A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
One of my old friends who is an ex-Vietnam vet, a Navy pilot, said to me one night, “Whenever I get mad at the government, I go out and buy a gun.” And to me, that’s a form of mimicking political action. One is left only with a gun in one’s closet. One has not changed or affected the government at all. -- Joan Burbick
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In the war of symbols, guns reign supreme in America -- meaning, owning a gun says more about your politics than how you use it.
Joan Burbick dissects the embracing of guns by the “gun rights movement” in her insightful book, Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy.
Unlike so many talking heads on the gun issue, Burbick gets it. She cuts through to the heart of the psychology of guns, and how the gun rights movement has invented a fear campaign -- that someone, the government, is going to take away their guns. The symbolic meaning of owning a gun is to reclaim political power, demonize minorities, distort the issue of crime in America, and distract Americans from the real issues of democracy.
Burbick is the author of Rodeo Queens and the American Dream; Healing the Republic; and Thoreau’s Alternative History. An award-winning scholar, she is a professor of English and American studies at Washington State University.
Oh, and in case any gun guys want to know -- Burbick also loves to shoot guns.
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BuzzFlash: In your great book, Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy, on page 131, you make the statement, “The gun has become a political fetish.” What do you mean by that?
Joan Burbick: People in a society find ways to avoid conflict, and instead they find substitutes for it. I think the gun has become one of those substitutes.
Instead of addressing the root causes of the inequalities in our society, such as the limits of access to education, jobs, housing, the legal system etc., we invent or come up with crime scenarios. The gun becomes the substitute way to solve conflict in the United States, and the biggest conflict of all is crime.
So that’s how I view it as a political fetish -- that it’s a substitution. This is a moment in the United States when access to political power is, I think, limited to a class of professional politicians and lobbyists. And the act of buying a gun can mimic political action. It makes people feel as if they are engaging in politics of political protest.
I’ll give an example of how I think guns have political meaning. One of my old friends who is an ex-Vietnam vet, a Navy pilot, said to me one night, “Whenever I get mad at the government, I go out and buy a gun.” And to me, that’s a form of mimicking political action. One is left only with a gun in one’s closet. One has not changed or affected the government at all. In that way, I see it as a fetish, a substitute.
BuzzFlash: And it doesn’t accomplish much. You end the paragraph with this statement: “Gun purchasing is a redirection of energy to perpetuate a political system that disempowers the buyer.”
Joan Burbick: Yes.
BuzzFlash: So it’s a futile gesture.
Joan Burbick: Yes, I’m making the judgment that, as a political act, it’s very, very minimal.
BuzzFlash: Let’s step back a second and start with the gun show. You’ve visited them many, many a time as part of your cultural anthropological fieldwork. When did you come to think the gun show could hold so many symbols and clues to decipher the role of the gun in American society?
Joan Burbick: I think one gun show I went to in 1995 was a real turning point for me. The book wasn’t in my mind, but it raised so many questions for me that I just had to have the answer.
I was basically kicked out of a gun show when I was trying to take photographs. And I just wanted to take pictures of everyday Westerners doing hunting, fishing, you know, relaxing, working. And one of the things on my list was gun shows. I was interested in asking: How do people interact with guns? I didn’t have an agenda, but I was told I couldn’t take photographs at the gun show. But they said I could come back in the morning, before the public was let in, and I could talk with the exhibitors. And I did that.
I went back and I said, “Can I take your photograph?” And if they said yes, they would then give me a lecture on American history and their political philosophy.
I listened to these lectures for a number of hours as I went from one table to the next. And some people basically didn’t want their photo taken, but they still wanted to give me a lecture. They gave me many history lessons and their view of America, and how they were the heart of America and patriotic citizens. And that language and system of beliefs are what I became interested in.
Why is it that we have political expression through gun ownership in the United States? And that’s the question I asked myself. And then this book, in a sense, evolved out of that.
