Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #146: America wants gun control. Why doesn’t it have it? (revisiting)
Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday.
Chris Tomlins: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to our spring semester Jefferson Lecture. My name is Chris Tomlins. I am a law professor here at Berkeley. And I’m also the current chair of the Jefferson Memorial lectures Committee. On behalf of the committee, on behalf of Berkeley’s Graduate Division, it’s my very great pleasure to welcome Gary Younge as our speaker this afternoon, and to welcome him to Berkeley.
Now, the Jefferson Memorial Lectures were established in 1944, through a bequest from Elizabeth Bonestell and her husband Cutler Bonestell. The Bonestells were a prominent San Francisco couple who cared deeply for history, and who hoped that the lectures that they were endowing would encourage students and faculty and scholars and members of the extended Berkeley community to study the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, and in particular, to explore the values inherent in American democracy. And parenthetically, if I am allowed the observation, never, we might agree, has that hope of the Bonestells been more important than the times in which we live.
Now the role of past lectures, which stretches back nearly 60 years now, includes such names as Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick, Senator Alan Simpson, Representative Thomas Foley, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Walter LaFeber, Archibald Cox, and more recently Annette Gordon-Reed. And these lectures have delivered Jefferson Memorial Lectures on early American history, on the subject of Thomas Jefferson himself, but also on American institutions and policies, in politics, in economics in education and in law, and it is a real delight to me that professor Gary Younge has accepted our invitation and has added his name to this list.
Now, in April of this year, I believe, Gary will take up a position as professor of sociology at Manchester University in the United Kingdom. He is probably best known to many of us through his long association with the daily British newspaper, the Guardian, in which he has been the U.S. correspondent for many years, and was until recently, editor-at-large. Some of you may be aware that the Guardian was founded 200 years ago as the Manchester Guardian. Its role then, was to be as it were, the mouthpiece of the city’s cotton manufacturers, the Lords of the Loom. Fortunately, its politics have changed a little since then.
Professor Younge has written five books, his most recent is entitled Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives. It was published in 2016. It tells the story of all the children and teens shot dead in one day in the United States. It’s an exploration of this population, this population of dead children who had in common simply, their death on a particular on one day in the country. The book won Columbia University’s J. Anthony Lukas Prize. His other books include The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream, published in 2013. Also, Who Are We And Should It Matter In The 21st Century? published in 2011. And Stranger in a Strange Land: Travels in the Disunited States, published in 2006. Finally, No Place Like Home: A Black Briton’s Journey Through the American South, published in 2002.
As those titles indicate, Gary took his role as U.S. correspondent for the Guardian very seriously, and journeyed to places that many of us have never been to inquire after the lives of ordinary Americans in those places, to inquire after their hopes, their fears, their anxieties, their ambitions.
In addition to his award-winning books, Gary Younge has also written for some time, a monthly column “Beneath the Radar” for the Nation magazine. And he’s the Alfred Nobel a fellow of the Type Media Center, formerly the Nation Institute, in New York. He’s also recently a major contributor to the Guardian‘s award-winning multimedia investigation “Beyond the Blade,” which documents the knife deaths of children and teenagers across Britain in 2017. For that work, he won Feature Writer of the Year from the UK Society of Editors Press Awards, and Feature of the Year from the Amnesty Media Awards. He’s also a radio and television personality, a broadcaster, and his documentary subjects in that role have ranged from gay marriage all the way to Brexit.
Gary Younge attended Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He joined the Guardian in 1993. In 1996, he was awarded the Lawrence Stan Fellowship, which sends a young British journalist to work at the Washington Post for several months. After years of reporting from all over Europe, Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, in 2003, Gary was appointed the Guardian’s U.S. correspondent, as I’d mentioned, where he was based first in New York, then in Chicago.
Five years ago in 2015, he returned to the UK, to London, where he became the Guardian’s editor-at-large. Now as an introduction to his lecture this afternoon, Gary notes, “If having a gun really made you safer, then America would be one of the safest countries in the world, but it’s not. While Americans consistently favor more gun control, gun laws have generally become more and more lax. That’s partly due to the material resources of the gun lobby, but it’s also about the central role of the gun, what it represents in the American narrative, and the inability of gun control advocates to develop a counter narrative.” And that is his subject this afternoon. So without more ado, please join with me in welcoming Gary Younge to Berkeley. Thank you very much.
Gary Younge: Thank you. Thank you very much for that generous introduction. And thank you for inviting me to deliver this lecture. It’s a real honor. And some, if not here then on the video, may wonder why you would invite Britain to deliver a lecture in the Jeffersonian series. But I do feel that my particular route to Britishness chimes, at least a little, with Jefferson’s route to his own American identity. My mother immigrated to Britain, where I was born, from Barbados in ’62. My forebears came to Barbados from Africa as slaves several generations before. So Jefferson and I, at least, at the very least, have an intimate connection to the slave trade, by way of the Americans and a healthy contempt for colonial rule in common. And that connection does shade my relationship to both countries. I come less in the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville and the transatlantic than the tradition of C.L.R. James and Claudia Jones, and the black Atlantic.
The racial geography of my own personal history does not often sit comfortably, with reflexive patriotic repast, to which the British are usually treated when commenting on comments in this country. While writing as a foreign correspondent for the Guardian in New York after the last week of Iraq, a white American reader wrote to inform me that if it wasn’t for us, you’d be speaking German. And I pondered what such a claim could possibly mean to someone whose ancestors originally came from Africa to the Americas as slaves and his parents were colonial subjects. And I responded, “Actually, if it wasn’t for you, I’d be speaking Yoruba.”
So, I wanna emphasize initially that the critique I should offer over the next 40 minutes does not come from a position of Anglo-centric superiority. How could it? I recall when I left America in 2015 to return to Britain after reporting here for 12 years in the midst of the Black Lives Matter crisis, and having just written a book on gun violence, people asked if I was leaving America to escape racism. If I was leaving America to escape racism, I’d ask, “Do you honestly think I’d be going to Britain?”
Furthermore, I have two American children of my own. So I have skin in this particular game, and it’s black skin in the game, where the rules are stacked against them. And then finally, there are Jefferson’s own words from 1817 regarding my home country. He wrote, “A revolution in England now, I believe, is unavoidable. The crisis so long expected.” This is in 1817. “Inevitable as death, although uncertain like that and its date, is that length arrived. The government has acted over again, the fable of the frog and the ox and their bloated system has best.”
Just over 200 years later, many of us are still waiting for this revolution, and yet it never seemed further away. We can but dream. But I’m gonna come back to that as I tried to show the one of the central challenges that America has with regard to the availability and presence of guns and gun violence is in no way unique to America, and in some respects has nothing specifically to do with guns.
So, I wanna talk today about the stories that nations and cultures tell themselves. In many ways, their default understanding of who they are and why, and how this can allow the impermissible to persist, the unacceptable to be commonplace, and in some moments, the extraordinary to become possible.
Let’s start with my own challenges as a foreign correspondent based here in New York, and then Chicago. There were two things that were really hard to explain to any other western audience, not just Britain, anywhere else in the West. And one was health care. They just didn’t understand it. Why don’t they want healthcare? People would ask genuinely, not for a position of superiority, from a position of being genuinely perplexed. Why don’t they want that? Every other western country has it — it’s good for capitalism. If people are healthy, they can work. They just didn’t get it.
And the second was guns. Why do they want them? No other western country has them in anywhere near the same number. And this latter question would emerge episodically after the mass shootings that made it through, first of all, into the American media, because most mass shootings don’t, and then out into the foreign media. And there was a weariness that would wash over me as I picked up the phone to the desk in London, following a massacre and they would say, we want 800 words by 6 o’clock on what this would mean for gun control. And I could say, “Well, I could give you one now, nothing.” And I’d write something anyway because that was my job. But there was a certain amount of Kabuki about it, because so little had generally changed since the last time I’d answer the same question.
And what truly confused my English colleagues and others, wasn’t that the U.S. wouldn’t do what, for example, Britain did after the Dunblane shooting in Scotland in 1996, when a man went into primary school and shot dead 16 children and the teacher and himself. After that tragedy, the conservative government banned all cartridge ammunition handguns, with the exception of .22 caliber single-shot weapons, which were later banned by the Labour government. They wouldn’t expect America to do what Australia did after Port Arthur massacre in 1996, when 35 people were murdered and 23 injured. Back then, John Howard’s Conservative government, once again a conservative government, introduced a non-binding National Firearms Agreement with the ban on all semi-automatic rifles and all semi-automatic pump-action shotguns and a system of licensing and ownership controls. They wouldn’t expect America to do what New Zealand did after a gunman entered two mosques in Christchurch last year and shot 51 people dead and injured 49, which was to pass a ban on the same day of some semi-automatic rifles and shotguns.
What they did expect after Sandy Hook, or Columbine, or Parkland, or Las Vegas, or Pittsburgh, the ones we’ve heard of, was that something would change. The public pressure, outraged fear, would force some kind of movement — that no country with a functioning democracy would see these atrocities and then do nothing. And this is what people beyond the shores and many people within the shores found difficult to fathom. For, in this regard, those who insist on American exceptionalism really have a case when it comes to gun deaths. This book I did which was about all of the kids who were shot dead in one day, it’s only possible in America and no other western country could you write that kind of book about any kind of death in one day. American teens are 17 times more likely to die from gun violence that their peers in other high-income countries.
In the UK, it will take more than two months for a proportionate number of child gun deaths to occur at the rate they occur here each day. And that pain is not evenly spread. For comparable murder rates for black America, you have to look to Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria or Rwanda. The book that I wrote is a show book, not a tell book. It’s not a polemic. When I say at the beginning, quite boldly: “It’s not a book about gun control. It’s just a book about what happens when you don’t have gun control.” But just as an indication of the desire abroad to kinda understand what this is about, I’ve written five books and this is the only one that’s been translated. That could be because the other books are awful. But the point is that this is the one that was translated. And it’s been published in four languages Italian, Spanish, Dutch and French, other that English.
So, I’ve done publicity events all over Europe, and everywhere I’ve been, journalists, interviewers, people at literally events, ask more or less the same question: How can this carry on? And that’s not because these countries are particularly liberal, far from it. Fascism is once again a mainstream ideology in Europe. Immigrants are being left to drown in the Mediterranean. Laws are being passed against what women can and can’t wear. Jews have been advised not to wear yarmulkes in Germany. Italy, where I’ve done more events than anywhere else apart from Britain, had the original Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, a Permatang businessman with a tenuous grip on how democracy works enmeshed in various scandals, both sexual and financial.
Nor is it because America is more violent — it’s not. It’s simply more deadly. And only here, when I promoted the book here, did it even become a pain remotely controversial to even tell the stories of these young people whose lives were cut short. During radio programs, phoning programs, people would want to blame parents or video games. One caller insisted that if you just took a few cities out of America, then that statistic would drop dramatically. “Well, which cities would you like to take out?” I asked. “New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia?” But then where would you get your jars from? Where would you get your deep dish pizza from? Where would you put the Liberty Bell? You can’t just start imagining a country without people or cities.
“You’re exaggerating,” another told me. “Shootings in these countries are on a par with Brazil.” “Since when did America compare itself to Brazil?” I asked. Brazil does not claim to be the leader of the free world. But for all that, as it happens, part of the confusion when it comes to American views on guns is easily cleared up. Because a straightforward answer to the question, “Why don’t Americans want gun control?” is that they do, or at least some form of it, and in increasing numbers. According to Pew, the research organization, in the last few years, the percentage of those who believe gun laws should be stricter has risen from 52%, effectively half, to a clear majority of 60%.
Meanwhile, the number of those who think they should be less strict has fallen from 18 to 11%. Also a clear majority, 76%, are confident that stricter gun control would reduce the likelihood of mass shootings and a plurality of those are very confident about that. And then there are far less gun owners than even Americans believe. A Washington poll survey in 2018, found that on average, people estimated at 43% of their fellow citizens owned guns. Indeed, 45% of respondents guessed that 50% or more of the American population and at least one gun, but in reality, the number of Americans with guns has plummeted from 50% in 1977, to 31% in 2014. And that’s one of the lowest levels in 40 years.
Now, when it comes to what kind of gun control, there are significant differences. More than 90% of people are in favor of barring people with mental illnesses and purchasing guns. More or less the same number support making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks. Close to three-quarters support banning high-capacity ammunition magazines, and that’s also growing, while two-thirds back banning assault style weapons. While the percentage of those who favor gun control over gun rights has dropped from 60 to 53% over the last two decades, it has still led over the last two decades for all but three years. And on a state level, there have been some advances. In Virginia, just last month a bill to ban the sale of assault-style weapons and possession of high-capacity magazines continued its progress. In 2018, a referendum calling for more gun control in Washington State passed resoundingly.
And as opinion is shifting, the chief opposition to more gun control is in disarray. The National Rifle Association, the NRA, is beset by a range of scandals, mismanagement and infighting. Stories of lavish spending by top executives and a crisis in financial management has been compounded by a rash of board member resignations and an attempted coup. Within a relatively short period of time, it lost its president, Oliver North, and a top lobbyist Chris Cox, who’s close to Trump. Ackerman McQueen, its ad agency for nearly four decades, quit. The once influential NRA TV closed down after some of its content became even too much for the diehards. One segment added Ku Klux Klan hoods to trains in Thomas the Tank Engine — extensively, a broadside against the show’s producers, who were trying to make its characters more diverse. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, the NRA spending has nosedived from $27 million during the 2014 midterms to just $9.5 million in 2019.
So, the question remains, how can a policy like gun control be so relatively popular at a time when its adversaries are so seriously weak prove nonetheless to be so consistently elusive on a national level? Now, there are no shortages of arguments about why they should be, and I wanna run through them quickly, the more familiar arguments, because most of them have merit.
The first is a powerful interest of the gun lobby. Even in its weakened state, the NRA retains considerable influence. But if its current ailments prove fatal, unlikely but possible, the industry would find another mate. The American gun business is a $28-billion industry. No sector of that size will sit by and watch its product vilified when it’s making that amount of money.
Then there’s electoral gerrymandering. There may be a rule majority for some forms of gun control, but beyond barring [people who are] mentally ill or buying guns at gun shows, it’s heavily weighted towards Democrats. Sixty percent of the country may think gun control laws are too strict, but only 20% of Republicans do. Two-thirds of the country may be in favor of banning assault-style weapons, but only half of Republicans are.
And this is mirrored in another trend, which is let along with the fact that there are fewer gun owners, those who do have guns have more guns. A 2004 survey found the average gun owner owned 6.6 firearms and the top 3% of gun owners owned about 25 guns each. A Washington Post analysis in 2015 found that the average American gun owner was up to owning approximately eight guns, double the number they owned in the 1990s. A CBS poll taken in March last year found that roughly one in five gun owners owned 10 guns or more. So you have a smaller number of people who are even more armed than they were. But in most areas where politicians get to pick their own electorates, thanks to gerrymandering, they skew districts towards their bases while marginalizing their opponents. So long as electoral districts remain uncompetitive in general elections, then where Republicans are viable, they need only to play to their base and their base loves guns.
Then there’s the awkward fact for gun-control advocates that gun rights supporters seem to want it more. According to Pew, once again, those who believe gun laws should be less strict are more likely to contact public officials on the issue, more likely to give money to organizations that support their views on gun ownership. As Jefferson once said, “We in America do not have government by the majority; we have government by the majority who participate.” Gun owners and advocates are more likely to participate. They’re also more effective. Gun rights advocates are more likely to vote on that issue and that issue alone, withdrawing their support from those that don’t agree with them, than gun control advocates. Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank once said they don’t have shootings at rifle marches. They write and they call. The NRA, person for person, are influential because they lobby that way.
Now, shifts in any of these areas would make a crucial difference in the pursuit of reforming gun laws to make them more or less strict, and yet, without a far greater reckoning with the broader culture, I think none of them would make a decisive intervention.
Now, to understand why, I wanna relate just a moment an incident from my book. There were 10 kids who lost their lives to gun violence on Nov. 23, 2013, a completely random day. The youngest was 9. He was shot by his mom’s ex-lover when he answered the door. The eldest, Kenneth Mills Tucker, was just a few days short of his 20th birthday when he died in a shootout on the outskirts of Indianapolis. And it’s Kenneth’s death I wanna talk about, because as the guns blazed that night, a stray bullet shattered the window of a nearby apartment where a couple was watching television as their 2-month-old baby slept. The man in the apartment called 911 with panic in his voice, “I need to get out of here,” he told the dispatcher. “Can you get a car so I can get out of here?” The dispatcher replied calmly. “I think there are several officers already over there.” The 911 recordings reveal the man breathing heavily as he talks to his partner, “Put the stuff in the baby bag, we’ll find it tomorrow, we’ll carry it to a hotel.” He urges the dispatcher to hurry up and rescue them until she loses her patience. “They’ll be there as soon as they can, all right,” she says. “As soon as they can, okay? Just stay inside your apartment. Don’t go out, we’ll get an officer to you.”
Now, four months later, the NRA held their convention in the same city. And the organization’s CEO, Wayne LaPierre delivered a demagogue, an apocalyptic speech entitled “Stand and Fight.” That was the theme of the convention. And he evoked the nation in peril and demise. “There are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapists and haters and campus killers and airport killers, and I asked you, do you trust the government to protect you? We are on our own. The things we care about most are changing. It’s why more and more Americans are buying firearms and ammunition.”
Now, I think that the man who called 911 that night would have been far more receptive to that speech after his experience than before it. The dispatcher told him to sit and wait. LaPierre told him to stand and fight. And that chimes with my journalistic encounters at several NRA conventions that I’ve been to. Then, when I report from these conventions, my voice goes up a couple registers. I try to sound a bit more like Hugh Grant, hoping that the poshness and the Englishness will mitigate the blackness. There are very few black people at NRA conventions. But I also want to emphasize my foreignness. Because I say to them, “I don’t understand this, explain it to me.” And I act in the interest of my readers, and I say, “Explain to me, we don’t understand.” And the answer is almost always the same. They say, “Are you married?” “Yes.” “Do you have children?” “Yes.”
