About thirty of us stood in the frigid Michigan breeze in February 18th here in my small town of about 24,000 souls. We had homemade signs protesting gun violence, gun culture, and gun industry/culture lobbying. We were in front of the Historic Courthouse along Main Street. This is the commercial center for an agricultural region, and I’d SWAG that around sixty percent of all passing vehicles were one model or another of pickup truck. Lots of honks in solidarity. One fool that rode around the block with a bullhorn out the driver’s window blaring that we were “liberal fags.” Many blank faces, because a lot of people here don’t get out much and they are preoccupied with their own rat-races for survival. Trucks passed with NRA stickers, and every truck with one was occupied by white people. Several sported both NRA stickers and Marine Corps globe-and-anchors, which look a lot alike in a way. One truck went past with a dead buck in the back, antlers displayed by the proud hunter above the bed panels.
It occurred to me that in our county, where there are a fair number of gun nuts (but also just hunters), no one is allowed to hunt deer with a rifle unless it is a muzzle-loader. Certainly not with an AR-15. Mostly people use shotguns and bows. The reason the state says you can’t gun down Odocoileus virginianus with a .22, much less an assault rifle that can fire 800 rounds a minute (with a cheap fully-auto conversion kit), each with a velocity of more than 3100 feet per second, is that this county is flat as a cutting board, so when Uncle Bill trips while taking a slug of Jack Daniels to keep warm and accidentally discharges his weapon, or when Uncle Joe—who’s on thirty different medications—misses the stray German Shepherd he mistakes for a deer, that lethal little 55 grain projectile doesn’t swoop along an arc that terminates in the Family Kitchen Restaurant two miles away. Here, in this farm county, people hunt. But for actual hunting, the hobby every gun-collecting lunatic claims as the purpose of his machine guns, guns are pretty heavily controlled.
In his mad search to establish his white masculine bona fides, last week, a young man who still struggles with acne gunned down dozens of people in a crowded school with a legally purchased and easily modified AR-15 assault rifle. The biggest problem with this story is that we already know it. Goddammit, do we know it!
New names are just brought forward from the freshly fallen to replace the last list. Something new did happen with this story, though. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many; and among that many now appear to be a kind of high school vanguard that has just rewritten the tactical map between us—those of us who have had it with macho fascist-assed white gun culture—and the National Rifle Association, an enormous and enormously well-funded gun advocacy group whose real mission has always been the preservation of white supremacy.
Last year, emboldened by labor-intensive and not particularly effective fascist outburst in the wake of a New York pimp being elected President, the publicity-magnetized CEO of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, blessed the release of a video ad—fronted by Dana Loesch, her face for fascist hire—that called for the NRA to become a paramilitary vigilante organization and conduct armed attacks against social movements.
“They use their media to assassinate real news,” said Dana Geobbels, her expression one of deep and primordial outrage. “They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse the resistance . . . All to make them march, make them protest, make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia. To smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding — until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness . . . The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth. I’m the National Rifle Association of America, and I’m freedom’s safest place.”
In the background, of course, there are newsreel clips of fires and bleeding, of dirty race-traitor white anarchists and scary black men threatening civilization itself. The ad is so badly done it succeeds as comedy. When Debbie Goebbels says “with the clenched fist,” and tries to look very ferocious . . . well, just watch it, you’ll see. But it was a pretty unveiled call for the NRA to protect white supremacy as a vigilante force; and the NRA has a lot of money and influence. Which is reason enough, in my view, for building some momentum toward targeting the NRA itself, led by this emergent youth movement. Just as there was a protracted campaign to bring big tobacco to heel, the NRA needs to be bound, head to foot.
So what is the NRA? What is this behemoth that has a membership base of loony white male fantasists with gun fetishes, but also a political wing in the Republican Party—which shares the NRA’s commitment to white supremacy, and a financial wing as the propagandists for arms industries? Can we describe its anatomy and physiology? Let’s begin with a little history on guns and the expansions of the US, excerpted from Borderline.
In 1912, one American Boy Scout shot another with a rifle, and there was a temporary discontinuation of the “marksmanship” badge, but lobbying from the National Rifle Association (NRA) got the merit badge reinstated in 1914. The NRA, established in 1871 by veteran Civil War officers, was conceived after former Union generals estimated that troops had fired one thousand rounds of ammunition for every Confederate soldier killed. Begun as a marksmanship improvement association, it soon became the go-to organization for men with a powerful interest in guns.
Prior to the Civil War, personal gun ownership was marginal. Guns were handmade and expensive. After the mass production of guns for the Civil War, however, the leftover firearms were ubiquitous; and industrialized gun manufacture became a highly profitable postwar enterprise. During the war, Samuel Colt’s Hartford factory produced guns that were sold to both Union and Confederate forces. Southern customers were even given a ten percent incentive discount for mass direct factory orders.
Race has always been mixed with American gun culture. Union soldiers occupied the South during Reconstruction, sometimes arming black men for self-defense; and Southern white men reacted by engaging in guerrilla-like actions against Union troops and outright terrorism against African Americans. Radical Republican masculinity, African American masculinity, and Southern white masculinity all came to identify themselves with repeating firearms.
By 1876, the nation’s centennial year, a reactionary tidal wave had swept away the remnants of Radical Reconstruction in the South. Paramilitary white supremacists in Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina justified their armed assaults on Republican-led state and local offices by invoking their revolutionary forefathers’ armed revolt against “tyranny.” Organizing gun and rifle clubs throughout the Deep South, these self-proclaimed “minutemen” set out to “redeem” the white race from the ignominy of defeat and emancipation. To them, black citizenship signaled the worst kind of corruption.
Listening a few years back to the gun-culturist/conspiracy-theorist/radio talk show host Alex Jones, we can hear a direct echo of this Revolutionary War mythology: “I’m here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms! It doesn’t matter how many lemmings you get out there in the street begging for them to have their guns taken. We will not relinquish them. Do you understand?”
References to the Revolutionary War as proof that “God, Guts, and Guns Made America Free” are fictional. In truth, during the latter eighteenth century in the thirteen colonies, not one in a hundred men had a gun, and the guns they had were muskets, barely capable of hitting another man beyond twenty feet.
A dozen colonials once ambushed Major Pitcairn of the British Army at ten yards, all firing, and neither Pitcairn nor his horse received a scratch. It took up to four minutes to reload a musket. A soldier could run a third to half a mile in that time, the reason bayonet charges followed infantry volleys. The single most effective combat weapon after artillery was the bayonet. The reason the Revolutionary War dragged on as long as it did was the extreme shortage of weapons.
Successful hunters employed traps, not guns, and Americans overwhelmingly consumed livestock for meat. Only white male Protestant property owners were initially allowed by law to have firearms, and many of them opted against it. A decent gun cost as much as a skilled laborer made in six months. The legends promoted by stories like The Deerslayer and films like The Last of the Mohicans and The Patriot are plain nonsense. The archetype of the great marksmen of the colonies as the basis for an effective citizen-soldier militia has zero basis in history.
By the late nineteenth century, the popular myth was not the Revolutionary War but the “conquest of the frontier,” meaning westward expansion, with its displacement or extermination of indigenous people. This was when the cowboy myth was created, and even promoted, through rambling circuses like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show (1872–1910), using aging and self-aggrandizing legends of the “Old West.”
In addition to promoting a particular version of masculinity, Western expansion legends were a kind of geographic cure for the divisions of the Civil War. American men could set aside the grievances of the Civil War by looking westward, renewing the basis for white male ideological unity in the discourse of “taming the West.”
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846–1917) was himself a great admirer of William Sherman, who called for outright Indian extermination, and of George Custer, whom he saw as a white martyr. Cody’s show, usually billed alongside military tournaments, reenacted “battles” between white men and Indians that emphasized Indian savagery and white nobility.
Republican masculinity emphasized the somewhat Oedipal struggle for “liberty” against the aristocratic fathers; frontier masculinity was an artifact of expansion and empire building. Real men were those who, on civilization’s behalf and as civilization’s racial representatives, left the comforts of the core and ventured into the borderlands to establish new outposts against the disorder of nature and those peoples defined into nature—the savages, the natives.
The gun, for frontier masculinity, had (and still has) a real, but also an imaginary and a symbolic existence. Guns were certainly used by soldiers during the Indian Wars, and at the end of the century for the war to gain Spain’s colonies. But in the fantasies constructed by military reenactments and circuses like the Cody show, the idea was implanted—and it can still be seen in Westerns—that most men went armed all the time. This was not, in fact, the case. Armed men were generally soldiers, law enforcement, criminals, and semi-official thugs. Men who hunted with guns, as they do today, would dust off the rifle or shotgun that was stored in the house.
Gun control laws in the “Old West,” that is, legendary towns like Dodge City, Tombstone, and Deadwood, were actually far stricter than most gun control laws today. Municipal law enforcement generally required that any firearm inside city limits had to be stored at the local law enforcement office. The rise of gun culture among Progressives was closely associated with these fantasy histories of the Old West; and the gun became a phallic symbol representing the male forces of order against the feminine disorder of nature and natives. But the signature events that gave rise to twentieth-century gun culture were the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars, where marksmanship failures were again blamed for battlefield deficiencies.
