Gun Culture is Priming Americans for AuthoritarianismRoundup
tags: Second Amendment, guns, political violence, authoritarianism
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is professor of history at New York University and author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present.
What is driving democratic decline in America? Disinformation, election subversion, Donald Trump’s authoritarian leader cult and institutionalized racism leap out at you. But there’s another factor that is all the more dangerous because it’s part of our everyday reality: civilian access to lethal weapons, and the mass death that enables.
The scale and scope of gun violence in America doesn’t just desensitize us to violence. It also cheapens the value of life. It fosters political, social and psychological conditions that are propitious for autocracy. The omission of gun law reform from discussions of democracy protection is symptomatic of our normalization of this tragic situation. The Jan. 6 insurrection shows us how dangerous that blind spot has become.
For decades we have shot each other, with Americans causing fellow Americans more harm than any foreign enemy. More than 1.5 million died of gunshots in the past 50 years vs. 1.2 million in all the wars in the country’s history. This year alone, mass shootings have killed or injured more than 1,800.
Yet no amount of loss seems enough to deter the supporters of a brutal gun rights culture that factors in harm to some so that the freedoms and privilege of others can continue, and accepts mass death and trauma in the name of “liberty.” Add in an uptick of activity by extremists that preach violence and extralegal action as a way of changing history, and you have a high potential for political destabilization. Guns were prominent at the storming of the Michigan Capitol in May 2020 by militia members. They also featured at the Jan. 6 insurrection, which brought many strains of armed political extremism together: militia members, retired and active-duty law enforcement and military and radicalized civilians.
“We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” said President Biden at a memorial service for victims of coronavirus. The same could be said of the daily tragedy of gun violence. But going numb is also a survival strategy for those who have seen much violence or have lost multiple loved ones and don't dare admit their fear that they will be next.
Fear of violence can, paradoxically, create the conditions for more violence. Gun sales have risen dramatically due to a more polarized political climate. Some 40 percent of firearms purchases in 2020 were to first-time buyers, including to women and non-Whites who fear for their safety. This probably means more deaths of an accidental and intentional nature. More children who find an improperly stored weapon or take mommy’s handgun out of her purse. More adult and teen suicides, and more hate crimes.
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