On The Radar
Karen and Ken, git ‘Yer guns
There’s a new spike in the gun buying frenzy underway, or what the Brookings Institute described as the “Spring Gun Spike”, although the sharpest bulge in the spike, appears, according to the data, to have evidenced itself beginning in June.
And the spike is ongoing, with 40 percent of the purchases estimated to be from people buying guns for the first time. Since March, it’s estimated that Americans have purchased as many as 3 million firearms – a number that closely tracks the cumulative number of COVID-19 infections in the United States.
Previous spikes within the past decade, according to researchers, were accountable to fears that Congress might enact restrictive gun legislation, apprehension about terror incidents such as the radical Islamic motivated shootings in San Bernardino in 2015 (1.6 million gun purchases) and the renewed impetus for common sense gun legislation sparked by the Parkland, Florida (Stoneman Douglas High School) mass shooting (700 million new gun purchases).
The second half of March was record breaking as compared to the same period in 2019. Guardian notes that Friday 20 March broke records for the highest number of firearms background checks conducted nationwide in a single day: 210,308.
The Gun Surge. Who’s Buying Them And Why?
Who are the people that are running out to the gun store and stocking up on firearms and ammo during this current surge?
It’s complicated, but before we look at that, it’s valuable to establish the philosophical basis behind many, if not most purchases of guns. Two-thirds of gun owners (67%), according to Pew Research Center, say personal protection is a major reason why they own a firearm.
And I should point out here that in my personal view, there is nothing inherently anti-social or sinister about wanting to own guns or using them for self defense or sport shooting.
The fact is that responsible gun owners are, in the majority, invested in the lawful use and the ethic of helping new owners understand the critical value of firearm safety and the ethic of preventing children access to them. But I need to add a caveat to this.
The values I have described are not universal, however, and do not exist in the thinking of everyone that purchases a firearm, especially people who rush out and buy one on an impulse – an impulse motivated by anxiety and uncertainty.
There are people that have been seduced by the false equivalency that owning and using a gun is the essence of simplicity and that there is nothing more involved than loading it and when a situation arises, just point and shoot. Nothing could be further from the truth, but this is the impression people get from watching Hollywood action movies.
The consequences can be tragic.
Viewed through that lens, the surge can be explained by a general sense among them that a crisis event such as a pandemic, constitutes profound uncertainty and correspondingly, personal risks.
For example, significant among the cohort of new gun purchasers in California and Washington State, were Asian-Americans apprehensive about the racist messaging coming from Donald Trump and White Nationalists about COVID-19 being a conspiracy to spread disease by Chinese immigrants.
Since most racists can’t distinguish between one Asian ethnicity and another, the Asian community decided it would be prudent to take out insurance. In sum, whether it is Asian-Americans or Caucasian Americans, a significant common denominator is anxiety.
Woven into that broad sentiment of anxiety, is a strong element of apprehension among Whites regarding perceived cultural shifts in America.
When (impeached) president Donald Trump invokes the term “Law and Order”, he expects that in the ears of his voting base, it will be conflated as a reaction against the erosion of the existing social order, under attack from multi-culturalism and immigration.
When monuments to White men who enforced the racial order in America are seen being torn down, it signifies a seismic shift in the dominance of the traditional societal paradigm, particularly true in the South, but not exclusively.
You could place an ideological overlay of this on a map of the United States and it would largely conform to the political divisions (Red State / Blue State) that exist between Republicans and Democrats and liberals versus conservatives.
Nothing signifies this more poignantly than the alt-Right and White Nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia that chanted, “You will not replace us!” as well as “Blood and Soil” and “Hail Trump.”
This paranoid sense and dread of demographic and cultural replacement, is by no means strictly confined to the ranks of White Nationalists and supremacists, even if it exists more as a subliminal perception.
