America Goes To War And Takes Its Guns

Most of the design and engineering advances that created modern small arms came through the development of military weapons, both rifles like the Springfield 03 or handguns like John Browning’s Colt 1911. And whether it was the M-1 Garand that General Patton called the “greatest battle implement ever devised,” or the Winchester repeating carbine that the U.S. Cavalry carried against the Indians, it’s safe to say that guns played an important role in just about every war that America fought.

It should therefore come as no surprise that guns are once again playing an essential, if not a pivotal role in what is perhaps America’s longest-lasting war.  I’m not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan, although both of those conflicts have dragged on far too long.  I’m talking instead about America’s “culture” war for which guns and gun ownership have come to define both the ebb and flow of the conflict as well as the basic attitudes of both sides.

Guns were first tied to the culture war when Charlton Heston became NRA President in  1998.  Heston and other members of his Hollywood generation began turning conservative when Ronald Reagan, won the Presidency in 1980. But while Reagan boosted conservative fortunes he was always ambivalent about the culture war; kept evangelicals at arm’s length, was never seen inside a church, and rarely, if ever, invoked the virtues and values of gun ownership or membership in the NRA.  In fact, along with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, Reagan sent a letter to the House of Representatives in 1994 advocating an assault-rifle ban that was enacted later in the year.

Until the 2008 election of Obama, the culture war embraced issues like abortion and gay rights, both of which took precedence over guns.  And even though Bill Clinton blamed the 1994 Republican Congressional sweep and the 2000 defeat of Al Gore on the power of the NRA, the outcome of both elections couldn’t be tied specifically to anything having to do with guns.

The ascendency of guns in the cultural war didn’t reflect so much the growing power of the gun-owning lobby as it was the result of conservative shifts away from other issues for which they simply could not muster enough votes to win.  On abortion, for example, the nation appears evenly split but Rowe v. Wade is now forty years old and as women continue to move forward in the workplace and the professions, a woman’s right to choose seems fairly secure.  As for the gay issue, 19 states have now legalized same-sex marriage and last year the SCOTUS invalidated the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act which opens the door for many more states to lift their own gay marriage bans.

sarah                So as the older, hot-button cultural issues gradually wither away (remember something called English as the official language?), gun ownership and gun “rights” move to center stage.  And guns are a perfect means to build support for conservative cultural warriors because their ownership, after all, is enshrined in the most holy of all cultural holies, the Bill of Rights.  Even the leader of the liberals, whether he means it or not, is forced to sing hosannas to the 2nd Amendment as his shock-troops prepare to do battle against the other side.

The problem with cultural conflicts is they cannot be resolved with reference to facts.  Because as Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky pointed out long before the culture war rose to the level of conflict that we see today, people make decisions about things like gun ownership not because they understand or even care about whether a gun can or cannot protect them from harm, but whether ownership of a gun either supports or conflicts with their world view.  If both sides in the gun debate don’t find a way to resolve their arguments by reconciling larger cultural issues, it will drag on the way the Chaco War dragged on between Paraguay and Bolivia over a border that neither country could even find.

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Why Shouldn’t I Drive Around In An Armored Car?

I was a college student in New York City during the halcyon days of the anti-War movement, when there must have been a demonstration against the Viet Nam war every week in Central Park.  And while on occasion the demonstrations turned a little nasty, meaning a few “f— you’s” exchanged between the kids and the cops, I don’t recall that anything much happening as we tramped around the Sheep Meadow or listened to Dave Dellinger make a speech at the 68th Street Mall.

It therefore came as a big surprise when, many years later, I was given a tour of the warehouse that was part of the Central Park Police Precinct of the NYPD.  Because sitting in the warehouse was a phantasmagoria of dusty and rusted military equipment – flak jackets, gas-masks, helmets – that could have outfitted the entire 102nd Airborne, never mind a bunch of cops who spent most of their time running over to Lexington Avenue to get doughnuts and coffee for “the guys.” My tour guide, who was a former Commander of the Precinct, told me with a chuckle that the equipment had been stockpiled during the 1960’s just in case any of the anti-War protests got “out of hand.”

mrap               That was then, this is now.  A report  in The New York Times, based on documents from the Department of Defense, indicates that police departments around the country,  are once again building up caches of equipment that was purchased by our military for use in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but is now considered “excess” and if not purchased or given away to domestic customers would likely be thrown out or destroyed.  You would think that police departments, all of whom always operate on shoestring budgets, would jump at the opportunity to grab free equipment that they really need, even though  there will still be costs for maintenance  and repairs. But some of the items that are ending up in the motor pools and storage rooms of the cops can’t possibly have anything to do with carrying out traditional ‘serve and protect’ functions of the local police.

Among other items, the DoD has given out more than 430 MRAPs to police departments in more than 40 states.  What’s an MRAP?  It’s an armored vehicle designed to be resistant to land mines and other anti-personnel weapons or IEDs that played such havoc with our troops when we first invaded Iraq.  Now I can understand that police in southern border states like New Mexico might feel more secure patrolling territory frequented by Mexican drug gangs, but could someone please explain to me why the cops need to ride around in an armored-plated vehicle in a town like Neenah, Wisconsin, whose 25,000 inhabitants located on Lake Winnebago haven’t seen a homicide in five years? And don’t tell me that the Neenah Police Department considers itself on the front lines of defense against terrorism because that statement was actually made in public by the sheriff of Oxford County, Maine, who justified the acquisition of a MRAP because of the possibility of “unimaginable terrorist threats.”

Let me tell you a little bit about Oxford County, Maine.  It’s a hilly and largely forest-covered area which contains about 8 families per square mile.  Any terrorist who wants to sneak into the United States by crossing the border from Canada into Oxford County will find that they will face a much bigger problem from the moose and the bears than from the sheriff’s deputies riding around in their MRAP.

Peter Kraska, who has been studying police and, in particular the development of SWAT teams for more than twenty years, notes that while these para-military units first started out by adopting and popularizing military jargon, are now increasingly adopting military equipment, weapons and tactics and have seen their largest growth in small and medium-size departments, many of which are actually dealing with less crime and violence than before their SWAT team was even deployed.

All of this, it seems to me, comes back to the degree to which some Americans seem prone to accept the notion that more armed force on our streets and in our homes can make us safer from terrorism and crime. And if the cops feel more comfortable tooling around in a MRAP whether they need one or not, who’s to say that some enterprising entrepreneur won’t soon deliver one customized for civilians as well? I can already see the discount coupon for such a vehicle tied to the next email from the NRA.