The air right now is thick with fear. Some of that fear is straightforward and reasonable (black people afraid of police violence, citizens afraid of white fascism), and some seems crazy (cops terrified by black people, gun advocates and Trump voters afraid of all kinds of dark threats, mostly from government).
To help clear the fog of fear, white Americans would be well served by facing our national history—and especially the salient fact that almost all victims of government violence have been people of color.
Sure, Americans of every race are understandably afraid of living in a place with far more guns per capita than any other country on earth (yes, including Yemen, Serbia, and Somalia) and almost a hundred firearm deaths every day. But as for those opposed to meaningful gun control—that is, most members of the National Rifle Association—it turns out they’re mainly afraid of one thing: the government committing violence against them.
Yes, you read that right. And yes, it’s an absurd and ironic bogeyman for an overwhelmingly white organization with the NRA’s particular history, especially since it’s clear to many of us that the only people who have actually experienced significant violence at the hands of government agents are, now as in the 1960s, black people.
The current phase of gun-rights maximalism began in the late 1960s, following a long period of racial unrest—much of it in response to police violence—that was deeply unsettling to many white people who’d thought this country was theirs alone. The first modern gun control legislation, passed in 1967 by Republicans and signed by Ronald Reagan, was passed not in response to a mass shooting but as part of the government’s campaign against the Black Panthers, who had responded to police misconduct by forming dramatically armed patrols to monitor police activities.
At that time the NRA was simply a sportsmen’s organization. But images of black people taking on power, armed or unarmed, had sown a fear that continued to build—and in a 1977 coup a group of white radicals within the NRA took over the organization. From then on, the NRA was devoted less to sport shooting than to personal ownership of defensive firearms, and it opposed any curbs on their use.
The ostensible threat that the NRA cited (and cites) is one version or another of “jack-booted government thugs.” But it’s hard not to see a racial through line, one that continues into the present. For example, the NRA, whose board is 93 percent white, issued no condemnation of the Philando Castile shooting, a poster story for oppressed gun rights—except that Castile was black. A law-abiding gun owner was shot by a government official, but the NRA barely commented, since the episode could be framed only as “racist police violence” rather than “government overreach,” which has since 1977 been the official focus of gun advocates’ fear.
Recently, at an “unconventional political convention” called Politicon, which commissioned a recent Yes Men action about gun control (but in the wake of the Orlando shootings was too afraid to let us carry it out on its premises), we had the opportunity to ask various pro-gun individuals what they most feared. Across the board, the answer was indeed some version of “government overreach.”
It’s easy to make fun of this, but there’s a real, understandable fear underneath the veneer of neoliberal paranoia and under the racism too: the fear of being left behind as the order that always placed white men on top crumbles. Real economic problems get blended with the “government overreach” of gay marriage, a black president, and other cultural novelties—and against this, guns (and Trump) are a sort of talisman, providing the illusion of safety from the deep, dark forces of change. Only “government” stands in the way of the magic.
And beneath that fear, there’s another one, even harder for white people to reckon with, pointed to by the word “government,” which in a democracy is technically us: and that’s fear of ourselves—or rather, our real history. Just look at the version of the Thanksgiving story we tell every year, versus what really happened—or at the fact that there is still no museum of national stature dedicated to slavery, which after all built this whole country and is why it remains wealthy today.
Even though there is a great distance between recognizing the responsibilities of history and doing something about today’s injustice, that’s where we have to start. Yet gun people, like Trump voters, have a deep aversion to questioning their “gut”—an organ that is arguably sometimes right but often quite wrong—and prefer to take over organizations, change governments, and plague an entire nation with ever more lethal firearms rather than to engage in self-examination or worry that maybe we’re not the most wonderful people on earth after all and may actually have a whole lot to learn.
Admittedly, facing the truth of history and of changing times, letting go of avoidance strategies like racism or paranoia, is incredibly hard, but there’s really no alternative. Trying to annihilate fear, clinging to illusory entitlements, or attempting to regain lost advantages just doesn’t work. At best, we’ll just keep stumbling around in the fog, going in the same old circles, and America will never truly be great. And at worst . . . well, ask the Germans.
Thanks to Jameson Fitzpatrick for his contributions to this piece.