Anthropologists respond to Newtown Violence

Anthropologists Daniel Lende and Jason Antrosio have written posts about the recent violence at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Conn.  Lende’s post is called “Newtown and Violence–No Easy Answers.”  Here’s a selection:

With violence, there are no easy answers, as I wrote about in my summer piece Inside the Minds of Mass Killers after the Aurora Batman shootings.

One narrative – that Adam Lanza was mentally ill – is already waiting in the wings, prepped as an explanation. Another – where guns are the culprit – has exploded already with full force. Lanza used a semi-automatic assault rifle with extended clips and shot his victims multiple times. He had hundreds of more rounds to continue his killing. Without that firepower, he couldn’t have killed so many so quickly before taking his own life when the police arrived.

The United States urgently needs more and better mental health care. Regulating guns like we regulate motor vehicles seems reasonable, given how many thousands die from gun shots and from car accidents every year. Neither, though, gets us much closer to why.

Antrosio’s post, Semi-Automatic Anthropology: Confronting Complexity, Anthropologically, takes a different tack:

It really is not so complicated. The murder-massacre of Newtown was made possible by semi-automatic weapons. The answer is simple. Difficult, yes, but simple: a semi-automatic weapons buyback or other measures to reduce and restrict the weaponry. But as anthropologists, we may not figure this one out until we get walloped and wonder what happened.

Read both, and feel free to post related links, comments, and reactions.


*Cross-posted on ethnografix.

UPDATE: From a post by Tim Wise:

But know this: the minute we as a nation lull ourselves to sleep, and allow ourselves the conceit of deciding that some places are beyond the reach of evil, of death, of pain — while others are not, and are indeed the geographic fulcrum of misery itself — two things happen, and both are happening now. First, we let our guards down to the pathologies that manifest quite regularly in our own communities — the nice places, so called — whether domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, or any of a dozen others; and second, we consign those who live in the other places — the not-so-nice ones in our formulation — to continued destruction, having decided apparently that in spaces such as that there is really nothing that can be done. They are poor, after all, and dark, and embedded in a pathological culture, and so…

At the very least let us agree that there is something of a cognitive disconnect here, linked indelibly to the race and class status of the perpetrators of so many of these crimes, when contrasted to the way in which we normally, as a nation, discuss crime and violence.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

34 thoughts on “Anthropologists respond to Newtown Violence

  1. Sorry, but as I see it there IS an easy answer. These horrific crimes can be directly linked to media coverage. The tendency of the media to obsess over these incidents for weeks or even months on end encourages copy cats, motivated by the enormous amount of attention paid to the psychopaths who commit such crimes. I must say I find the media coverage truly disgusting. There is no excuse for this level of exploitation. It has NO redeeming social value. The message is clear: commit a crime this horrific or worse and become an instant celebrity. The media is responsible for such events and needs to take responsibility for them.

  2. Jason’s post is excellent. I, for one, am sick and tired of hearing people say that it isn’t easy. Of course it’s easy. Simply pass a new law banning the sale of guns (all guns) in the USA and enforce it. Isn’t that what laws are all about … enforcement? So why the delay? Why the discussions? Why the stalling? I really don’t understand what these people are playing at. I really don’t understand the hesitation.

  3. @Paul Moore

    I think you leave out a crucial bit of Antrosio’s reasoning: There is no easy answer to the question, ‘Why did this happen?’ but that’s the wrong question.

    “Anthropology cannot do the why, anymore than we can explain why the granary collapsed at that precise moment. We should not offer the why, because then we attempt to deliver something we cannot.

    “But in analyzing the conditions of possibility, there is much that can be done, and anthropology might help us make choices about those possibilities.”

    Lende, like Antrosio, does offer an answer to the relatively easier question, ‘How can we prevent similar mass-killings?’

    “The United States urgently needs more and better mental health care. Regulating guns like we regulate motor vehicles seems reasonable, given how many thousands die from gun shots and from car accidents every year.”

    As to your questions, “So why the delay? Why the discussions? Why the stalling?” there are those who benefit from the economic and political status quo. It is in the interest of some people in power to define the question in ways that prevent or limit change.

    (Note that this is not a conspiracy theory. I don’t think that Powerful People are colluding to prevent gun control. I think that individuals are working in what they perceive to be the best direction, but that economic and other social positioning affects those perceptions.)

  4. Has anyone else noticed that the remedies advanced so far, banning or licensing firearms or strengthening mental health services both assume that the fundamental problem is one of individual behavior—omitting consideration of cultural issues?