The NRA, which had become moribund by this time, was reconstituted in 1900, and began sponsoring rifle marksmanship competitions. In 1902, at the NRA grand competition at Sea Girt, New Jersey, Roosevelt gave an opening address in which he proclaimed, “We have prided ourselves on being an army of marksmen,” explicitly tying Progressive era men’s newfound preoccupation with guns to imperial militarism. The rifle teams in early NRA competitions were comprised exclusively of men who were members of the armed forces, cementing a relationship between the NRA and the War Department, which persists to this day.
The 1903 Sea Girt tournament Sunday opened with an open-air service. Conducted by the Rev. J. Madison Hare, chaplain of the Third Regiment of the New Jersey National Guard: “Responsive Bible readings and the singing of the hymns ‘Adoration’ and ‘America’ preceded the sermon. Chaplain Hare’s theme was ‘An Improved Score.’”
Marksmanship was understood as a manifestation of white male superiority, demonstrating technological prowess, good health, and self-control. An article in the Los Angeles Times in 1909 declared in its headline, “Marksmen Are Born, Not Manufactured,” lest it be assumed that the traits of a great marksman could be taught to just anyone.
“The rifle type of man,” the article declared, “is a muscular, lean, quiet fellow of nervous temperament, but whose nerves are under the complete control of the will.”
Throughout this period, the question of white supremacy didn’t come up with the NRA, because white supremacy wasn’t facing any real threat. White supremacy as a given was identified with imperial conquest (seen as a good thing), militarism (seen as a good thing), and the obsession with white masculinity, which was shared by the arch-racist Theodore Roosevelt, and, in fact, throughout most of the Progressive Movement (an absolutely imperial, social Darwinist movement). The NRA’s focus throughout had been with improving the marksmanship of citizens with the potential to be soldiers. The NRAs efforts, in fact, were closely coordinated with the United States Armed Forces, the new militarism-in-school program, Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), the curricula of public schools, and promotion of American football, which was also seen as a way of perfecting martial white masculinity.
It was in the 1970s, in the wake of serial social movements, a lost war (huge blow to the national masculinity), and an unpredictable economy, that the quasi-libertarian white gun cuckoos, who fantasized quite actively about roaming through Dystopia leading armed gangs, began filling the ranks of the NRA and began bending its mission to shielding this substantial male fantasy gun subculture from any access it might need to stockpiling guns for their future race war. The supporting narrative would be that old standby—the Revolutionary War, because . . . liberty. Which means property, but boys want their little fables, too, so . . .
By 1977, the gun-fetishist wannabe Swamp Foxes had taken over the NRA, and because their mission was to stockpile for the race war, they found a great ally in that: people who manufactured seriously dangerous firearms designed for collective armed combat.
If we’d have watched more closely, we might have discovered earlier, through the corporate-fueled growth of the gun-nuttery NRA, that economic stagnation, combined with a growing right-wing propaganda apparatus that appealed to every resentment of every entitled-ass white man who felt he had lost ground, was swelling into a rebellion within even the Republican Party—which yielded a presidential victory for the New York carnival barker.
It was a perfect storm to transfer power from amoral technocrats who had burnt a few of their own bridges to combative, intellectually-challenged, sexually-insecure, white brats like LaPierre and Trump. Led by clowns and armed to the teeth! What the hell could possibly go wrong?
Some fear it might augur the emergence of some new form of American fascism. Me, not so much. I’ve studied the basic demographics, and almost all the political momentum from anything resembling an ever more effective left is concentrated among the young. The arrow of time pulls more young adults into voting age each day, even as more of us on the other end of the spectrum shuffle off this mortal coil. The nascent fascist movement that thought it saw its moment in Trump actually peaked a decade ago, before the other conditions were in place, and it will be left behind as a kind of cautionary footnote to history. Yes, we are polarized and that will continue as neoliberalism becomes the snake eating its own tail; but the demographics of that polarization are on our side.
That’s why, in spite of the horror of another mass shooting by another MAN (perhaps we just ought to outlaw males having guns), the response—embodied across the internet by a young Parkland High School senior, Emma Gonzalez, and in serially spontaneous and planned walkouts from schools and other actions, led by youth—makes me feel guardedly optimistic.
Emma Gonzalez called the target. The National Rifle Association.
The target ought not be some piece of legislation, which always slows down social movements in the beginning, but a broad strategic concentration on investigating, surrounding, outing, attacking, disrupting, boycotting, defunding, and generally shaming and isolating anyone or any entity that is associated with the NRA.
Legislation comes later, after the beast that guards it is gone.
Make the NRA radioactive, cultural and political suicide. A nonviolent struggle to destroy this institution as a malignant power. Make the NRA the pariah that it deserves to be; and you will weaken both the gun industry and the Republican Party at the same time. They are an interlocking directorate. The desire has been there for a long time. The outrage grows with each new mass shooting. And now there is a vanguard developing among the youth that can lead us in “binding the strong man.”