Then I started going to gun shows more systematically. While I was there, I started listening to speeches, reading political pamphlets and magazines, interviewing people more intensely, going to gun rights meetings at the National Rifle Association. I started reading into the history of the National Rifle Association, and especially its previous publications that began back in the 1880s such as “The American Rifleman.”
I started getting into the historical discussions, and it brought me back into the turn of the century during the “advertised gun culture.” That’s when you had advertising with guns laced with political meaning.
BuzzFlash: What are the implications and differences of the “gun rights movement” as compared to merely owning a gun?
Joan Burbick: I think there’s a huge difference. There are many people who own guns who have no interest in the gun rights movement, which is very concerned with politics in the United States. And it’s really through the organized gun rights movement, the National Rifle Association, that you see the promotion and alliance with a conservative political philosophy.
Within the gun rights movement, you can trace the emergence of this rhetorical use of the Second Amendment as a political weapon. In other words, during the sixties and seventies, you had all kinds of social movements in the United States around civil rights and women’s rights. In response to these movements the Second Amendment has been cultivated by very conservative groups. I think the politics that are spoken by the gun rights movement are very conservative, and a reactionary political force in the United States.
BuzzFlash: The gun rights movement emerged as the civil rights movement gained in intensity. As women became more emancipated in the United States the gun rights movement came more vigorous, aggressive, and more energized.
Joan Burbick: If you look at the early literature out of the seventies you’ll see that there was an attempt to look at civil rights as “civil riots” and that the issue for civil rights was dated. It was too much a big government solution. What we needed was individual responsibility.
There was a psychological attachment to guns that I think is very important to pause over as it emerges within this discussion of individual rights and responsibilities. Gun rights ideology undermined social movements that were saying that political power and economic power needed to be extended to women and people of color in the United States.
BuzzFlash: This fits neatly with the right wing -- like the Grover Norquist outlook, for instance -- that it’s every man for himself, that we should shrink the federal government so small to drown it in the bathtub. According to the gun lobby, we’re not a collective society -- we’re a society of individuals who are best served by looking out for our own individual interests. And the gun rights movement seems to fit very snugly into that outlook.
Joan Burbick: Yes, and I also think that women were advocating for much stronger protection in the political system -- that they wanted their rights and their securities to be upheld through the courts.
I think Martin Luther King, Jr., for example saw the discussion of crime coming up with the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964. All of a sudden, everybody’s talking about crime. Why was that? Why is the issue now about self-defense, instead of talking about how to provide human security for citizens in the United States? And instead we get to these punitive, crime-stopping scenarios that are promoted all the time through the gun rights movement.
BuzzFlash: The psychological-emotional issues that are brought to bear by the issue of the gun for many of these white males far exceeds the object itself, or the attachment or even the expression of the right to own a gun. There’s a symbolic emotional value to ownership that really the gun can never fulfill.
Joan Burbick: I don’t think gun ownership can fulfill it, but it allows people to not have to face disturbing realities.
When Ronald Reagan spoke at the National Rifle Association meetings in the early eighties, he called NRA members “freedom fighters.” He gave them a moral and a political reassurance, telling them that they are the heart of America.
And I think that is a very powerful statement to say to someone “you have the moral right.” Now this is at the same time that there have been huge indictments after the sixties and seventies that white racism is endemic and systemic in the United States. That people in the middle class -- people who think of themselves as moral human beings -- are really part of the system that has created a system of injustice for many people.
I think you can wash away a lot of that confrontation with injustice by claiming you’re a freedom fighter. That’s a wonderful way to basically say, hey, you know, I’m not involved with this issue. I’m one of the good guys. I’m law-abiding. I stand for what’s right. I stand for what’s patriotic.
BuzzFlash: The NRA and gun manufacturers urge women to buy guns to protect themselves against men who might do them harm. But then the gun rights movement turns around and supports the rights of men to keep guns when women have restraining orders against them. According to the gun lobby, a man shouldn’t be prosecuted for having a gun, even if he is a domestic abuser.