    Serendipitously, I have been reading Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. I find myself wondering about the relationship of NRA, let every individual arm himself to the teeth, attitudes and the distribution of the Appalachian nation and its Wild West offshoots. Here we are talking about a culture formed by Scots-Irish immigrants, many of whom were involved in violent resistance to the British crown before fleeing to the New World. There they were allowed to settle in the Appalachians and practice particularly harsh forms of Calvinism because they would serve as a buffer between the coastal plantations and the Indians (a practice modeled on Rome’s use of barbarians to fight other barbarians). During the American Revolution, they provided a high proportion of the troops who fought the British. The descendants of those rebels continue to provide a high-proportion of recruits for the U.S. military. All this leads to the observation that arming oneself to the teeth has long been associated with fear of government as well as hostile others (Indians, slaves, etc.). If you are a hunter, a rifle or shotgun is plenty. If you fear “the black helicopters” or armed attack by military or militarized police forces, it makes sense to possess as much firepower as you can.

    Please note: These observations are not intended as support for NRA positions. I am a fervent supporter of stronger gun control like that which makes Japan, where I live, a safer place. I suggest that unless we consider them, we will never comprehend the politics behind them or contribute to the debate as anthropologists instead of half-baked psychologists.

  5. Banning guns has worked elsewhere. The last school shooting in the UK was in 1997, in Dunblane, Scotland. Quite a shocking event. After that, all handguns were banned and all other weapons were severely restricted (no one was ever going to get hold of an assault rifle here). There haven’t been any school shootings since. The only gun control that works is a gun ban, not regulating weaponry anymore. Just ban the useless human-killing implements that people buy only out of paranoia and these incidents will stop.

    One thing I haven’t seen in the US media is a discussion of another would-be massacre that happened on the same day in Henan, China. A man, apparently with mental health issues, tried to attack children at a school with a knife on the same day Lanza was attacking Sandy Hook. The guy in Henan managed to injure about twenty children, a couple of them severely, but no one died. It’s quite difficult to kill people, even children, when all you’ve got is a knife. It’s easy to kill anyone with a gun. Sure, mental health is an issue, but a bigger one is the fact that wide availability of guns makes killing people easy to do if you want to do it.

    The cultural factor here is guns. Why do so many Americans feel it necessary to own handguns and assault rifles, weapons with no other purpose than ending human life? The Bushmaster assault rifle Lanza used can’t legally be used to hunt deer, so what is it for? Why are these implements of death so important in popular American ideas about masculinity? How did owning an assault rifle become connected to the idea of resistance to tyranny? If the government decided to go despotic and abrogate the constitution, the US military, the most powerful in the world, could crush private gun owners in a few short hours. Do these people not think through their ideas?

    I’m not sure ideas about the Scots-Irish in southern Appalachia apply to Connecticut or Colorado, although it does partly answer the question of why the gun lobby is so strong.

    The media idea is nonsense. Anders Breivik has been obsessed about by the Norwegian media but no one wants to copy him there. It’s not about the media at all. If these killers really wanted to be remembered, why on earth do they kill themselves? If they want fame, why are they so keen not to see it?

    Antrosio’s article gets my vote. It’s not complicated at all. Ban the murder-toys.

  6. I’d like to follow up on the question of media. I’m not sure wanting to be famous is part of the reason that these killers do what they do, but I think the media attention does create the idea that mass-killings are a thinkable possibility. I think “copy-cat” simplifies the idea too much, since often they are not copying details of the crime, but if we accept that violence takes cultural forms, then the media is certainly part of creating this one.

    Is there any evidence that “fame” is part of what motivates these men? (I realize in many cases we can’t ask them, but not all of them commit suicide.)

  7. “The media idea is nonsense. Anders Breivik has been obsessed about by the Norwegian media but no one wants to copy him there.”

    And you know that how?

    I don’t follow the Norwegian media, but here in the USA there is a clear pattern. The phrase “copy cat” says it all. It’s naive to assume troubled individuals bent on suicide have no desire to be remembered. And in these cases, the perpetrators are not only remembered, but literally doted on, with obsessive attention paid to every detail of their lives and everything anyone can recall them saying or doing.

    What troubles me especially is the tendency for any social problem to almost automatically become politicized, with the political angle taking over completely and little attention paid to the roots of the problem per se. The killings in Connecticut have thus become fodder for “progressives” frustrated over years of failed efforts at gun control.

    As a Democrat who considers himself progressive, I am definitely in favor of gun control. And if such events can help us move in that direction, that’s fine with me. However, it is a mistake to assume that any sort of gun control legislation that could realistically be passed is going to get dangerous weapons out of the hands of future copy cats. The genie is already out of the bottle. The weapons are out there in huge numbers and there’s no reasonable way to retrieve them.

    Mass murders. Immigration issues. Climate change. All are complex problems demanding complex, highly nuances solutions. When they’re reduced to fodder for politically inspired ideological disputes, nothing gets solved.

  8. I really think it’s a bit early to be trying to explain anything about the particular crime as we know nothing about the perpetrator or his motives as far as I can see, so the idea that we *can* explain this anthropologically, let alone offering *any* concrete explanation, is premature.

    To say that accessibility of weapons has a part to play in the explanation is trivially true, but I don’t see what anthropology has to do with coming to that conclusion.

    So what does anthropology have to offer on this issue?