And then they’re off to the races: “Imagine someone broke into your house, they were gonna rape your wife, they were gonna kill your kids, they were gonna take everything that you had worked for, what would you do? Would you wave a bat at them? Would you call the police and wait for them to come and pick up your dead bodies? Would you run and get your wife and kids to run? Or would you stop and defend yourself and your family?
Now there’s an intimate connection between those questions, LaPierre’s dystopian address, and a man’s call that helps explain the situation we are in when gun control is both popular and more elusive. For that collection goes beyond the weapon itself and the piecemeal laws that might control it to some of the country’s most cherished myths and pervasive pathologies.
When the national narrative is a story of conquering, dominating, force and power, a broad atavistic attachment to the gun can have more pull than narrower rational arguments to contain it.
Now before I go on to explain why and how, I just wanna spend a moment talking about narrative because it’s central to the point I’m trying to make here. And I wanna be clear: By narrative, I mean the story that we, as members of a community, or in this case, a nation, tell ourselves about who we are and how we got here.
There’s a quote from Benedict’s Imagined Communities. It says, “I propose the following definition of the nation: It is an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It’s imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them or even hear of them. Yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”
Communities are to be distinguished not by the falsity or genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined. The nation is imagined as a community because regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is conceived as a deep horizontal comradeship.
Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill as willing to die for such limited imaginings. Countries are constructs. Indeed, they are a relatively new idea in which a state seeks its legitimacy through culture. Or in the words of Massimo d’Azeglio with the first meeting of the newly united Italy’s infant parliament in the 19th century, “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.”
Now, you don’t have to buy into all of that to grasp the basic notion that people have to be connected by some general sense of who they are and why for a national project to work. The connection might well be contended, they almost always are. Some may oppose the dominant narrative, others may embrace it. Everyone may have a different idea of what it means, but it is a thing that they gathered around, ideologically, polemically, and culturally.
To illustrate the point elsewhere for just a moment, I come from a country that is suffering the trauma of adapting it’s national story to global realities. For years, British people were raised with the understanding that the sun never set on the British Empire. The British had been this small, plucky country, not invaded since 1066. To hear our nationalists and patriots tell it, we won the second world war on our own. No help from the Soviet Union, America, or its former colonial possessions. Oblivious to July the fourth, and much of the rest of the globe’s national celebrations of winning sovereignty, Britain doesn’t have an independence day. It simply looks askance, as most of the rest of the world celebrates independence from it.
Since the Suez Crisis of 1956, Britain has been struggling with the fact that its power and influence had shrunk. During the Brexit campaign came the slogan, “Let’s put the great back into Great Britain.” And after Empire Paul Gilroy, an academic observed this of the chant, two world wars and one World Cup that rings out whenever England played Germany in soccer. The boasts to which this phrase gives voice is integral to a larger denial. It declares that nothing significant changed during the course of Britain’s downwardly mobile 20th century. We are being required to admit that the nations which triumphed in 1918 and 1945 live on somewhere, unseen but palpable.
So, when the question of whether to stay in the European Union or not emerged, Britain had a sense of being far larger and more powerful than it really was. As it transpired, we literally became weaker overnight. On referendum day, the leave campaign reminded us that we were the fifth largest economy in the world, and we could look after ourselves. By the following afternoon, once we’d voted to leave, the value of our currency was sufficiently depleted that we were now the sixth largest economy in the world behind France. The Danish finance minister said, “There are two kinds of European nations: There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realized that they are small nations.” We are the latter.
And these national stories do not stand still — they can and do cripple us. Which brings us back to America and the scenario so vividly painted by the NRA enthusiasts, and the man and his partner and their child that night, in November 2013.
In a society that fetishes self-reliance, the gun speaks to rugged individualism. Each person should be responsible for saving themselves. In a political culture that favors small government, the gun stands as a counterpoint to a lumbering of inefficient state: Defend yourself, because by the time police get there, you’ll be dead. It underpins a certain sense of masculinity and homestead: A real man should be able to protect his family and his home. It’s about violence, not necessarily wanton, reckless, cavalier violence, but it’s violence all the same. It’s a gun. How could it not be?
James Welch, an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Arlington once wrote, “In order to justify the necessity for guns, the gun rights narrative must continually reaffirm the frontier spirit which makes self defense essential and militia duty compulsory.” Despite the fact that the frontier has long since to be a common experience for Americans, the staunchest gun advocates go to great pains to maintain a sense of the world as a dangerous, insecure place. And more recently, as I’ve sought to expand potential market to women, the gun lobby has sought to appropriate feminism.
According to study from Harvard and Northeast universities, gun ownership among men has dropped from 42% to 32% between ’94 and 2015, but female gun ownership has increased. When a graduation photo tweet of a young woman in a Women for Trump shirt with a firearm tapped into her jeans went viral, right-wing media personality Charlie Kirk posted, “This is what real feminism looks like. Strong, smart, confident, and armed.” They actually package guns now, pink guns, with these lovely accessories so that you can look good while you’re packing.
Now, these claims for the gun are nonsense. Most people who are killed by guns kill themselves. People who have a gun in the house are far more likely to be shot dead than people who don’t. On any given year since 911, you’re more likely to be shot by a toddler than by a jihadi terrorist. And you’re most likely to be shot dead by people you know than people you don’t. So those interviewees at the NRA conventions, if they were serious, they would have said, “Are you married?” “Yes.” “Well, then watch out for your wife because she will probably shoot you.” Or joking aside, kind of across those neo-feminist pitches from a gun ownership, they should turn it on its head and say, “Are you married?” “Yes.” “Well, then tell your wife to watch out because if you get a gun, she stands an increased risk of being shot dead if your relationship gets rocky.”
Research has shown that women killed by their partners are more likely murdered with a gun than by all other means combined. And the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations can increase the homicide rate for women by as much as 500%. The trouble is that these facts are now match for the myths. It doesn’t matter if the crime rate is going down or having a gun in your head makes you more likely to be shot. Or that the demographic of people most likely to be shot dead, African Americans, are among the most that support gun control. It doesn’t matter if there is an engineering myth that says, “Well, these are the values with which you have been raised.” The problem goes all the way to the top.
With the largest military in the world by far, raw power is a central tenant of American foreign policy. And worse so, before Trump promised to unleash fire and fury on Kim Jong Un. More of Trump later. But it cannot simply be reduced to him and this moment. When accused of abdicating America’s role on the world stage, Barack Obama, he with the kill list, responded like a mafia don. Well, Muammar Gaddafi probably doesn’t agree with the assessment, he said, or at least if he was around, he wouldn’t agree with that assessment. George Bush boasted that he wanted Bin Laden dead or alive. One of the central questions about any potential female president is whether she could press the button and be tough enough to be commander in chief.
The gun is invoked as a cornerstone of America’s founding story and a safeguard against tyranny. It’s about independence and freedom. David Bred, a gun owner, explained to me at the NRA convention in 2012: “When you have a democratic system and honorable people, then you trust your citizens. In Europe, you seed your rights and freedoms to your governments. But we think government should be subservient to us. None of us in the free world would have what we have if it were not for guns,” he said. “It’s about freedom, it’s not about violence.”
So, the statistics about semi-automatics and background checks, I believe, are no match for the all-enveloping story of who we are and how we got here. Gun control advocates for the most part, want to change laws to make the country safer. Gun rights advocates, by and large, believe they are preserving essential truths that make the country what it is. The latter has proved themselves more motivated because long after the distressing scenes from the last mass shooting are a distant memory, the myths remain vivid. People, by which I mean enough people, not all people, believe that background checks could work. But they also believe the frontier mentality has worked. They believe a ban on semi-automatics is a good idea. But they were raised with the notion that self-reliance is an essential idea. Ultimately, they believe that rights, as in gun rights, is better than control, as in gun control.
In 2016, I spent the entire election campaign in Muncie, Indiana. And while I was there, I shared a steak dinner with local Republicans. And that night I was being trolled by a particularly irritating and obnoxious man who sat opposite. “How can you live in London?” He asked me. “When your Muslims have elected that mayor, and you have all that gun control?” And I really thought hard about how to understand his question. And I said to him, “Well, the Muslims didn’t elect a mayor, London elected a Muslim mayor. There aren’t enough Muslims in London to elect anything. You know what? We don’t talk about gun control for the same reason we don’t talk about polar bear control. We don’t have any polar bears, so we don’t need to control them. We don’t have many guns, we don’t need to control them.”
And my attempt to humor fell pretty flat with my Republican friends. And the local leader of the Republican Party who had invited me leaned over to try and help me out. And he said to the table, “They don’t have freedom. They don’t understand freedom.” And I know that he doesn’t represent necessarily the majority of Americans. He doesn’t necessarily represent anyone in this room, that in some way he’s talking for himself. But I also know that the notion of freedom is a dominant one. And I believe that gun advocates have done a better job of attaching it to the notion of gun ownership than opponents have to the notion of gun control.
His comments reminded me of the words of a human rights activist, Yvonne Sobers, I met in Jamaica, who explained why guns which had been dumped in the country by American and Soviet proxies during the Cold War still reign supreme. In a community without a safety net, the gun represents the safety net, she told me. The gun is power, money and manhood. And in that regard, America is more like Jamaica than it would care to admit.
Now, we know that these myths are partial. These narratives may run deep, but they don’t necessarily run in a straight line or consistently. In a nation that became possible through genocide and slavery, among other things, the gun was central to a particular notion of racial power. If gun enthusiasts were seriously concerned about state tyranny, they would have been marching alongside Black Lives Matter demonstrators, protesting police shootings and calling for the mass armament of poor black neighborhoods. But that’s not the kind of tyranny that they object to.
It should also be emphasized that national narratives are in constant motion. All stories involving people evolve as people evolve through conflict and compromise, legislation and demonstration, nostalgia and engagement. They do mutate. It’s not that America is a prisoner of its past, it’s only a prisoner of a certain understanding of its past. There are other ways to understand its past and its present and its future.
I recall going to Fort Myers in Florida in 2012 to write about Obama on the campaign trail. It was an early-morning rally, so I arrived the evening before. But overnight, James Holmes had walked into a scenario in Aurora, Colorado, and shot a dozen people dead. And Obama took to the stage that morning and did what presidents have done for decades: “hug your children, who knows what evil is in men’s hearts.” He said, “There are gonna be other days for politics. This is a day for prayer and reflection.” And at the time I thought, “This seems precisely like the time for politics, actually. A man has just gone and shot 12 people dead and you’re not gonna talk about how that could be?”
But then you fast forward five months to Sandy Hook and Obama has been reelected. And he says something different. He says, “We’re gonna have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” Still pretending that this has nothing to do with politics, which of course, it does, but still saying something must be done. There are only so many isolated incidents you can talk about before you have to recognize a pattern. An attempt was made at introducing legislation at the time and it was thwarted, and many were despondent, believing if a tragedy like Sandy Hook couldn’t do it, then nothing would.
But the story that has been dominant, a narrative that has been dominant, cannot be challenged once and changed. It must be, the new narrative must be rehearsed and repeated. In the words of a prominent political strategist in Britain, “You can’t fatten the pig on market day.” These ideas have to be around for a while before people take them up. But this was the first time that a president had introduced them for some time. And since then, Democratic presidential contenders have become a little bit bolder than they were on this issue. Now, it would be arrogant and foolish for me to say what I thought that new narrative would be, not only because I’m not American, but because these things do not emerge by fiat; they are the product of a dialectical process. It’s the work of poets and artists as much as scholars and politicians.
Narratives don’t fall from the sky. They are forged on the ground in myriad engagements, both micro and meta. But sometimes things shift dramatically because of a rupture like the Civil War or external forces like the world wars, or internal pressure, like the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Movement. Sometimes a dam bursts. In 2004, a year after I came to America, gay marriage was legal in just two countries, Belgium and the Netherlands, and one American state, Massachusetts. As recently as 2008, it was rejected in a referendum in this very state. Today, it’s legal in 26 countries, including all the states in this country, and all those developments are real, and are being constantly challenged. All of them are changing the way the country understands itself.
I think there’s reason to believe that this country’s narrative has rarely been more hotly contested than at present. Growing electoral polarization has led to four of the five largest demonstrations in the country taking place in the last four years, one of which was gun control, two were women’s marches. I do think that the presence of Donald Trump is clarifying. In his misogyny, brazen displays of wealth, cavalier use of power, distaste for negotiation, he personifies and performs a certain version of the American story. And his agenda is a broad and unrelenting assault on equality and human rights.
But it didn’t come from nowhere, and he did not invent the divisions that it exploits. And so, for the resistance to be effective, it can’t be narrowly focused. It must instead shed light on how those various struggles are connected. And I saw some of that in the response to the Parkland shootings. Elsewhere, white people are on the brink of becoming a minority, climate change is forcing a reckoning with our way of life and economy. Now, I’m careful in all of this, not to claim any particular shift one way or another for any of these changes. My point is simply that they will have an impact and are having an impact on how the country sees itself, and understands its past as well as its present and future.
“Do you want to know who you are?” Jefferson once inquired. “Don’t ask, act. Action will delineate and define you.” America does want, by significant majority, new gun laws. But in order to get them, they will have to start not just telling themselves a new story about what the country is, has been, wants to be, but building the foundations for that story to thrive. Thank you.
Chris Tomlins: So, Gary, thank you so much for that very eloquent presentation. As is our custom, we have plenty of time for questions or comments from the audience. I ask that if you have a question or a comment that you be succinct, so that others who may also have questions and comments will have their opportunity as well. The microphone will be, as you can see on a stand right here and in the center aisle. And so without more ado, I would invite anybody who wishes to ask Gary a question to come and do so.
Audience 1: That was a great speech, by the way.
Gary Younge: Thank you.
Audience 1: I guess, how would we defend ourselves against the government if they chose to impose their military force on us? How would we go about defending ourselves? How would you guys go about defending yourselves if that ever came? I know it’s kinda like a maybe out there, but I feel like with Donald Trump, especially, and all the other communist countries in play, that that’s a real possibility, if Donald Trump decided to really go that way. And then especially with Boris Johnson also being conservative, and breaking off from the EU, yeah.
Gary Younge: Well, I mean, so first of all, I would say that you if your government, if this government decided to exercise tyranny, given the size of your military, guns aren’t gonna do it. I mean, there isn’t. You have a bigger military than the entire world put together. So, if everybody’s got 10 handguns, you can’t be a smart bomb, first of all, so it’s not viable. Secondly, I think that, and this is the point I was making about Black Lives Matter, there are communities where that is true. So, if you think of low-income black communities, where people are much more likely to be shot dead by the state, then do you think that if they had more guns in those communities, they would be safer? I don’t.
So I think that the answer … lies in democracy. It lies in fighting to ensure that those people don’t have the basis, the credibility. It’s about informing of people. It’s about building a consensus that makes that tyranny less likely. I don’t think that if the Germans were armed, Hitler wouldn’t have come to power. I think Hitler came to power as a response to a certain kind of set of political circumstances, and that if all Germans were armed, then probably there would have been more freelance murdering of minorities. That would have been the most likely outcome. I don’t think that the way to defeat Trump will be with a gun. I think it will be politics, and my answer is politics, that politics is the answer. Because, I’m struggling to think of a historical example, where the emergence of tyranny was primarily a result of one group being better armed than the other, rather than than exploiting a certain political, economic, cultural kind of moment.
Audience 2: Do you think there is a linkage between state executions, the death penalty, and gun control?
Gary Younge: Yeah, I do. I think that if you… And it’s to do with sanctity, the sanctity of human life. That if you are living in a moment in a place in a period where life can be taken in a range of ways, then this is one more way that it can be taken. And that there is something almost morally inoculating about living in a place in a society where there are various ways to take a life and some are okay, and some are less okay. And just slightly broadening the scope of the question is, what was intriguing to me when writing the book was how many kids who were killed knew other kids who’d been killed. The extent to which once you get into a certain area of American society, by the time a kid is 19, they know people who’ve been killed. It’s a fact of death. And so you can get kids who are 18 or 19 saying, “I cannot go to another funeral.” When I went into the bedrooms of the kids who were killed in this book, they quite often had RIP kind of, little things on their walls. And their Facebook pages, and their Twitter feeds, and their Instagrams, they’re like online graveyards. And that also desensitizes people to the value of life: “This is how we live, and this is how we die.” And the notion that that would be true for a wealthy Western nation at peace.
That’s what I had to keep coming back to is, I mean, America is not a peace, it’s a war with a lot of places all at the same time always, but the degree to which there was any civil kind of peace. America doesn’t feel itself to be at war. And yet, there are these deaths and these notions of the kind of frailty of life that’s quite pervasive to the extent that with Obama in power, you could have one and the same time have proven that a black man could be elected president, and yet not proven that a black kid could walk the street. So you have Black Lives Matter, and a black president, which is in Congress, really. And that sort of actually, kind of, just to come back to the question that you asked, because you did start by talking about decolonization and the Brits. And there is a moment there. I’m not a pacifist, actually. I mean, I’ve got a lot of time for a pacifist, but I’m not a pacifist. There is a moment at which violence either in defense or whatever, can become necessary. But it shouldn’t be in your day-to-day life. And for some people it is.
Audience 3: So I’m just wondering how you ever see this ending. I mean, I would have thought the Parkland kids or anything, or something would have made a difference. But after seeing that, and it keeps on going on. And now it’s like, “Oh, another shooting, 12 kids or 12 people. Yeah, okay, that’s terrible. Thoughts and prayers, blah, blah, blah.” And all the really stupid ideas that these Congress people or politicians are coming up with. But the narrative, I mean, as you said, and then there’s other things like, “Oh, if you make guns illegal, only criminals will have guns — that I just don’t even see any way of turning it around. And now that you also mentioned just now the kids, I think these gun drills are like traumatizing these kids. Even if they never have a shootout, that’s gotta be terrifying for them. So I don’t know. I mean, maybe you have suggestions. I have none.
Gary Younge: Well, I don’t have a specific suggestion, like, if only you did this. So, that’s why I was saying like, it would be arrogant of me to think that I did. And I don’t think anybody really does. But I guess, a couple of things.
First of all, I do think the conversation has shifted. I do think that it re-entered the electoral conversation after Sandy Hook. And if it had been absent for that long, then it would take a while to take root. I do think it’s a broader question about what people want the country to be. And which is why I do think Trump is clarifying in that sense because he didn’t come from nowhere, right? He emerges from a series of pathologies and divisions that exist in the country.
And if you think our stories that have changed, or how one might have discussed Emmett Till in the 1950s. When is this gonna change? How is this gonna change? How is this ever gonna be anything other than what it is? And that sometimes there is a kind of, a leap of faith politically that people have to make that the change that you see and you can’t see, but it’s necessary anyhow. King gets up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and he doesn’t say, “I have a 10-point plan that I will get through.” He has a dream. And that dream is crazy. Just a couple weeks later, four little girls are killed in Birmingham. So, there is something to be said for swinging for the bleachers, for thinking big and so on. And so, I do think it can change. And I’m kind of, it has to, doesn’t it? At some level it has to.
And finally, I would say this is both a glib answer, and I mean it, glib as it is, that this country can elect Obama twice, and then elect Trump, it can do anything. I mean, you can do anything. I mean, really, if you think of just electorally what the enormous swings that have taking place, then why not. Americans are no more macho, no more into being settlers, no more into manifest destiny as the Australians or the New Zealanders. Americans aren’t any more stupid than any other country. I mean, America has figured out bigger things than this. So, I do think it’s possible, and kind of counsel against despair. But then, I also thought Corbin might win.
Audience 4: I’d like you to imagine. And I’d like your audience to imagine that we are fast forward to March 4, 2040, 20 years from today. And as we look back from then, we see that gun ownership, gun usage and attitudes about firearms in the United States have become very much like they are in the United Kingdom now. Because certain things have happened, and the people in this room and their counterparts who could have been here, but aren’t, have participated in bringing about those changes. What is it that we all did to bring about those changes?
Gary Younge: Yeah, it’s a good question. And my guess is it won’t be one change, it won’t be one thing. And that what became clear when doing the book was the degree to which the gun stood on top of a huge pile of tinder. You had no easily available mental health services, so the biggest providers of mental health services are actually the prisons. That means you have a kind of, it’s very difficult to hold down a job. Unless you’re well off, it’s difficult to hold down a job with a serious mental health condition or to get the medication that you need. So, then you have a population where many people are unwell and can’t get the resources they need unless they go to jail.
You have massive segregation, which is a real barrier to empathy. “Oh, that happens down there, but I don’t know the people there. I’ve never been down there. I think that happens because they have a deficient culture. I don’t know, I don’t know anybody.”
In my book, there’s a boy, Samuel Bradman, who is killed in Dallas. And there’s only 80 words in a story about him. But afterwards, someone writes, “Well, why was he out so late? He was out at 11 o’clock. What were his parents thinking?” And you see that the woman believes that his mother is negligent and he’s feral. And then you find the mother as I found my mother and I found out what they were doing, and that they had a family night and they played Uno, and they watched We’re the Millers, and they drank cocoa. Then Samuel was walking his friend for 12 minutes back to his friend’s granny’s because his friend had come to take his granny to church. And in the six minutes, because his friend lives 12 minutes away, so Sam was gonna walk him halfway, he was shot dead. Nobody knows why, but this woman knows why. And so you try to talk to her about gun control, she talks to you about parenting, because she’s never been to South Dallas is my guess. So segregation is a real barrier to empathy.
Poverty. A black man in Washington D.C. has a lower life expectancy than a man in the Gaza Strip. That’s untenable in a country with this wealth. And then on top of all of that, you put the free and easy availability of a lethal weapon. And so, when I think of the question you asked and what will have been different, that the story would have moved to one where people feel they have a responsibility, more that they have a responsibility to each other. And there is more of a social fabric. And there is less of a sense of isolation, which encourages anomie, and more of a sense of communion that “Maybe that kid who died over there couldn’t have been my kid because they’re poorer than I am.” But their mom or their dad is still a parent, and I’m a parent, and I’m sure they’re grieving in the same way. That would be a start because we’re not even there yet.
So, I think that there would have to be a general broader move. And in a way, this is part of my general point, that this things that talk about the gun alone, outside of the context that it stands — it’s not that they missed the point, is that they probably missed the target. And that it will be a set of broader of things that are about understanding your Americanness as being common, and therefore, your fate as being common, as opposed to being kind of separate and isolated and in competition.
Audience 5: Hi, thank you. I haven’t read your book, so you may have covered this in the book. But, I was wondering if you ask the families and the kids that you were talking about what they thought, what ideas they had.
Gary Younge: Well, I did. And it was quite interesting. I would ask two questions to everybody. And one was, “What’s this about?” General question. And nobody mentions guns. Most mentioned parenting, and I’ll talk about why I think that is in a minute. Nobody mentions guns. If I said to them, “What do you think of guns?” Nearly all of them would say, “It’s crazy. It’s crazy, there’s so many, it’s so easy to get hold of, this is ridiculous.” Now, why would they not mention guns if you asked the open-ended question? I think that there’s a learned helplessness about this. Guns aren’t going anywhere. They also wouldn’t mention racism or poverty or any of those things. Guns aren’t going anywhere, poverty isn’t going anywhere, racism isn’t going anywhere. My child has been shot, why would I invest emotional energy in something that’s not gonna change?
Whereas parenting, well, everybody can do something. And I conclude as a foreigner. So there is that it’s a bit like traffic. That if your child was run over, you wouldn’t say, “Let’s get rid of traffic.” Because it’s difficult to imagine, well, this world without traffic. You might say, “Let’s have a stop sign there” or “Let’s have a speed bump or reduce the speed limit.” And no one would say that was unconstitutional, by the way, but you wouldn’t say, “Let’s get rid of traffic.” And so, there is a kind of inevitability, kids do get run over, kids do get shot. So, and I still keep in touch with some of them. And as far as I’m aware, there’s only one who is in any way engaged with issues of gun control or guns at all really. And I just see that she posts things on Facebook. I don’t know that she’s part of the group or anything. But no, it was intriguing to me how it didn’t come up.
Audience 6: I just wanna say I really appreciate the lecture that you gave. I especially appreciated this idea that we have to change the American narrative in regards to what it means to us as Americans, or some of us as Americans, and especially with regard to equating freedom with guns. But I was just very curious, and this may be a side note here. In looking at this pamphlet that they give you when you come in here, I noticed that a lot of your books and your studies are centered around black people in America. And I don’t think I’m making a stretch when I say that. I’m just curious, you being from the UK, what has guided your focus to the states?
Gary Younge: Very good question. Partly love, actually. I studied French and Russian. I wanted to be the Moscow correspondent for the Guardian. Then I got a fellowship to study at the Washington Post, and I met the woman who would become my wife. So, then Russia was out. And I came to America. And the way that I got to come to America was by kind of getting a book deal… So, my first book is about being black and British and in America. Some of it is about being British. And it’s really about the time in my life when I might have written books. I was in America for 12 years.
One of the books is about identity in general. So, that’s really not about America. But then, the other three are. And if I’m lucky enough to write another book, now that I’ve moved back to Britain, it would probably be about black, well, it will be about Britain. Not necessarily about black people, but it will be about Britain. And the thing about America is, and I kinda go into this in my first book because my parents are from Barbados, so why didn’t I write about the Caribbean?
But America reaches you, it has the cultural economics, the power to reach you through music and film and style and not that I have a lot of style, but America does. And in a way that no other black culture really does. Africa is bigger, but it’s also poor, and it just doesn’t have that cultural power. Similarly with the Caribbean. Less our black people in Europe of whom we are lesser. So, there was that too. America could reach me, so I knew more about black American history by the time I was 22, 23, than I did about black British history, because you had African American Studies departments here. And you have enough of a sizable black community for there to be books published that I could read, and so on. Whereas Britain took a while to kind of catch up, and we’re still catching up.
Audience 7: Yes, thank you for your comments today, really appreciate it. Particularly at the end when you were talking about changing the narrative and how we as groups need to come together to be able to do that, for changing our values and our attitude. I happen to work with a group here called Ceasefire about reducing gun violence. Over the past seven years, because of that change in narrative, we have been able to reduce the level of gun violence in Oakland by cutting the murder rate in half. So it’s a start.
Gary Younge: Yeah.
Audience 7: But my question to you is that little elephant in the room called the Second Amendment that we have, that is freely exploited every time we talk about changing the narrative and moving toward a different understanding of what that particular element of our constitution entails. And I wanna get your comments about how do we move in changing the narrative? How do we move around that statement?
Gary Younge: Yeah, it’s a good point. And one of the funny things in writing the book was, I had a little thing about the Second Amendment, and I kept moving in a little vignette about about it. And I kept moving it because nobody brought it up. And, I mean, my feeling about it is first of all, they’ve changed their interpretation of it, which means it can be changed back. They changed it from a collective notion to an individual notion. They basically neo-liberalized the notion of who can get a gun. And even the Second Amendment says “a well-regulated militia.” It doesn’t say just to hand them out like candy. And I find that debating, which I know is not what you’re asking me to do, just a comment on it, but when I would be on, this book is uncontentious everywhere apart from here.
And when I’m on radio shows here and the Second Amendment comes up, because it’s like scripture, you can’t really argue with scripture. I mean, you can try, but there wouldn’t be so many different kinds of Christian and Jewish and Muslim if what was written down was what was kind of understood. And so, I would just say to people, “Do you love that amendment more than you love children? Or is it just those children?” That kind of, obviously, these things, constitutions, are employed in the service of a nation, not to subjugate a nation, and therefore, shall we just lay these bodies at the foot of this amendment and say, “That’s it?”
It’s a form of fundamentalism that I find unacceptable, and once again, as an English person, regardless of my hue, that is rarely a point that’s easily taken by an American. If an American wants to talk smack about the Second Amendment, having Mr. Plummy kind of make a point about the Second Amendment is not really gonna work. But I feel like it’s the coward’s way out. Because, first of all, you can make these amendments do whatever you want. And secondly, this interpretation of the Second Amendment is completely new, and does not seem to cohere with anything that went before.
Audience 8: Hi, Gary, thank you for sharing. And there was something that you said about guns equaling freedom that seems to me to be in direct opposition to our government in regulation. And so it’s almost as though it’s influencing our society to want to avoid government or destroy government or not be encumbered by government regulation. And I don’t know what question I have is just, I would just like to get your thoughts about that.
Gary Younge: Well, yeah, that I think, because everybody else at the table when I was with the Republicans understood exactly what he meant apart from me when he said they don’t have freedom. And that freedom can be understood in a range of ways, right? It’s the freedom to do things, it’s the freedom not to do things and so on. And that the freedom of the gun could be the freedom of self-defense. It could also be the freedom to tyrannize. It could also be the freedom to intimidate.
It’s the fundamental notion that freedom is acutely related to violence that I have a problem with, and that I think is where that is located: “This gun means freedom.” Also, when people locate it in the history of America, it means freedom to enslave, the freedom to take from the Native Americans, the freedom to dominate. And so, I always wanna ask people, “Freedom for whom, and freedom from what?” Because, the point I made about Black Lives Matter is something I seriously believe. If this is your thing, tyranny is your thing, defense against government is your thing, then why aren’t you matching with Black Lives Matter? Why aren’t you calling for the mass armament of low-income black communities? Or are we talking about some different kind of tyranny? Like what do you understand by tyranny? So I think it gets in many ways to the heart of what different people mean by freedom. And I think that a lot of the gun people don’t mean the same thing as I do, or you do, probably.
Chris Tomlins: I think it’s really interesting that on a subject which usually is debated with passion and temperance, this afternoon we’ve had a calm and a reasoned presentation, and a calm and a reasoned response. Now, that may be because, this is Barclay, so everybody agrees. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think much of what we have been privileged to be part of this afternoon, is to hear a reasoned and reasonable voice expressing thoughts about an extraordinary systemic social problem and refusing to be beaten by the size of that problem. And so for that, if for nothing else, we all owe you our thanks. Please join me.
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