John Whitehead's Commentary
Government Violence: The Missing Link in the Gun Control Debate
“We need to look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence.”—President Barack Obama
It didn’t take long for the tragedy of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, which left 20 schoolchildren and six adults dead, to be co-opted by politicians and special interest groups alike, all eager to advance their ideas about how to prevent another deranged madman from taking innocent lives. President Obama is calling on Congress to issue gun control legislation that would limit access to assault weapons. The National Rifle Association (NRA) wants armed guards patrolling every school in America. Legislators in several states, including Florida, want to allow teachers to carry guns on school grounds. Others are clamoring for a lockdown of the schools, complete with metal detectors and guard dogs.
To our detriment, we have revisited this scenario in the wake of every school shooting since 12th graders Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, and opened fire, killing 12 classmates and one teacher. Yet in the midst of widespread finger pointing (not even violent movies, crime dramas and violent video games have been spared) and calls for reform of the mental health care system and gun control, not a word has been said about the greatest perpetrator of violence in American society and around the world—the U.S. government.
Violence has become our government’s calling card, starting at the top and trickling down, from President Obama’s “kill list,” which relies on drones to target insurgents, to the more than 80,000 SWAT team raids carried out every year on unsuspecting Americans by heavily armed, black-garbed commandos and the increasingly rapid militarization of local police forces across the country. We even export violence worldwide, with one of this country’s most profitable exports being weapons.
Thus, any serious discussion about minimizing the violence in our society needs to start with the government and its tendency to use violence as a means to an end, whether in matters of foreign policy or domestically, deploying heavily armed agents to enforce a myriad of arcane, bureaucratic regulations that impinge on Americans simply going about their business, such as the goat farmers whose homes were raided by SWAT teams with the Food and Drug Administration, or those attempting to exercise their constitutional rights such as the Occupy protesters who were subjected to all manner of violence.
It is no coincidence that the assault weapons used by killer Adam Lanza were military-grade weapons. These weapons, commonly wielded in video games, action movies and by invading SWAT teams, go hand in hand with the steady diet of violence that permeates everything in our culture. What is more significant, however, is that these weapons are not just the stuff of celluloid fantasy. In the hands of government agents, whether they are members of the military, law enforcement or some other government agency, these weapons have become routine parts of America’s day-to-day life, a byproduct of the rapid militarization of law enforcement over the past several decades. Over the course of 30 years, police officers in jack boots holding assault rifles have become fairly common in small town communities across the country.
This is what happens when you turn a nation into a police state: weapons become accepted instruments of tyranny, whether in the hands of government agents or in the hands of raging lunatics.
Much of this can be traced to the government’s so-called “War on Drugs,” which opened the door for police to be equipped with military weapons. In 1981, Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, enabling the military to share equipment, training, and intelligence with local police. In 1997, Congress approved the 1033 Program, which allows the Secretary of Defense to transfer surplus military supplies and weapons—everything from surplus assault rifles to mini-tanks, grenade launchers, and remote controlled robots—to local police agencies without charge. Since 1997, more than 17,000 police agencies have taken advantage of the 1033 Program, acquiring $2.6 billion dollars worth of weapons and equipment, and demand is only getting higher. In fact, a record-setting $500 million worth of equipment was distributed in 2011, twice the amount given away in 2010.
This armory of weaponry designed for war is not limited to local law enforcement agencies. All levels of government, including regulatory agencies within the federal government, are in possession of high-powered weapons designed to wreak havoc on the battlefield. For example, in March 2012, defense contractor ATK agreed to produce 450 million hollow point rounds to be used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office. DHS placed another order for 750 million rounds of various ammunition in August 2012. In August 2012, the Social Security Administration (SSA) placed an order for 174,000 rounds of hollow point ammunition. The SSA plans to send the ammunition to 41 locations throughout the United States, including major cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, and Philadelphia, among others.
No wonder many Americans are armed to the hilt. Many feel the need to protect themselves against their own government, whose arsenal only keeps growing and whose steady encroachments on civil liberties have resulted in a climate of surveillance wherein 1.7 billion communications between Americans, whether email, text, or phone call, are intercepted by the government daily, not to mention the impact of overcriminalization, which has rendered otherwise law-abiding individuals as lawbreakers for such mundane acts as holding Bible studies at home, making and sharing unpasteurized goat cheese with friends, and growing rare varieties of orchids.
Our culture’s fundamental loss of morality doesn’t help matters, either. Making the case that a government lacking in morality which fails to abide by its own laws is essentially inviting anarchy, acclaimed filmmaker Oliver Stone, co-author of The Untold History of the United States, argues, “Can we kill Bin Laden without having to bring him to trial, can we just get it done? And that ‘get it done’ mentality justifies the ends and that is where countries go wrong, and people go wrong. All of our lives are moral equations. Does the end justify the means? No, it never did.”
There are no easy answers. Clearly, if someone really wants to wreak havoc, they'll find a way to obtain a weapon. Placing armed guards in every school in the country, as the NRA suggests, would merely heighten the culture of violence and contribute to a school environment that is already in lockdown mode. Indeed, as the Washington Post recognizes, there is evidence that the presence of armed guards in schools actually increases the chances of violent incidences occurring.
However, if President Obama, Congress and the American people really want the country to reconsider their relationship with guns and violence, then it needs to start with a serious discussion about the role our government has played and continues to play in contributing to the culture of violence. If the American people are being called on to scale back on their weapons, then the government and its cohorts—the military, the defense industry, the special interest groups, etc.—need to do the same. We owe it to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary and Columbine High School and the victims of every other senseless act of gun violence in this country to do more than score political points off each other. If we’re serious about real change, it needs to start at the top.