    (1) Translation

    What *would* be a useful and a distinctively anthropological approach, using anthropologists’ capacity as culture translators, would be an attempt to understand the culture of guns in the US in such a way that renders it intelligible to those who would like to see more gun control. This might even be a useful basis on which to arrive at politically acceptable compromises, or it might not.

    In the cut and thrust of the culture wars, all possible justifications are advanced in the hope that some might stick, but to NRA enthusiasts, at home, among themselves, what is really at stake? Is it defence of the home against crime, defence against the state, the sacredness of the constitution, simple indignation at the prospect of being told what to do, an attack on canons of masculinity, loyalty to tradition? Maybe there are important regional or other demographic divides in what people think about these things — would be good to know. The book John mentioned in his comment sounds fascinating and would be one route into this question, but a historical approach is only going to be part of the answer.

    I get frustrated with anthropologists as a clan that we preach universal understanding elsewhere, but are often the first to jump to judgment in the discipline’s ‘home’ societies. The “principle of charity” should begin at home. If we can try to make the emotional life of headhunters intelligible to rest of the world we can surely do the same for the NRA. Precisely what do people who oppose gun control think? Under what assumptions does thinking those things make sense? Answering those questions, which would require research (perhaps it has been done?), would provide an anthropological explanation of the one aspect of the events in Newtown that we can say with confidence would be amenable to one. Looking for answers to these questions doesn’t mean we need to agree with these people in the end (though some anthropologists might do that) any more than trying to understand headhunters means we need to start killing people.

    Perhaps these questions occur to me because I’m a complete outsider, as a Brit, and the attachment of many in the US to guns just seems utterly exotic to me. I’m sure however, that many of those tens of millions who feel that attachment are quite sincere in their views and that they’re at least as human as headhunters.

    (2) Reporting

    The other thing anthropologists should be doing, this time in their capacity as reporters-on-other-places, is pointing out the disturbing discrepancy in the media/political reaction to tragic death in different places. It is no disrespect to the grief of those involved to point this out, and it needs saying. Tim Wise’s post linked to by Ryan does this powerfully by drawing attention to the way race and wealth of perpetrators and victims of crime affects the ways in which we emote and try to explain. This article, by Glenn Greenwald does so in relation to the killing of children in Pakistan and Yemen:

  9. I’m sure however, that many of those tens of millions who feel that attachment are quite sincere in their views and that they’re at least as human as headhunters.

    Absolutely. And as with any group of people, we have to make room for the possibility that they’re stupid or trying to protect their delusions. They may sincerely believe that assault rifles protect their liberty – but only a bone-headed fool could sincerely believe this. It’s just a fig leaf to cover up the fact that these people value the ownership of powerful phallic toys more than the lives of human beings. If you believe that your gun protects your liberty, as opponents of gun control claim, then you’re an idiot. What protects your liberty is not the puny firearm you own nor the threat to use it against the military should the government turn despotic.

    And guns don’t make you safer in any other respect, as all international statistics show. You can say that we need more research, and to try to understand the perspective of the pro-gun people, but I guarantee they won’t listen to the research and won’t give up their guns unless compelled to (and even then…). By all means do it – but don’t be surprised if they claim you’ve been paid off by the sissy liberal lobby.

    It almost doesn’t matter why Lanza did it. If he didn’t have a gun, it wouldn’t have played out like it did. He would have ended up as pathetic as the would-be Henan murderer, failing in his absurd task of killing children and being arrested instead of killing himself (another difference between a gun and a knife is the difficulty of suicide by knife). Most of these school shooters aren’t physically strong – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren’t, and neither was Adam Lanza. Neither were Cho and Holmes and all the rest. They all relied on their guns to kill people because there was no other way for them to do it.

    The only people who would even think about valorising these killers are people who wouldn’t be capable of murdering dozens of people without the assistance of modern firearms, and so, in the absence of guns, the media’s role is moot. There would be no cycle of violence without guns. That’s why there isn’t a similar cycle in the UK, despite effectively the same media obsession with the same killers.

    I used to live near Danbury and Newtown, and one of the kids who died was the son of a family friend. I don’t usually bother about shootings in the US because, frankly, they happen all the time and I now live thousands of km away. But this one was particularly egregious, and nobody seems to want to own up to the fact that guns killed those kids as well as Adam Lanza. It’s not the intent to kill that kills. It’s slugs of lead fired from rifled barrels at thousands of feet per second into limbs, torsos, and heads that kill. Get rid of guns and school shootings stop. It is not complicated.

  10. @Al West

    I wasn’t proposing to present a report to the NRA on what NRA supporters think so that they will see the error of their ways.

    It might be (but almost certainly not) that *proponents* of gun control could use knowledge of the views of opponents in order to come up with compromise proposals that would be politically acceptable to a sufficiently large slice of the electorate to pass. Or it might be that proponents of gun control might be able to develop more convincing education campaigns if they know what’s really behind the attachment to guns.

