I typically find pride in my ability to find words to express what I am thinking and feeling on a given topic. After reading the reaction from Charles L. Cotton, a board member of the National Rifle Association, however, responding to the terrorist act perpetrated against worshipers at a Bible study group at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by a deranged racist ending in the fatal shooting of 9 good people, I fell speechless, enraged, and emotionally overwhelmed. I had to absorb, attempt to grasp, and reflect upon Cotton’s statement.
In my life, when I have felt emotionally overloaded and blocked, I find a way to process my feelings by taking on some kind of simple physical activity, one I can perform that gives me immediate gratification like mowing the lawn or performing housework. This time, I reached under the kitchen sink for the spray bottle of floor cleaner, gathered a cloth, kneeled to my knees, and scrubbed my kitchen and living room floors as my little doggies licked my face with soggy kisses. I then mowed both the front and back lawns, ate my lunch, and took a long and deep early afternoon nap.
After watching a silly mindless movie on TV, I felt ready to formulate a response of sorts to Cotton’s blaming the deaths at “Mother Emanuel” Church on its pastor, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, who lost his life during the massacre. Cotton, with an unimaginable insensitivity, effrontery, and sheer chutzpa, accused Rev. Pinckney of bringing the tragedy upon himself in his capacity as a sitting South Carolina state representative by voting against a bill, which if passed, would have permitted the carrying of concealed weapons into houses of worship. According to Cotton:
“Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”
The bill, voted in the South Carolina legislature in 2011, if passed, would have permitted gun owners to carry weapons into restaurants, day-care centers, and houses of worship. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Thad Viers (R), said that expanding the locations that one can bring a concealed weapon serves as an effective way to reduce crime: “It puts criminals on the defense. Criminals don’t know if you’re carrying or not.”
I’m not making this up, for as ridiculous at it might sound, some legislators objected that the proposed law did not go far enough. Ed Kelleher, president of the powerful gun lobbying group, GrassRoots South Carolina, argued that the bill “violates the constitutional rights of gun owners” because it allows only adult residents of the state of South Carolina to carry concealed weapons, and not younger people or out-of-state visitors.
“While the bill might make it better for people in South Carolina, it’s going to be a lot worse for others, including those visiting us. We depend on tourism here, and this has a chilling effect on that.”
The progressive organization, ThinkProgress, summarized recent gun laws in the state of South Carolina: a 2006 law mandates that pro-gun laws shall not be rescinded during a state of emergency such as a hurricane; a 2008 law permits legislators and visitors to the State House in Columbia to maintain their weapons in their vehicles while parked on the grounds; a 2009 law allows people who have obtained a concealed weapons permit to possess guns in their cars while dropping children off at school.
Charles L. Cotton gave his “remedy” to what could have prevented the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church. In like fashion, Wayne LaPierre, Executive VP of the National Rifle Association, gave his assessment following the murders of 26 innocents, including 20 young children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Then he called on Congress to “put armed police officers in every single school in this nation”.
So while LaPierre by implication blames the massacre at Sandy Hook on school officials for not having armed guards, Cotton places direct blame on the murdered pastor for his own death and the death of nine others.
This strategy of blaming the victim is often used to reverse and thus deflect the argument by skewing the actual power dynamics and thereby attempting to misappropriate responsibility for the oppression from the dominant group and to those who are, in fact, most negatively impacted by the oppression. In terms of the gun-control debate, by blaming the victims, weapons become a solution rather than one of the problems. Unrestricted and unlimited amounts of weapons then are perceived as unremarkable or “normal,” as a guaranteed Constitutional “freedom.” When anyone poses a challenge or attempts to restrict this “freedom,” those in the dominant group brand them as “subversive,” as “un-American,” as “socialists,” as “politically correct,” as “wimps.”
The technique of attempting to turn the tables by situating the victims of gun violence as holding the responsibility for this violence both denies and deflects the reality of the utter domination of the gun lobby and the massive amounts of power they have to control elected officials.
Each time I hear of yet another incident of gun violence, I think back to the very first thing that caught my eye as I entered the grounds of the Ames, Iowa Republican Party Presidential Straw Poll in the summer of 2011. Three young children, I would guess between the ages of 4 -7, sporting day-glow orange baseball caps with “NRA” [National Rifle Association] imprinted atop, and round stickers on their small T-shirts announcing “GUNS SAVE LIVES.”
But do these “guns save lives”? Do laws expanding gun possession, concealed or not, actually “save lives”? These laws certainly have not worked in South Carolina, which is ranked 9th highest of the states in firearm murders.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gun-related violence has reached epidemic proportions in our country by snuffing out the lives of upwards of 30,000+ people and wounding many more annually. On average, guns end the lives of more than 80 people in the United States every day. Each year, gun violence affects over 100,000 people in some way. Many of the guns used in these killings, which reach military level weapons power, currently remain legal. Today in the United States, there are 88.8 firearms per 100 people.
Of the estimated 68+ mass murders in the United States since 1982, most of the shooters obtained their weapons legally. Demographically, the shooters in all but one case involved males, usually white, with an average age of 35 years.
Should any limits be placed on the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, which reads: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”? We seem somehow only to remember the second clause in that sentence while forgetting the first, especially the term “well-regulated”!
I propose that we reevaluate the political right’s obsession with the so-called “freedom” to bear arms because it is not only “criminals who kill people” as Second Amendment advocates claim. We must ban and criminalize the possession of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and close loop holes such as buying a weapon at a gun show. We must increase the waiting period and make background checks more rigorous and effective. Furthermore, we need to limit the number of guns any individual can own, and also limit the number of bullets any gun clip can hold. We must rethink the “logic” of permitting concealed weapons, especially in places like houses of worship, colleges, bars, restaurants, and political rallies. Moreover, all data bases monitoring gun ownership must interface to assess the gun owning population more accurately and effectively.
I also believe that even our flawed “founding fathers” did not want unlimited and unrestricted rights to bear arms. Even if they did advocate for unrestricted gun ownership, these are the same men who owned slaves, committed genocide against and expelled native peoples, withheld enfranchisement from women, engaged in and killed one another in duels, and so on. Actually, I’m really surprised the NRA hasn’t advocated for the return of lethal dueling matches. Maybe that’s next on their agenda.
As we all know, the chances for comprehensive common sense gun control in the United States is only a pipe dream as long as the NRA controls Congress and state legislatures, for if they did not, we would have seen effective laws passed years ago resulting in countless lives saved.
Nevertheless, this insanity in our system of gun laws must end. Enough is enough!
Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).