And strongly representative of that, are people like Mark and Patricia McCloskey, accident injury attorneys in St. Louis, who aimed weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their mansion last month. It’s pretty obvious that the McCloskeys were brandishing to project a message about defending their concept of the existing social order – White privilege.
This reflects that the national demonstrations related to the killing of George Floyd and many other Blacks and minorities due to excessive force by law enforcement, are a flash point in the increase of gun purchases and the background checks that are part of the applications to purchase them.
Brookings Institute’s review of the spike in gun purchasing activity in June and a corresponding significant increase of internet searches on racial topics and epithets during the same time frame, appears to indicate a correlation:
We find that states where individuals are more likely to search for racial epithets experienced larger increases in June firearm sales, even after adjusting for the personal security concerns that likely generated the March spikes in gun sales. This pattern suggests that part of the concern regarding personal security that led to firearm sales increases in June was related to the racial tensions. We do not observe the same relationship between increases in firearm sales and racial animus at the state level in any of the previous spikes in sales.
Brookings also identifies a connection to elements of the population making a connection between discussions of “defunding police” and pro-active arming among Whites who imagine chaos when police roles and the problematic behavior that led to the protests are dialed back.
The Tampa Bay Times interviewed store manager Mike Sfakianos at Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park, who told them of his sense of what motivates most of the first time purchasers he’s seeing in the store:
“If all these certain states are looking to abolish the police or defund the police — and now the police are even walking out because they’re not being backed up — what are you going to do?” he said. “You’re going to have to protect yourself.”
And circling back to the social order concerns, Jay Aronson, a professor of science, technology and society at Carnegie Mellon University, observes, “To the extent that people are choosing to purchase guns [during COVID] shows they are feeling alienated from society. They say they’re protecting their family, but they’re feeling like there’s a sudden breakdown in order.”
Despite this, it would be inaccurate to speculate that it is only right wing oriented Whites that are buying guns based on their angst about increasing civil unrest.
A U.C. Davis study conducted this year, ironically, connected a substantial number of new gun purchases to a perception of increased gun violence. Julia P. Schleimer, VPRP research analyst and first author of the study, states:
“Surges in firearm purchasing are associated with mass shootings and significant political events, and the evidence suggests these surges are followed by population-level increases in firearm violence. Screening for firearm ownership in healthcare settings, supporting safer firearm use and storage, limiting the size of these surges, and addressing other individual and community-level risk factors for gun violence may be particularly important during the pandemic.”
And there is undoubtedly a component among the purchases that represents liberals and Democrats. How significant this is is not certain, but the Tampa Bay Times did speak with one self identifying liberal Democrat at a Pittsburgh area gun shop about his intention to purchase a firearm, who while declining to be identified in their report, told them:
“I’ve been an anesthesiologist for nearly 20 years, and there are times I’m in the hospital five to seven days a week, and can’t be home to protect my family,” he said. “That’s why I bought it. I’m a Democrat who believes in social welfare for people, health care for everyone. But when you start to say the health care system could break down, we’re in big trouble. I don’t know how people will react at that time.”
Nevertheless, states with the most excess firearm purchases identified in the data included Mississippi, Kentucky, Vermont, New Hampshire, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Arizona – six of the eight, states that went to Trump in 2016.
Amidst all of this, no one is more vocal about warning that whatever the reason for the gun purchases among new owners, the need for training in safety and proper handling and storage of the firearms, is critically important, than the people who sell most of them, Federal Firearm licensed gun dealers.
The National Rifle Association is exploiting the anxieties of Whites during the coronavirus pandemic, through the promotion of messaging such as this Twitter post:
Country Music Hall of Fame inductee and NRA Life Member @CharlieDaniels‘ message needs to be heard by all Americans.
Anti-gun politicians are using this pandemic to push their extreme gun control on law-abiding people.