    For example, your argument that gun control makes other places much safer than the UK will carry no weight with someone who thinks it’s better to die than to live having given up the right to bear arms. Does anyone really think that? I don’t know, but I’d like to know, and if they do I’d like to know more about why they think that and what other assumptions support this view/follow from it. Even if we conclude that such people are bone-headed, and speaking for myself I feel I don’t know enough to reach that conclusion yet, it would be good to know why and how they are bone-headed. There are lots of boneheaded people in the world and they’re not all the same.

    I recently read Tanya Luhrmann’s brilliant new book about Evangelicals in the US — these are people who are often described as bone-headed reality-phobes, but Luhrmann really gets to the heart of their relationship to religious truth, and the place that their thought about doubt and certainty has in protecting their belief. It turns out that they are wedded to certainty as a virtue in its own right, but also that they are a lot less certain than they often appear and struggle with doubt all the time. Let this stand as the first work in the anthropology of bone-headedness (except for EP on secondary elaboration and all the rest)! And let there be more!

    “Get rid of guns and school shootings stop. It is not complicated.”

    Yes, that’s obvious, isn’t it? So the interesting question is why many people either don’t get it, or get it and think that the ongoing possibility of violence is a price worth paying. That’s what I’d like to understand and it’s what anthropology can add to the mix (being an anthropologist doesn’t give you particular insight into the lethal potential of guns)– whether it would do any good is a different issue.

  11. @ Chad Nilep

    I think you completely misunderstood my post. I was not suggesting that we need to find out ‘why’ the actual shooting happened. I was (am) saying that we need to get on with it and fix the problem now instead of waiting until it happens again (which it will). In my opinion, the main problem is not that the United States urgently needs better mental health care, but that guns can be freely bought all over the country in such places as Wal-Mart and Dick’s Sporting Goods. The very fact that such shops are allowed to sell guns (of any kind) is insane. Just the mention of new gun control measures following Friday’s massacre in Newtown had gun lovers all over the country rushing to buy new weapons to the extent that on Saturday, Colorado alone set a one-day record for background checks (4,200). That’s perverse!

    According to the New York Times, the tightening of gun rules in Newtown itself has been resisted for some years and residents have noticed “loud, repeated gunfire, and even explosions, coming from new places. Near a trailer park. By a boat launch. Next to well-appointed houses”. Even recent efforts by the police chief and other town leaders to gain some control over the shooting and the weaponry [has] “turned into a tumultuous civic fight, with traditional hunters and discreet gun owners opposed by assault weapon enthusiasts, and a modest tolerance for bearing arms competing with the staunch views of a gun industry trade association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which has made Newtown its home”.

    So even Newtown is not what it seems at first glance!

    According to Wikipedia, “the town offers many programs for area residents, and there are numerous parks and fields offering playgrounds, swimming, tennis, softball, baseball, volleyball, lacrosse, soccer, as well as a nature center and trails”. Yet the New York Times tells us that “people in the rural, hilly areas around Newtown are used to gunfire. In one woodsy stretch, southeast of downtown, the Pequot Fish and Game Club and the Fairfield County Fish and Game Protective Association, where members can fish in ponds and hunt pheasant, lie within a mile of each other, and people who live nearby generally call them good neighbors”.

    So let’s cut to the chase. Since time immemorial, humans have been developing ever more inventive and repulsive ways to kill each other. With the dawn of ultra-violent computer games and special effects in movies that leave nothing to the imagination, kids today (and many adults) are case-hardened to bloody violence. On TV programmes devoted to ‘preppers’, we see kids learning how to kill (with guns, knives and their bare hands). To put it bluntly, we’ve just about reached a point of violence saturation. Is it any wonder, therefore, that an ever increasing number of people can no long differentiate between reality and fantasy? Tough measures need to be put into place immediately. There’s no time to faff about trying not to hurt people’s feelings by taking their guns away from them.

    And to bring us completely up to date, President Obama’s endorsement of sweeping gun restrictions has caused a sudden surge in the prices of handgun magazines on eBay (of all places!) and semi-automatic rifles are sold out at Wal-Mart. The country seems to have gone mad.

  12. @Jonathan Mair,

    One of the things I’ve noticed about NRA folk is that compromise isn’t possible – and, moreover, that compromising on gun control doesn’t do any good. It’s impossible to find a halfway house and they will not accept any substantive changes that would actually stop these massacres from taking place. Lots of people have been trying for a long time, including the Brady Campaign, and all that has resulted are things like ‘Gun Free Zones’ that not only don’t work, they actually seem to provide a perfect target for the would-be gunman. All that MOLON LABE stuff makes it impossible for the nuts to compromise to any useful extent, and all the compromises that have been tried have been at best counterproductive. No research in the world will make a difference to this.

