The Gun Massacre Totem in American Culture

John Locher/AP

It is a sign of the dark state of the country that we now have to distinguish between different categories of mass shooting – ones based, as nearly as we can figure, on a kind of inchoate suicidal rage, others based more clearly on ideology (whether white supremacist, incel-based or Islamist) and some based on personal and individual grudges. But in every case we have the power of the gun.

Guns are powerful in themselves. They shoot high velocity projectiles quickly and easily. Modern ones can kill large numbers rapidly. The shooter in Dayton, Ohio was himself shot dead less than a minute after he opened fire but managed to kill nine people and wound a couple dozen others. But part of the gun massacre spectacle is tied to a different sort of power.

Every year the spectacle of gun massacres grows in frequency and escalates in body counts. Today the Columbine shooting would seem routine – 12 students and one teacher dead. Yet the country does nothing about it. Indeed, most new gun laws over the last decade focus on making it easier to own guns and legal to take them more places. Guns are all powerful in our society. They brook no limits. Not only are they lethal in the concrete and literal sense. They are all-powerful in the society at large – precisely because the society is incapable of doing anything about them. Part of the horrific satisfaction of the mass shooting is the sheer power. Everyone cowers, runs. They are all defenseless and act accordingly. But American society reacts in a similar way: helpless and powerless in the face of firearms.

This power, associating oneself with this power, is inescapably part of what draws rage-intoxicated, isolated men to the total power of the gun massacre. Guns are power. Not only because of what they do to a few dozens or hundreds of massacre victims at a time but because of how they hold a whole society in their thrall. In this way, our refusal to take any action not only prevents even the most limited reforms which might slightly reduce the incidence of gun massacres. It continues burnishing their cultural power and in that way encourages more gun massacres. Because in all their permutations that power is the essence of the massacres are about.

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