Joan Burbick: It’s a crazy scenario in two ways. I think the emotional crime scenario for the gun rights movement has to do with the stranger who is attacking you, who forces his way into your house or your car, or the psychotic rapist who seizes you on the street. These are very emotion-related scenarios, which are constantly put forward as needing self-defense, and that means a personal weapon in order to defend yourself against it.
But the scenario, which is much less emotional, but extremely important for women, is the threat of violence from someone you know, someone whom you trust, or someone who you may have loved.
The woman protecting her child from someone invading her home triggers emotions. But the issue of domestic violence, which is extremely important to women, is really that she needs judicial and law enforcement protection.
There is a feeling in the gun rights world, if you can believe it, that women are abusing their power in the courts. They’re going too far with restraining orders. They’ve over-reacting to men’s guns. Well, women have a right to be protected against harm in their homes from people they know.
At one gun show a man said everyone in the world should be armed -- every man and woman. There would be no more domestic violence if you’re in your home and you’re basically cocking your weapon. I mean, this is crazy.
BuzzFlash: What did you find in terms of the reinforcing sense of community of the gun show?
Joan Burbick: I think to some extent there are people who basically view the circuit of gun shows as exhibitions or people who just like guns. There’s a personal side to it, and I think that people see that as part of the activities they do.
From the mid-eighties, you had the ability for a gun show to be much more of a commercial, discount gun market. So you have people going there who are really just wanting to sell as many guns as they possibly can. And they’ll use politics to sell those guns, too.
But there are other people who go there who aren’t quite as commercial. They’re hanging out with other people. They talk politics. There’s a lot American Legion-type activities where you have vets who have historical guns, and they want to talk about war through weaponry. So they’re like a community. There is a hunting community, and then, of course, there are people who are just looking for illegal guns to either use or sell.
BuzzFlash: What about the dark side of the gun show -- Nazi literature, literature that’s misogynist, and so forth?
Joan Burbick: I have been to only one gun show so far that did not display and sell hate materials, either newspapers, books or pamphlets and that was a gun show at the Coeur D'Alene Casino on the Coeur D'Alene Indian Reservation in Worley, Idaho. But otherwise, every gun show I’ve attended sold and distributed hate and racist material. Most gun shows I’ve gone to have book exhibits and some of them are quite extensive.
In addition you can buy and various posters, political bumper stickers, signs you can put up in your yard and in your windows. And you will find the most racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist material. I cringe at some of these. I’ve walked around and thought, my God, this is over the top.
Gun organizers have told me they’d stop these book exhibits. If they’d stop these book exhibits, then why are these materials still there? I think there is a hate language that a lot of people express with guns.
BuzzFlash: Do you agree that many gun rights enthusiasts -- the hard-core NRA members or fringe gun rights members -- are not necessarily advancing their own best interests in terms of focusing on the gun as a solution to their social anxiety?
Joan Burbick: Absolutely. I think the challenge is to put the gun down and speak about the society, and how to fit into it, in terms of collective solutions.
BuzzFlash: In the closing paragraph of your book, you wrote: “How much easier it is to believe in the politics of the gun and to fight for our right to be armed, than to step in front of the gun and build social and civil institutions that sustain our society and promote economic and political justice? The gun is ultimately a shortcut, a strategy to sidestep consent. Our will to engage in democracy is what is at stake. The question remains: Can we put aside the lethal politics of the gun and take up again the challenge of democracy?”
What is your forecast?
Joan Burbick: I’ve certainly heard the argument from the conservative gun rights movement over and over again over the last few years. And to me, it’s hollow. I think there is real energy in the United States to address meaningful change. And the Second Amendment as a political weapon is just a hollow strategy.
BuzzFlash: Joan, thank you so much for your time.
Joan Burbick: Thank you.
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BuzzFlash interview conducted by Scott Vogel.
Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy (Hardcover), by Joan Burbick, a BuzzFlash premium.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW