Readers on Guns #3


From TPM Reader CM

Creative Writing MFA candidate here, with some further thoughts on the word ‘tactical’ as it seemst o be used/intended in current gun culture. These are mostly implicit in the point made by your earlier reader but:

‘Tactical’ is, as your reader points out, something of an epidemic usage in modern gun culture. Partly this just looks like an infectious marketing usage–it’s easier to sell a Tactical Widget than a regular old widget, and once your competitor is selling Tactical Widgets you’d better be selling them too. But it’s precisely these kind of seemingly-dead usages we’ve got to be most careful of–thoughtless language fills in gaps where we prefer not to have to think about our thinking.

So what’s really happening with ‘tactical’–well, for starters ‘tactical’ is fundamentally an oppositional term. A tactic is an action you take in contact with an enemy. It’s supposed to give you some kind of an advantage relative to their movements or operations. It’s notable that we’re almost always thinking of a human–or at least a reasoning–enemy. One doesn’t need tactics to shoot ducks or deer–only humans. It’s also worth noting that the conventional (and marketing) usage of tactics refers to situations that are more or less evenly matched–situations where a different type of stock or sight might make a difference. What specifically isn’t tactical is the common fantasy of armed revolt: a tactical widget isn’t much use against a bombing run. Or maybe it’s better to say that the fantasy of armed revolt only becomes tactical when it also recruits the fantasy of mass military mutiny. A tactical conflict–a tactical society–is a society where the social contract has completely collapsed. It’s a society that consists entirely of competition between consumer-sized groups of vigilantes.

But in addition to referring to a human opposition, the idea of the tactical refers to the idea that violence between these human factions is basically meritocratic–a tactic, after all, is a good idea. It’s a maneuver, a stratagem. ‘Luck is the residue of design,’ a tactics-consumer might say–and by buying so many tactical widgets they intend to be the luckiest. A world defined by tactics is a Darwinian world. The smartest and best-practiced survive (become warlords?) and the soft, secular liberals get what they deserve. This is a desire that’s increasingly prominent in modern right politics–the sense (wrong or right) that Our Tribe is the best and most deserving, and that all society is doing is keeping us from expressing the dominance we really ought to. This is the same thread that’s behind Trump’s GOP-standard ‘That makes me smart’ attitude about tax evasion, and probably that underlies much of the recent private-jet contretemps.

It’s unclear whether ‘tactical’ as a marketing term predates the (seemingly recent) prominence of these associations with ‘tactical.’ But it is clear that the world we’re ushered into by this use of tactical is one we probably don’t very much want to live in.


Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of