    I do agree with you that the pro-gun fringe in the US is an interesting phenomenon, and I’m sure Adam Lanza’s state of mind is interesting too. I found Dave Cullen’s Columbine absolutely riveting. But Lanza’s spree isn’t that complicated, and if you’re looking for the proximate cause, the one thing that allowed it to happen without which it otherwise wouldn’t have, it is to be found in widespread private ownership of military weaponry and Adam Lanza’s access to it. That’s what I’m interested in at the moment, in the immediate aftermath, and that seems to be what everyone wants to know.

    I wouldn’t necessarily call evangelicals boneheaded. But these gun nuts are boneheaded. Their arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny and when this is pointed out, their only response is to shout ‘sissy’, ‘faggot’, ‘slave’, ‘pussy’.

  13. I had very mixed feelings about these pieces. Lende’s piece included some much needed attention to at least the idea of context and complicating factors; on the other hand, the idea of violence as an individual mental/psychological pathology is just absurd. John McCreery’s right that the proposed solutions all assume the problem is individual behavior, but that’s because analysis like this assumes it form the start.

    I also appreciated Antrosio’s point that “it’s complicated” has become the ideological response of choice for political paralysis—and certainly it can be and often is this—but is the answer to that really the most wearying of all political cliches: the outside commentator who wades in and is shocked, shocked to discover that nothing has been done yet?

    How did we get to the point where even anthropologists are discussing gun control policy in such insipid terms? Anthropology can offer cultural histories of armed communities (as John McCreery did); or explore “gun culture” in a way that takes it seriously as an intelligible cultural phenomenon (as Jonathan Mair suggests); or compare cultural contexts in which guns are prevalent but gun violence is not; or point out that the rise of mass shootings and the dramatic spike in suicide rates tracks perfectly with neoliberalism; or explain neoliberalism as more than wealth redistribution or difficulty getting healthcare, but also the experience of mass alienation routinely punctuated by violence; or note that discussions of mental health are not in fact always benign, and in this case have done much to elide any larger social causes and instead privatize pathology; etc.

    Indeed, anthropology should be pointing out everything but the mere physical presence of guns. But instead we’re going to discuss policy?

    I don’t particularly like Tim Wise in general, but I thought his piece was actually the strongest of the three, and the racial dimension is crucial here. I do think he’s onto something with his loose hypothesis that privileged backgrounds create environments that cover up the social pathologies that produce mass shootings whereas impoverished communities do not. He’s also very right that when shootings happen in black and brown communities, everyone has a theory, but when the shooters are white, everyone’s confused: there is, essentially, a racial dimension to popular social theory.

    However, he doesn’t connect it to the discussion of mental illness in the pattern we’re all familiar with: white shooters are mentally ill, and we need to have a national discussion on mental illness. Brown shooters are terrorists, etc—and even here, there’s no mention of the racial (and very racist) history of gun control. These are precisely the kinds of arguments anthropologists are equipped to make.

  14. One other note: Anders Breivik’s gun was a Ruger Mini 14, which is essentially an M14 chambered for the same round used in the M16. The M14 isn’t a whole lot more than an M1 Garand with a large box magazine: ie, it is a Korean War era weapon not far removed from a WW2 era rifle. The only particularly notable thing about his weapon was that he was using hot shit modern optics on it. So too in Lanza’s case: yes, he used an AR15 pattern rifle and dressed himself up in some kind of fantasy of a modern warrior, but at the range he was using it (and on a bunch of kids, no less), there was no difference between his weapon and WW2 era M2 carbine. Per David Graeber’s argument and contra most people talking about gun control right now, weapons technology hasn’t really advanced much in the last 50 years.

    There is a point to all of this: weapons capable of enable mass shootings of this kind have been available for at least 50 years, and since I’d count the Thompson, WW1 is a better estimate. Mass shootings have not been happening since WW1. Clearly something more complex is happening here, and it deserves a better discussion than just saying “well ok, maybe it’s complicated but guns enable it.”

    So too with “gun culture” people: yes, they’re obsessed with “tactical” weaponry and fantasies of collapse and violence; yes, they fit into a larger cultural logic that aligns them with the libertarian and conservative right; yes, they’re rather scary.

    None of this is an excuse not to take it seriously. Indeed, if anything, it should make the critical task of understanding them more urgent, not less.

  15. Thanks Ryan for posting and to those commenting, I’ve learned a lot.

    For those interested in some ethnographic-historical take on these questions Dmitri Doukas (2010), Targeting the Gun Question: The “Culture War” in Scope in Anthropology Now provides an interesting backdrop, and ways to think about bridging political divides.

    The currently-popular notion that we need to have a “national conversation about gun control” is absurd. I believe we were supposed to have a national conversation about race some time ago…

    On this issue the only conversation we need to have is how to best reduce and ban the semi-automatic weaponry, following examples set by Australia or Britain. That conversation might include how to best reach people who have a knee-jerk negative reaction to “gun control,” but a conversation about gun control itself is pointless.

    One reason anthropologists might be involved in these issues is that many so-called Second Amendment arguments invoke a very bad anthropology, with assumptions about human nature, culture, and history which should be challenged.

