When the shooting happened at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, there was a feeling of dread in my stomach, more than what many who didn't live there felt, probably since I myself work with the local Pride comittee and our celebration in Oklahoma City was only two weeks away. We immediately began talking about getting the message out about making our celebration safer and increasing the police presence there. Indeed, we turned all entrances to our block party into checkpoints, our normally unarmed security personnel were replaced with armed guards, and the local police department doubled the number of officers present that weekend. Still, some people said they would not attend if they couldn't bring their own firearms. They insisted they were licensed in our state for open carry, that they were responsible gun owners, and that they feared for their and their partners safety. We of course flatly refused to allow it. Who in their right mind would want people with guns around alcohol? Even the National Rifle Association has mixed feelings on that. On the flip side, I can understand why people wanted to bring their guns; they were afraid.
That's the problem with guns in America. It's about fear. Guns are marketed on fear. Fear of powerlessness, of terrorists, of crime, of others, and fears of a country out of control.
The fear of powerlessness is reflected in the current environment of American society, economy, and politics. As our economy recovers from the Great Recession, the jobs replacing the ones lost tend to skew to the low-wage, or hyperspecialized and technical; jobs out of reach of most Americans, especially those not located in major areas of commerce like the Northeast and Silicon Valley. With the demise of blue-collar jobs bringing worries about the ability to provide for family and other concerns about the future, people are feeling powerless. The ability to carry a gun shows that one is in control; that one can be empowered. The firearms industry and its lobby, the NRA, know this and cater to it. One particular gun ad features the phrase "Consider Your Man Card Reissued."
The ad is designed to appeal to men who feel that they are under constant threat, be it in the ability to thrive economically or assert their manhood. Is it any coincidence that as cries of "political correctness" increase, and the right wing has begun to use the word 'cuck' (as in cuckold) as an insult, white men's desire to arm themselves has increased? The feelings of lost control and power are often manifested in displays meant to reassert them, be it schoolyard bullying or carrying an assault rifle in public. You'll find that while the percentage of people who own guns has dropped, the people who do have them own on average eight guns. These gun owners are building stockpiles. For many of these people, more guns means more security, more safety, more control.
The fear of being the victim of violence and crime helps motivate these gun owners. We are constantly warned that a crime could happen at any time. That we could be the victim of a carjacking, a home invasion, or even a mass shooter. However, as even as archconservative outlets like the National Review admit, violent crime and gun crime are in fact dropping. While many gun supporters would argue that this is because of all the open carry laws, it doesn't mesh with the decline in actual gun ownership. You're less likely to be a violent crime victim by a wide margin compared to the 1970s or '80s, where there were more gun owners everywhere in America. That doesn't square with what the NRA and gun advocates try to tell you, despite the fact you're more likely to die in a furniture accident than be killed by a terrorist. The NRA uses the fear of terrorists, of Muslims, "gang-bangers," and even "jack-booted thugs" from the U.S. government. To the NRA, everyone is out to get you. While its rhetoric about government goons coming has faded away (except for those from the United Nations), it's certainly maintained its attacks on brown-skinned people. Just check out this pamphlet it distributed that included their list of threats (download warning). It lists not merely blacks and Latinos (the NRA is really afraid of Latinos), but the Triads -- a Chinese version of the Mafia -- as well as Jamaican "Yardies" and Japanese Yakuza. I'm sorry, but if you do a search for Yakuza in Google News, there's nothing about a threat to America by Yakuza gangs shooting up the place; in fact, most articles are about TV shows and video games.
There is a distinct problem when it comes to race, the NRA, and gun advocates. When concealed-carry permit holder Philando Castile was shot point-blank by a police officer for matching the description of a suspect, the NRA was notably tepid in his defense, saying it's waiting for all facts to be known. However, very quickly after the assassination of five Dallas police officers just days later, the NRA loudly declared that it's the "right of law-abiding Americans to carry firearms for defense of themselves and others." This is most interesting since it also remains silent on Mark Hughes, the black man open-carrying at the protest where the officers were killed, who was sought as the suspect because he was carrying an assault rifle -- the kind the NRA says you should have the right to carry. Even members of the NRA began calling out the organization for this double standard. However, this standard is part and parcel of the NRA's tactics.
An academic study cites an address by Charlton Heston, the onetime head of the NRA, in which he ties the "gun issue" to the threats faced by "the God-fearing ... Caucasian, middle class, Protestant ... rural ... straight ... male," and that it was part of a culture war. The NRA thrives on marketing fear of persecution and threats to a way of life for straight evangelical Christian white men. Someone like Castile or Hughes, black men who were exercising the rights the NRA supprts, them complicate that narrative as they represent the enemy to the target demographic the group trying to reach out to. Heston at one point talked of battling the "fringe propaganda of the homosexual coalition, the feminists who preach that it is the divine duty for women to hate men, blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand while they seek preference with the other." Jeff Cooper, a board member for the NRA, dismissed violence faced by black male victims of gun violence by saying that they aren't "any loss to society" and that they should keep giving them the ammo they need to kill each other. Ted Nugent, another board member, has said real Americans are white, called black rap artists "greasy black mongrels," and used the term "subhuman mongrel" and "chimpanzee" to describe President Obama. Jim Porter, the former president of the NRA, referred to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression, a term used by racist revisionists to erase the slavery issue from the war. These are the people who lead the NRA, who approve its advertising and its focus.
Tension between reactionaries like these and activists fighting for gender, racial, and sexual equality will only increase the fears of continued violence. This fear will be exacerbated beyond confrontations between protesters and police -- where once the extent of violence would be rocks and other objects thrown by protesters -- by the presence of guns. After the Dallas shootout, Mayor Mike Rawlings said that the presence of protesters openly carrying merely confused police and complicated the issue of identifying potential suspects. Fortunately, this time around those people carrying ran away from the shooting, even handing over their guns to police to avoid being confused with the shooter. None of those "good guys with a gun" joined the fight that night because they knew they could be shot by police trying to identify the actual perpetrator. That's ultimately the problem, though. These gun owners knew they were potential suspects; they knew they could be shot. Unlike others who have been told they could be heroes, who have been taught to fear people of other races, other religions, and even their own government, they knew what real fear was and what it's like to be a victim of violence. What happens when a protest turns violent because those who have been taught that their gun empowers them feel threatened by a crowd? It almost happened in Portland, Ore., this past weekend at a Black Lives Matter-related rally. All it takes is one jumpy person with a gun to send these events spiraling into battles in the streets.
We have been ushered into a situation where an organization is using fear as a marketing tool, cashing in on fears, paranoia, and racism to fill its coffers and spread its control -- selling a culture war to people in a near hope that an actual shooting war might break out. It has spread into LGBT culture now, with appeals for gay people to arm themselves, to shoot back. This is a dangerous and frightening prospect. On an international scale, arms races, fear, and saber-rattling brought us the First World War and later the Cold War with its hot flashes in Africa, Asia, and Central America. It's time to reject this threat to our domestic safety and tranquility and say no to the culture of guns and fear.
AMANDA KERRI is an activist and comedian living in Oklahoma City.