and write prose and poems about the horror of gun violence but to what affect? It seems to me that in the end our only hope is the “vote”; that sad, corrupted word will in the end be our salvation if we can remain a strong democracy.
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