  16. I think Steven brings up a good point when he asks us to think specifically about the kinds of things that anthropology can bring to the discussion, rather than just talking about one policy or another. We can bring in discussions of history, and also an important discussion about the “culture” part of all of the “gun culture” rhetoric going around (this is another case in which we are dealing with one of anthropology’s core concepts once it has been set free to be used in all sorts of ways). Another angle we can bring in, of course, is a more cross-cultural or global perspective about violence.

    I think that was part of the point that Tim Wise made in his piece: there is violence all around the world, but only in some cases/places it’s thought of as “shocking” or out of place. This “we are all so shocked it happened here this nice quiet town” narrative is really, really common. Maybe we should be asking more about what those consistent responses/reactions are all about–and then going out and looking into those questions.

    Jonathan M wrote:

    “I get frustrated with anthropologists as a clan that we preach universal understanding elsewhere, but are often the first to jump to judgment in the discipline’s ‘home’ societies. The “principle of charity” should begin at home.”

    I agree completely. This is a really good point, and a clear space where anthros can contribute something a little different to the conversations we hear (about the relationships between violence and gun culture, or all of the talk about the second amendment, and so on). I hear a lot of different sentiments thrown around about “gun culture” in the US. A lot of it gets pretty exaggerated or hyperbolic–or worse. I think this is as good a place as any to look closer, ask some questions, and try to learn more about what’s going on here.

  17. Thanks, Steven, for appreciating my excursion into cultural histories of armed communities. On another related point, I observe that our focus on white vs other differences in how shooters are perceived, as insane or terrorists (a very important point, indeed), we are still missing two other dimensions specific to the Newtown tragedy. First, the victims were children of elementary school age, a fact that taps the fears of middle-class parents already highly risk-averse when it comes to their kids. Second the massacre occurred in Connecticut. I note that while Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the Gabby Gifford all occurred in places—Colorado, Virginia, Arizona—that are easily “othered” by liberals living in the Northeast or on the West Coast. It is easy in these cases to feel, “shocked, sad….but not where I live.” Suburban Connecticut? That’s a whole other story.

    That said, speaking as a citizen, I totally agree with those who argue that step No. 1 is to ban sale of military weapons to civilians and register and license all firearms. As they say in police procedurals, the key questions surrounding a crime are means, motive, and opportunity. Eliminating means and reducing opportunity can reduce crime whatever the motives in question.

  18. I respectfully disagree, John. In my opinion, step No. 1 should be to ban the sale of ‘all’ weapons to civilians, not just military weapons. What makes so many people think that banning just military weapons will make a difference? As far as I am aware, most shootings are probably carried out using hand guns. Why, then, are so many people fixated on banning just military weapons and acting as if hand guns do not exist or do not actually kill? It really is very odd indeed. I have to ask myself why the American government is avoiding installing an outright ban on selling ‘all’ types of guns to civilians.

    It is clear now that Newtown is no ‘ordinary’, quiet little town as the press first made it out to be. It would appear that a lot of people who live there really love their guns in the same way that a great many Americans who live in ‘ordinary’, quiet little towns across the nation also really love their guns. What happened last week was truly awful, but with so many guns around, was it a disaster waiting to happen?

    To be honest, with so many guns lying around in the USA, it is amazing that not more children are shot dead – either intentionally or accidentally. On Tuesday last week, a 12-year-old boy from Missouri called Demetri Phillips was shot in the head and killed by his friend while the two were playing in his grandfather’s home. It seems that the grandfather kept the gun – which had no safety catch – under his pillow, and the bedroom door was unlocked. The police believe that the boy knew where his grandfather kept the gun as he was being raised by him and lived at the house.

    Just because the shooter in Newtown used military-style weapons does not mean that hand guns will not be the weapons of choice in the next school, factory or shopping mall massacre.

    Why do we never learn from history? Why do we never learn from out mistakes until it is too late?

  19. Paul, your idea may be the best. But this is, in my estimation, one of those situations where the best is the enemy of the good. It may now be politically possible to ban military weapons sales and institute a system of licensing and registration like that enforced for motor vehicles. Even that, however, may be a stretch. I observe that here in Japan, it is possible to purchase firearms for hunting or sport shooting, and the gun murder rate is very low. So I would rather move in a possible direction than hold out for an ideal solution whose time has not and may never come.

  20. Well John, although I naturally understand where you are coming from, it looks like we will have to agree to disagree on this one. The sheer number of shooting deaths in the United States each year must surely indicate that the passing of a bill banning the sale of all types of guns to civilians is well overdue. Anything less would be ridiculous.

  21. Ah! “Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen.” Otto von Bismarck.

    Bismarck also said that a conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.

    Politics is, above all, the art of stalling. It is the art of waiting until the damage is done and making it look like everything possible was done to prevent the damage.

  22. I am not quite so profoundly cynical as that. When I think back over the political movements that have been part of my life, I see three, partial but substantial, successes.

    1. The Civil Rights movement spearheaded by Martin Luther King.
    2. The anti-Vietnam War movement
    3. The feminist movement

    In each and every case, the movement addressed a grievance felt as a sustained and continuing wrong by large constituencies. Thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of people, were mobilized in actions that continued unabated until at least partial success was achieved. Is the anti-gun movement this kind of cause? I see a great deal of buzz in the media, plenty of anguished cries for action. Do I see mass mobilization? Tens of thousands joining hands and taking real personal risks to pursue a shared goal? Not yet.

    Paul, we agree on the goal. What is your strategy?

  23. John: I actually really don’t have a good sense of how mainstream discourse is treating suburban CT, but I guess it’s definitely true that this strikes closer to the heart of the imaginary public (ie, white middle class passive viewers).

    A few complicating points: last time I checked, Connecticut actually has an A- from the Brady campaign for firearms regulation. The state actually has an assault weapons ban of its own, modeled after the California AWB (though it is slightly more permissive). Handguns are virtually impossible to get ahold of unless you’re wealthy (concealed carry permits are issued if your town police department likes you), and long guns are subject to a week long waiting period, background checks, and long list of restricted cosmetic features (folding stocks, etc).

    I happen to know all of this because the town I’m from is two towns over from Newtown. I also think it would also be something of a mistake to characterize Newtown as some kind of hotbed of arms as Paul does, and in any case there is a huge difference between a mass shooting and accidental gun deaths (or even intentional murders).

    Part of the point I was trying to make about Breivik’s and Lanza’s weapons was that banning all military arms kind of missing the point. For the purposes of a mass shooting at close range where your victims are all essentially defenseless, just about any semiautomatic weapon made in the last century will be horrifyingly effective. Without getting into what I think of various firearms ban policies, actual assault weapons (ie, automatic weapons) have been illegal since 1934, and the distinction between military style arms and sporting weapons largely comes down to cosmetic features. Banning semiautomatic weapons at least has some teeth to it (and is a meaningful distinction, unlike the AWBs), but it’s hard to imagine that ever passing, and in any case it would need to accompanied by an extraordinarily aggressive buyback campaign (or just seizing them, but, uh, good luck with that).

    As I said earlier, I don’t think there’s a particularly meaningful discussion to be had about policy. I think there’s an interesting argument to be made that the mere presence of weapons creates a pervasive atmosphere of violence anathema to democracy because contra the right, an armed society is a paranoid, atomized society. David Graeber and Mark Ames (of all people) have argued this at various points. At the same time, my suspicion is this gets it backwards. Rather, weapons are fantasized about and purchased en mass and obsessed over in a climate of fear, paranoia, social atomization, and alienation—which is to say, neoliberalism.

    This is really the reason I intensely dislike policy discussions of weapons bans: they completely miss the larger social context that should be visible from the fact that guns have been around for a long time, but mass shootings are new.

  24. For the purposes of a mass shooting at close range where your victims are all essentially defenseless, just about any semiautomatic weapon made in the last century will be horrifyingly effective.

    Which is why all semi-auto weapons should be out of civilian hands. Obviously. What are they for? Almost all of them are for ending human life. Who needs that? People in Somalia might. People in Pennsylvania don’t.

    As for all the ratings given to different states, let me ask you this: when you go to Connecticut, do you have to go through a border checkpoint where police will go through your car looking for contraband as they do at an international border?

    The answer is ‘no’. It is trivially easy to bring guns into the state. This is why gun control doesn’t work if the controls aren’t law at a federal level, and it’s why gun free zones don’t work, either. You can just bring guns into whichever state or gun free zone you like with appalling ease.

    Also, you are right that weapons technology hasn’t changed much. What has changed is the wide availability of semi-automatic weaponry. Sure, a Thompson sub-machine gun could have been used in a massacre, but who owned such things? Not many people at all, even despite higher gun per capita gun ownership in the past. But lots of people own Bushmaster rifles these days.

    And even if neoliberalism is the answer to the broad question of why people feel it necessary to own guns, aren’t you interested in damage limitation? Do you really want to wait for a revolution against the status quo before stopping children from dying? Which is easier: wholly changing the status quo, to which the same gun-owners would likely object anyway, or starting a buy-back scheme and armistices to ensure semi-automatic weapons are relinquished from civilian hands?

    Guns are the problem and removing them, however hard that may be, is the solution.

  25. @ John

    I believe that I made it very clear in my previous posts what my strategy is. You are right when you say that we have not yet seen the mass mobilization of tens of thousands of people joining hands and taking personal risks to pursue the shared goal of banning the sale of all types of guns to civilians, but this does not mean that a great many people (possibly the majority, for all I know) in the United States do not want to see such a policy introduced. I have lived in many countries throughout my life, but I have never experienced such a climate of fear and distrust as the one I see in the United States. How many other ‘democratic’ countries have a Patriot Act?

    A few days ago, my wife and I were in a supermarket on Long Island when a man, who was also waiting at the fresh meats counter, started chatting with us. A few other customers were standing within earshot, so after we had bought what we needed, he pulled us to one side and, looking nervously over his shoulder, asked us if life in the UK was very different to life in the States. I explained to him that people in the UK (and in western Europe in general) were not afraid to say what they thought; that people could openly proclaim a dislike for the monarchy or the current ruling political party without fearing that neighbours, friends or family might report them to the police for being unpatriotic. Granted, things are not as bad in the US today as they were when George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law in October, 2001, but people are still very concerned about what their neighbours, friends and family might think of them if they do not fly the Stars and Stripes from their patios or do not support the troops in Iraq or Afghanistan. I cannot help but notice that many people here are reluctant to discuss such things for fear that they might be ridiculed or given the cold shoulder by people they have known for years. It is very telling indeed.

    While we were talking to the man in the supermarket, it was clear that although he was somewhat nervous about discussing such matters in a very public place, he also felt somewhat elated at having the opportunity to talk to, what he called, “two obviously well-educated people” about things that he would not normally bring up in general conversation. He said that he would now be able to go home and talk to his wife (who was a lawyer) and his friends about such matters with a degree of authority. He seemed genuinely relieved to have had the opportunity to get a few things of his chest, so to speak.

    My point is that if this one ordinary American felt nervous about discussing matters of politics and social policy in an open and honest fashion, how can we expect tens of thousands of people across the nation to join hands and take personal risks to pursue a shared goal of banning the sale of all types of guns to civilians? If last weeks horrific massacre was not quite enough to motivate the masses, maybe the next massacre will do the trick, or the one after that. And on it goes…

    The government has to act now. There should be no delays.

    I was not being cynical when I said that politics is, above all, the art of stalling. I was being realistic.

    @ Steve

    We should not just be talking about mass shootings. Mass shootings take place quite rarely. The majority of gun deaths (thousands every year in the United States) are one-to-one incidences using hand guns or rifles. Most are intentional acts of murder, but many (and the number is growing) are accidents where a child has found a gun belonging to a parent or relative.

    Guns exist for one reason and one reason only: to kill. That they have found there way into sporting events is just a sad and perverse secondary use of a very nasty invention.

    The hunting community will, of course, argue that they need guns to go hunting. But why do they need to go hunting in the first place? After all, there is enough fresh meat in the supermarkets. In medieval times, most ordinary people had to hunt to put food on the table. But this is the 21st Century. In general (I am fully aware that there are justified exceptions), hunters only hunt for the sport of killing. In this day and age, such blood sports are barbaric and should be banned. This is not a matter that needs to be broken down and analysed anthropologically. It is common sense.

  26. Paul, with due respect, a strategy is about how — and “how” is the operative word — to (I borrow the late Paul Wellstone’s words) energy, mobilize, and organize enough support to push effectively for what you want to happen. Developing a strategy begins with a SWOT (strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats) analysis of both our side and the other guys, then moves onto answering the how questions. “The government must act”? Morally, I agree. Politically? That’s no strategy.

  27. John, with all due respect back, it’s far too late for all that. Thank you for your lecture, regardless.

    An extremely large number of people are shot dead in the USA every year. Since last week’s school massacre, several more people have been shot dead. Just today, a Pennsylvania man shot and killed a woman in a church and two other people in different locations before dying in a shoot-out with police.

    Wayne LaPierre of the NRA recommended a strategy today: A national programme to place armed security in schools. His exact words: “I call on Congress today to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation.”

    Would that satisfy your SWOT analysis of both our side and the other guys?

    I’m being flippant, of course, and I apologize for that. It’s just that your request for a complex strategy when people – innocent men, women and children – are dropping like flies in this country due to gun crime is, to be perfectly honest, rather astounding.

    At the speed politicians work, by the time they’ve completed your SWOT analysis, a few thousand more people will have been shot dead. We have enough evidence already. Most people in their heart of hearts know what needs to be done: an immediate ban on the sale of ‘all’ guns to civilians.

  28. Astounding? Only, I suspect, to someone who doesn’t know how politics work. History is a long, bloody tale of idealists insisting that something must be done and done now. Sometimes they win enough support to push the ball forward a bit. Thus, we have gone from the America I grew up in, with segregated schools, women restricted to mother, nurse and teacher roles, and the Red Scare and immediate threat of nuclear weapons to one in which the schools are legally, if far from de facto, desegregated, my daughter is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, the Berlin wall has fallen, and, while there are too damned many nuclear weapons lying around, the threat of someone using them is much reduced. A perfect world? Far from it. A world where progress has been made? Undeniably. Let us agree that our sentiments are the same. Our estimates of what is actually possible radically different. Let us fight the good fight together and see what we can accomplish this time.

  29. Agreed, John. Let us fight the good fight together. But trust me when I say that I know more about politics (and business) than you could possibly imagine. One should never jump to conclusions.

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