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Guns and More Guns (and Girls and Less Girlishness) in the Aftermath of Sandy Hook

January 17, 2013

Greetings, gentle readers. It’s been awhile since we rapped at you on this here weblog, and we hope you all enjoyed your holiday breaks in spite of the seemingly interminable purgatory of our absence. In the time since our last post, not everything was candy canes and sleigh bells, though. As y’all no doubt already know, in one of the most tragic events in recent memory a young man shot and killed 26 people (including 20 children) in a Connecticut elementary school. Tragic and controversial—the shooting has (re)opened a heated discussion about our gun control policy here in the States. And this conversation shows us how our rhetorical characterizations can belie underlying ideologies.

Of course, in the anti-restriction corner, we have the NRA (wearing the red, white, and blue trunks of the true patriot and underdog it fancies itself to be…or at least it would be wearing them, if my metaphor held up and it were an actual person instead of a reef-like superorganism with the single-mindedness of the Borg and the levelheadedness of Yosemite Sam). A week after the incident, the NRA held a press conference where executive VP Wayne LaPierre said, in effect, it wasn’t the poor guns’ fault and actually the blame lies with that tired old whipping boy, the media. And in this case, “the media” includes everyone from the video game industry to the makers of violent movies to those pesky rappers with all their hip-hops. You can read the transcript of his entire statement here, but check it out: LaPierre says, in a somewhat incoherent and longwinded manner quoted in full below to preserve the full flavor of the incoherence and longwindedness:

There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bullet Storm [sic], Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Combat [sic], and Splatterhouse. And here’s one, it’s called Kindergarten Killers. It’s been online for 10 years. How come my research staff can find it, and all of yours couldn’t? Or didn’t want anyone to know you had found it? Add another hurricane, add another natural disaster. I mean we have blood-soaked films out there, like American PsychoNatural Born Killers. They’re aired like propaganda loops on Splatterdays and every single day. 1,000 music videos, and you all know this, portray life as a joke and they play murder—portray murder as a way of life. And then they all have the nerve to call it entertainment.

Nevermind that Bulletstorm is a sci-fi video game set in an unrealistic, fantastical environment, Kindergarten Killer is some obscure online flash game that no one knows or cares about, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse are immensely violent but don’t involve guns (this is the National Rifle Association after all, not the National Brute Strength Capable of Removing Body Parts and Maybe Beating People With Them Association), and I don’t recall many (or any) scenes in American Psycho involving guns either. Also nevermind that I have never seen a music video that “portrays life as a joke” (except when making actual jokes that have nothing to do with violence) and that it’s really unclear what natural disasters have to do with any of this. LaPierre still uses these pop-culture examples to argue that “a child growing up in America today witnesses 16,000 murders, and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18. And throughout it all, too many in the national media…act as silent enablers, if not complicit co-conspirators.” And “rather than face their own moral failings,” the mean old media picks on poor defenseless (ha ha ha) gun owners.

He argues that “gun” isn’t “automatically a bad word,” and that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” saying that we protect banks, airports, and other important places and people with armed security, so why not schools?

In effect, LaPierre is saying that what we need to prevent the misuse of guns is more guns. This is a standard NRA line, pretty unsurprising to anyone who’s lived through media coverage of more than one spree killing. Still, I stumbled across another response to the Newtown shooting that got me thinking about how that argument really works.

On the well-known bastion of rational and non-histrionic thought The National Review, author Charlotte Allen pulls a rhetorically fascinating move when she claims that part of the problem is that there weren’t any dudes around to stop the shooter. She points out that all the personnel of the school were female, and that “there didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees.” Let’s ignore the apparent assumption that only male janitors are capable of heaving buckets, and Allen’s acknowledgement that “the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, seemed to have performed bravely…she activated the school’s public-address system and also lunged at Lanza, before he shot her to death,” because Allen seems to believe that the results would have been different if she’d been male. She asks us to “think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza.” Now, I was never really one for high-school football, but as a former husky 12-year-old boy I can tell you that I certainly wasn’t fat enough to be bulletproof so I’m pretty sure that quarterbacks and chubbies or not they would’ve ended up just as tragically dead as Hochsprung. But I digress.

Allen argues that “a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak—but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel.” This puts her on tricky rhetorical ground, but when you consider that the overwhelming majority of spree killings are perpetrated by aggressive men, including in schools and at work, at its root it’s awfully similar to the argument advanced by LaPierre.

Both are saying that we need more of something that had a direct hand in the incident, but more of a different kind of the same thing. Guns and aggression aren’t the problem, it’s a particular kind of aggressive individual holding a gun that’s the problem. To make this argument, both LaPierre and Allen need to split the categories of “guns” and “male aggression” into two, and contrast it with something else. For instance, LaPierre has his good guys and bad guys, Allen has femininity vs. productive masculine aggression. In this way, the argument can be turned against some typical conservative scapegoats—gun control (which limits the access of good guys to guns) and feminism. In this way, the threat that this event would seem to pose to ideologies that value guns and traditional gender roles are neutralized by the creation of sub-categories that allow the ideologies to remain intact.

If you want to know more:

  • Splitting “people who use guns” and “male aggression” into “good guys with guns vs. bad guys with guns” and “aggression on behalf of the weak vs. aggression designed to harm” is an example of dissociation of concepts, an idea in Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New Rhetoric. It’s also something that we’ve written about here from time to time.
  • I’m not going to pull a Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine here and claim to be an NRA supporter or gun enthusiast or someone who merely thinks the organization has lost its way. Rather, in the interest of full disclosure and as if my snark above doesn’t make it clear, I’m going to say that I think the organization’s entrenched insistence on the right of everyday folk to own and carry around without restriction instruments designed for no other purpose than to hurt or kill other living things is misguided and sick. While I dig the Bill of Rights as much as the next guy, regardless of what the Second Amendment says I don’t understand why a civilian should want to bear arms. So yeah, I’m maybe kinda what the NRA would want you to think of as an “extremist” here. So be it. At least I’m not claiming allegiance with “everyday Americans,” and I don’t think my stance discounts my analysis above.
  • It makes me feel like a defeatist to admit this, but it was really hard for me to not get really depressed after typing the phrase “anyone who’s lived through media coverage of more than one spree killing.” It just kind of hit me how often we have to go through this shit. Not just the part where it’s, like, really common for people to take up arms against their fellow humans and just up and shoot a bunch of them for like no reason, but then all the senseless talking in circles that follows, to which my above post contributes, I guess. If that doesn’t make you wish for some Q-type species to put humanity on trial all “Encounter at Farpoint”-like then I don’t know what will, because man, we kinda deserve it.
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