— NRA (@NRA) April 6, 2020
For a not insignificant number of people whose steady media diet consists of the alarmism and racial dog whistling of Fox News and OANN, the motivation reflects the assessment of Joseph diGenova, a Washington D.C. attorney on the payroll of Donald Trump and conduit of the “investigate the investigators” narrative in currency with conspiracy theorists who believe that Obama and the “deep state” have instigated a “coup” against Donald Trump.
DiGenova sees a violent clash of cultures on the near horizon, saying,
“The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future is over … it’s going to be total war. I do two things; I vote and buy guns.”
COVID’s Assault on Civic Life and American Resilience
by Keith W. Mines
Writing in the Washington Post July 12th, The End of Small Business, James Kwak noted the impact that the decline of small main street businesses will have on upward mobility as this traditional engine of economic growth and opportunity for the lower and middle classes is gobbled up by Amazon and Walmart. It was “already heading this way. The virus is bringing us there faster,” he laments.
But there is another side to this that should be equally troubling — the weakening of our civic life that has been in slow steady decline and is now being strained further by COVID-19.
First there was the “bowling alone” phenomena that Robert Putnam outlined in 2000 (Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital), in which he suggested that a combination of technological and social factors were leading to increasing social isolation.
Then came the rise of polarizing media and politics in the 20-teens, culminating in the election of a President whose campaign and governance style relied on deliberately dividing Americans from each other.
Now we have the age of COVID, in which we are at best, wearing masks for six-foot distant encounters with our fellow citizens but more likely are simply home waiting for an Amazon package and UberEATS.
For those of us who have seen the strength of American civic life as measured against many other modern societies this is a real issue.
Small businesses were part of a web of civil society that Alexis De Tocqueville first identified it in the 1830s, when he observed:
“Americans of all ages, conditions and all dispositions constantly unite together. … To hold fetes, found seminaries, build inns, construct churches, distribute books, dispatch missionaries to the antipodes. They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method. Finally, if they wish to highlight a truth or develop an opinion by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association.”
Madison Initiative Director Daniel Stid, in Civil Society and the Strength of Democratic Citizenship, notes that Tocqueville described two roles he saw associations playing in the United States:
“The first was to provide a means for solving collective problems: ‘Among democratic nations all citizens are independent and weak; they can achieve almost nothing by themselves and none of them could force his fellows to help him. Therefore they sink into a state of impotence, if they do not learn to help each other voluntarily.’ But by joining forces in an association, individuals could solve the collective action problem.” The second was an indirect role – “drawing individuals out of their private concerns, where they would otherwise stay focused and striving, and enabling them to be part of something larger than the circumstances of their own existence.
In doing this, Stid argues, “they invariably had to rub elbows and learn to work with others with different interests and points of view. And in this way, those participating in associations became better collaborators, leaders, and citizens.”
“The only way opinions and ideas can be renewed, hearts enlarged, and human minds developed,” Tocqueville observed, “is through the reciprocal influence of men upon each other.”
These are both about far more than small businesses and go to the constant, and in my view healthy need Americans have to band together in causes large and small and be active in their communities and in their nation.
But the challenge going forward is that small local businesses lay the foundation for much of this by greasing the associations that lead to these strong civic encounters. As COVID-19 grinds on and our economy shifts to a near wholly on-line model, much of this could be lost forever.
The flip side of all this, of course, are the new associations and organizing that we see now in the face of COVID-19 and the added challenge of a society awakening to lingering racial injustice.
Over the past four months Americans who would have never met are banding together to fight the virus and improve our society. As I served in several failing interventions abroad, I often explained our involvement by saying simply, “it is hard to get Americans to stop being American.”
Or put another way, we are simply a people that cares about others, and finds it difficult to stop caring about others. So, on the other end of all this, there may simply be the unstoppable drive of Americans to constantly renew their civic and community life in whatever form health and economic and social challenges allow.
In the end Americans may find the resolve to defeat all the enemies of strong civil society — FOX, CNN, MSNBC, Donald Trump, and COVID-19. That would be a victory worthy of Dwight Eisenhower.