We’ve Been Here Before: On the Gun Politics of Disaster

In an op-ed on CNN this past Tuesday, John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, decried the recent decision by the Department of Homeland Security to declare gun stores “essential” businesses. Feinblatt described the advisory decision as “shameful” and “nonsensical”—an example of the “Trump administration…caving to the firearm industry by treating gun store workers just like the real frontline responders—police, doctors, nurses.” He’s right to make the comparison to police, as it is precisely in the section on “law enforcement, public safety, and other first responders” that appears the designation of gun store workers as essential. The specific language reads: “workers supporting the operation of firearm or ammunition product manufacturers, retailers, importers, distributors, and shooting ranges.”

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In a society in which 70% of Americans do not want a ban on handguns and most Americans say that guns make them, their homes, and their streets safer, what constitutes “nonsensical” is the key battleground of the gun debate. Sociologists spend a great deal of time making sense of how sense is made by everyday people; this is particularly true of sociologists aiming to understand the contours of gun culture in the US. Sociologists have theories of status anxiety and conservative backlash; theories of fear of crime and apprehension about the collective security apparatus; theories of communities of practice and social intimacy. Ultimately, any attempt to come to terms with American gun culture must come to terms with the social reality that guns occupy a key element in the constellation of safety and security tools and tactics that makes up how Americans “do” security. This is evident from public opinion polls that show that Americans increasingly understand guns as tools of safety and security rather than objects of danger and vulnerability; it is likewise evident in the ways in which American gun culture intersects, and is intertwined, with other ways of “doing security,” from public law enforcement (who generally support gun rights over control for a myriad of reasons) to private security (a concealed pistol license, after all, doubles as a private security license in many states).

To include gun stores, gun manufacturers, and shooting ranges in a declaration of a list of activities deemed essential for the critical infrastructure in the US, therefore, codifies the broad, though certainly not universal, sentiment that gun culture is security culture in the US—and it is not surprising at all that advocates for stricter gun regulations would decry this proclamation as “shameful.”

But this declaration does more than merely codify: it also recognizes the intertwining of gun culture with other less controversial seats of safety and security—such as public law enforcement. Spend any time in a gun store or a shooting range, and you’ll very quickly realize that they are catering not just to private security-minded civilians but also the direct bearers of state-sanctioned security: local cops, state police, military members. Pointing this out doesn’t make the declaration more or less “sensible” or “non-sensible”; it simply puts the declaration in its proper place with respect to the contemporary culture of guns in American society at the very moment at which the coronavirus pandemic rallied Americans to clear the shelves not just of grocery stores but also of gun stores.

Furthermore, gun politics operates at multiple levels: there is the everyday politics of guns, centered on the up-close and personal relationships forged between people and their guns as well as between gun-owning people, and then there is the brand of gun politics that takes in courtrooms, legislative bodies, and executive orders. Here, the central actors aren’t everyday Americans trying to make sense out of a world that overwhelms the senses–and turning to guns as they do so. Rather, the central actors are the familiar juggernauts of the gun debate: the National Rifle Association, the Second Amendment Foundation, and Gun Owners of America (on the gun rights side) and Everytown for Guns Safety, Moms Demand Action, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns (on the gun control side).

 

While everyday Americans may feel like this moment is unprecedented, these juggernauts—or at least, some of them—have been here before. Indeed, the NRA is not reinventing their playbook as they sue the City of Los Angeles and other jurisdictions for closing down gun stores against the non-binding guidance of the federal government. They are merely revisiting a longstanding, but often overlooked, strain within gun rights thinking about government abandonment and social collapse.

The NRA is often outspoken and eager to act on government overreach in the form of gun control; the organization rallies against the specter of gun confiscation, its spokespeople have referred to federal agents as “jack-booted thugs”; and it is eager to launch lawsuits at local, state and federal actors deemed overzealous in their pursuit or enforcement of gun law. But there’s another approach that the organization takes to the government, a markedly less antagonistic one that concerns itself not with government overreach but societal collapse. From this perspective, the problem is not too much government but too little government—and too few tools in the wake of a collapsed state. Here’s Wayne LaPierre expressing this sentiment:

“What people all over the country fear today is being abandoned by their government. If a tornado hits, if a hurricane hits, if a riot occurs, they’re going to be out there alone. And the only way they’re going to protect themselves in the cold and the dark, when they’re vulnerable, is with a firearm. And I think that indicates how relevant and essential the Second Amendment is in today’s society to fundamental human survival.”

These comments were made in 2013 during a congressional hearing held in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, which left over dozen dead from gunshot wounds. LaPierre’s comments, however, weren’t directly addressing mass shootings but another brand of tragedy, one that leads to mass societal collapse and truncates government capacity. It is odd that he conflates riots with hurricanes and tornados—as if all three were examples of the savagery of nature bearing down on civilized society—but his point is clear: when disaster strikes at the foundation of society, a firearm is “essential…to fundamental human survival.”

Though the imagery he evokes is apocalyptic, LaPierre was not merely reciting the stuff of conspiracy theories, video-game narratives, or blockbuster movie plots. No, he was sampling from an under-appreciated track of gun politicking, one that has received a bizarrely small amount of attention from pretty much anyone outside of gun circles. The centerpiece of this strain of gun politics is the Disaster Recovery Personal Protection Act of 2006, an amendment to the 2007 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act that was passed with bipartisan support and signed by President George W. Bush. The Act forbids government authorities from seizing and confiscating lawfully possessed guns during a government-declared state of emergency, and by the NRA’s last count, 33 other states have also passed their own laws prohibiting confiscation and seizure of lawful firearms during states of emergency.

The Act was galvanized by seizures of firearms by officials in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina during mandatory evacuation orders. Hundreds if not thousands of guns were seized—many were taken from abandoned homes, but others were confiscated from their owners. Debate continues over how widespread they were, and whether they represented a uniquely opportunistic move against the backdrop of disaster or a more endemic reflection of corruption in local New Orleans agencies, but confiscations did happen, bolstering fears not just about disasters themselves but also their aftermath. As the NRA’s Chris W. Cox noted as the Act made its way through US Congress, “When 911 is non-existent and law enforcement personnel are busy with search and rescue missions and other duties, law abiding Americans want to defend their families and loved ones in times of emergency.”

For the most part, however, only the gun rights community has seemed to care much about these developments that are all-too-crucial to unpacking today’s gun politics. Much like Stand Your Ground laws prior to the killing of Trayvon Martin, the US public hasn’t paid much attention to how the gun rights lobby has already pre-paved the politics we see unfolding with respect to gun stores being deemed essential. In short: we’ve been here before, and as long as guns are central to how Americans make sense of insecurity—whether natural disasters, crime, or coronavirus—we will likely be here again.

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