Gun laws, culture wars and the struggle for common sense

The NRA’s laws have made the US a more dangerous place, directly contradicting the organisation’s stated goals.

Thousands have joined the call for Trayvon Martin's killer to be arrested and for gun laws to be reformed [EPA]

“It’s common sense to allow people to defend themselves. And to have to – when you’re in a position where you’re being threatened, when there’s a life-threatening situation – to have to retreat and put yourself in a very precarious position, you know, it defies common sense.”

– Governor Jeb Bush, justifying his signing of Florida’s “Kill at Will” law in 2005.

San Pedro, CA – Politicians just love to invoke “common sense”. Why wouldn’t they?  What better way to put yourself on the same side as “the people”, while simultaneously delegitimising any potential critics? But Florida Governor Jeb Bush was implicitly lying about the existing state of Florida’s law prior to his signing of the National Rifle Association’s “Kill at Will” law – the law at the centre of the controversy over the murder of Trayvon Martin. Back then, as in many states, Florida had no statutory language about the “duty to retreat” – a long-standing aspect of Anglo-American common law, routinely phrased in terms of being able to safely retreat, since its whole purpose is to minimise violent confrontations and the injuries or deaths they give rise to. 

You can find this spelled out repeatedly across numerous Florida court decisions during the years, both in bold declarations of principle and in careful fact-based reasoning about specific cases. For example: “Human life is precious and deadly combat should be avoided if at all possible when imminent danger to oneself can be avoided.” [Emphasis added.] This was stated in a 1982 dissenting opinion in State v. Bobbitt, which was “later adopted by the Supreme Court in Weiand, 732 So.2d at 1051“, as noted in a 2003 district court ruling, State v. James.) These and other, related pre-2005 cases exhibit nuanced, carefully balanced reasoning that seems to come from an entirely different world than that of Florida today.

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What’s more, if there actually had been any doubt about the safety provision in the duty to retreat, that could have been fixed with a single sentence of legislation, such as: “The duty to retreat shall not apply if there is any reasonable danger of putting the retreating party in greater risk of harm”.

Instead, the NRA sought a sweeping revision of the law, which I noted previously involved three radical departures from tradition: substantially reducing the  distinction between the private and public spheres, explicitly eliminating the duty to retreat, and elevating justifiable homicide from a defence at trial to grounds for immunity from even being investigated, much less charged or tried.

Thus, even if Bush hadn’t profoundly misrepresented the state of Florida law, his “common sense” fix went far beyond what was necessary and created new harms, which professional prosecutors and leading police officials had openly warned against. Where’s the “common sense” in that?

The culture wars

The Nation magazine’s Chris Hayes has noted several times on his MSNBC show that the culture wars have recently turned in favour of the Democrats, but that Democrats don’t really seem to have fully realised it yet. The backlash against the GOP’s war on contraception would seem to be the classic case in point.

But so, too, is the outcry over Trayvon Martin’s murder and the role of the “Kill at Will” laws championed by the NRA and the American Legislative Exchange Council, one of which Jeb Bush signed into effect in 2005. It could also be seen in the GOP’s hysterical reaction to the Chrysler/Clint Eastwood Superbowl ad. Chrysler and Eastwood saw nothing political in the ad they made – the politics was all in how the GOP had abandoned the industrial heartland of the US, and how it knew that in its heart.

This shift in the culture wars has actually been in the works for a long time. On the one hand, movement conservatism has been moving farther and farther to the right ever since the early days of the Reagan administration. Heck, Reagan himself – who raised taxes 11 times, granted amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants and nearly negotiated the total elimination of nuclear weapons with Soviet leader Michel Gorbachev – could not be elected dog-catcher in today’s GOP.

On the other hand, the US as a whole has moved culturally far to the left of where it was a generation ago. Across a wide range of contentious issues – most notably those involving prejudice and distrust against minorities, women and gay people – support for “traditional values” and attitudes has declined dramatically, with the recent shift towards a surge in support for gay marriage as the most recent and dramatic example. At the same time, conservative groups such as the NRA are now seriously out of step with their own membership.

And yet, we Americans are still deeply confused about what the culture wars are all about. For one thing, they are not about a set of social issues that have nothing to do with the economic dimension of politics that social and political scientists have long identified as the dominant long-term axis of US politics.

The Tea Party’s overnight shift from being all about jobs to an obsessive concern with abortions, birth control and Planned Parenthood (something many Washington insiders still haven’t wrapped their minds around) is perfectly typical in this regard. Indeed, what the culture wars are all about, at bottom, is defining reality: what the world is like, how it fits together, how one thing causes another, what’s real and what’s not, who the good guys and bad guys are – and why. This is not something that happens off to the side of the politics of economics, rather it’s something that encompasses it, along with everything else.

‘Religious liberty’

One could also say that the culture wars are not primarily about the issues themselves, they are about who gets to determine what the issues are – and how they get to determine them. Along these line, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci described a succinct and compelling vision of what culture war really is: a war for control of the cultural institutions that in turn define cultural reality – the term he used for this was “cultural hegemony”. 

This is how ideology gets remanufactured into “common sense”. Gramsci was talking about working class vs bourgeois capitalist culture in the late 19th and early 20th century. But the same can be said of modernist progressives and backward-looking conservatives today.

We can see this exemplified when Senate Republicans argued – and voted almost unanimously – that the birth control coverage requirements of “Obamacare” constituted an outrageous attack on the religious liberty of Catholic bishops (nuns and the laity did not count).

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The “religious liberty” issue itself was not really the issue – as can easily be seen from the fact that similar state-level laws had been in place for years without any similar uproar. (But, after all, they weren’t being pushed by an anti-colonial, secretly Muslim Kenyan).

The issue was really about who gets to define and control reality, specifically by defining what “religious liberty” means and by controlling women’s bodies. The later point is what got DC Republicans into so much trouble, as their attempted issue definition was overwhelmingly rejected by the grassroots response of women who saw it instead as conservatives and Republicans waging a war on women.

Usually, conservatives and Republicans have won such battles over the past 30-40 years for two simple reasons: First, they alone are the ones who have organised to fight them systematically over the long haul. Gramsci may have been a man of the left, but he’s been taken much more seriously by the American right.

Second, this organising was made much easier by the pre-existing combination of social power driving the agenda and demographics responding to it. But as the older white male demographic shrank and conservative ideology failed simultaneously on multiple fronts, things have shifted abruptly. 

Even despite a tsunami of corporate campaign cash, the Democrats could win yet another “wave election” in the House this year, along with re-electing Obama, simply because Republicans have rapidly grown so far out of touch. 

But that would only be the briefest of victories. As long as progressives aren’t organised for hegemonic struggle – organised strategically for defining what counts as “common sense” – their victories will be limited at best. Nothing shows this more dramatically than the fact that the 2008 financial meltdown has done relatively little to discredit conservative economic ideology, despite the fact that it caused the worst economic disaster since the 1920s – the last time that the very same ideology was given unobstructed free reign.

Common security and common sense

Turning back to the NRA and its “Kill at Will” laws once again, we see a classic example of conservative hegemony in action – and a total failure in terms of pragmatic results: The NRA’s laws have made state after state a more dangerous place for its residents, directly contradicting the results promised by the organisation. 

And this is hardly unique or surprising – the NRA’s answer to virtually everything is more guns in more places with more firepower, fewer restrictions and less ability for law enforcement to do its job. For them, there is no such thing as an optimal level of gun ownership – there is always and only a need for more, a need that, by definition, can never be filled.

What lies at the core of the NRA’s failed policies is its radical rejection of John Locke’s fundamental insights that established the foundations of 17th century liberalism, which were explicitly invoked by the coutnry’s founders.

Locke argued that legitimate government was based on a social contract needed to secure our basic rights – rights that existed only theoretically in a state of nature, where they could be lost at any time through the threat of violence. According to Locke, surrendering the right of self-defence to a common public authority is key to escaping the always uncertain state of nature, and establishing the social contract on which all legitimate government is based – and by which all other rights are secured.

The NRA asserts just the opposite. It claims that all other rights depend on the rights of the vigilante. But history tells us the NRA is wrong. So does the evening news.

Seeing the errors of others is always relatively easy. The hard question remains: What are progressives going to do about it? Are they going to organise for hegemonic struggle? Organise to change what counts as common sense?

It would seem utterly foolish – and terribly bloody – not to.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg