Maybe you’ve heard about the “bullet fee” that was supposedly charged to the families of prisoners executed by gunfire. The fee, which is almost certainly an urban legend, has been attributed at various times to Bolshevik revolutionaries and the governments of Iran and China.
But even if the bullet fee is mythical, there is a very real price to be paid when a society becomes intoxicated by gunplay. What price have we paid for the bullets fired at Newtown and in the year since that tragedy?
The financial estimates only scratch the surface.
Researcher Ted Miller estimates the direct cost of intentional gun injuries at more than $8 billion per year, and the total societal cost at roughly $174 billion per year. A more focused study that concentrated on medical costs concluded that gun injuries lead to 31,000 hospitalizations each year at an annual cost of approximately $2.3 billion. More than 80 percent of that cost is borne by the government through Medicaid and other public assistance programs.
And yet, with all the talk of deficit reduction in Washington, gun control never seems to come up.
Guns are certainly big business. As we reported last year, “Firearms and ammunition sales rose 45 percent between 2009 and 2010 alone” and gun sales in some markets soared after the Newtown shooting. The Blackstone Group hedge fund, source of anti-Social Security billionaire Pete Peterson’s wealth, makes money from the gun business.
Cerberus Capital, an investment fund, created something it called the “Freedom Group” to invest in gun manufacturers. That investment became politically toxic after the Newtown shooting, especially with large institutional investors like teachers’ pension funds. But then, when you name your fund after the two-headed dog that is said to guard the gates of hell, you’re not exactly presenting yourself as a socially responsible investor.
And where there’s money, there’s lobbying. As the Sunlight Foundation reports, more than half of the new members of Congress elected last year received NRA funding. The school shooting didn’t make politicians any more reluctant to attend gun fundraisers.
People of the Gun
But that doesn’t begin to get at the heart of the matter – or to the true extent of the cost. To estimate that, we first need to understand: We are the People of the Gun. We own more guns per capita than any other nation on earth. Only Yemen comes close, and Yemenis reportedly have an ambivalence about their guns that Americans don’t seem to share.
Our love of the gun is as old as the nation itself. We needed our guns in the beginning. The long-range accuracy of the Pennsylvania Rifles used by colonists in the Revolutionary War contributed to a number of victories against the Redcoats, who carried shorter-range Brown Bess military muskets. Maybe that helped create the uniquely American algebra that says that “Guns = freedom.”
A dispersed agrarian people made up of homesteading farmers and ranchers needed guns – to protect the livestock from wild animals and themselves from marauders and thieves. Guns were a tool. We are a people who take pride in our tools, and in our ability to use them. We take our quotidian tasks and make them sport – and art, and adventure.
But then, as the railroads and industrialists and combines began to steal the American dream away from the farmers and ranchers, the cowboys and settlers, the gun became our consolation prize, our sublimated revenge, a symbolic instrument of power to distract us from the real power – the economic power – that had been taken from us.
It has been a century since the United States became an urban-majority country, according to the Census Bureau. When a healthy need or desire lingers too long or gets out of control, it becomes a fetish.
The Second Amendment crowd is misreading the amendment in whose name they struggle, but they’re not wrong about everything. There is a cultural divide over guns. As one who has used guns recreationally off and on for many years (mostly off in the year since Newtown), and who has lived in the major capitals of the East and well outside them, I’ve seen that divide firsthand.
It didn’t happen by accident. Urban Americans were the first to experience the immediate and devastating impact of gun violence. And with the passage of the Sullivan Law of 1911, the “liberal elites” of New York State became the first Americans to live under some form of gun control. They’ve lived that way for generations now, and have never experienced the gun culture so common to other parts of the country.
Much of the rest of the country is still living out the pioneer fantasy forged in the 1800s – and that fantasy is still fulfilling the same economic purpose: to distract them from the true imbalances in power that rob them of agency and economic power. They may not have money or a good job. But with a well-stocked gun cabinet they can feel that personal power is, in the words of the Rolling Stones song, “just a shot away.”
We’re not here to judge them, but there is a through-line that reaches from their innermost fantasies to the deaths of children in Newtown. We’ve all been programmed with internal fantasies, with consequences we can dimly understand at best. But theirs is an especially deadly fantasy. It fuels Tea Party rage with a violent individualistic ethos that rejects collective action, even when that action is in their own interest. And it prevents the kind of legislation that could prevent future Newtowns.
The architects of this particular fantasy have been constructing it inside our psyches for generations. It was projected in the “spectacular” special effects of Buffalo Bill’s sideshow, which included simulated prairie fires, a sunset and the cyclone. It has flickered before our eyes at 64 frames per second for nearly 100 years now, from "Birth of a Nation" to cowboy movies, from Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood to the more stylized and nerd-friendly dogfights of "Star Wars."
Sure there’s a solution to your problems, pardner. It’s just a shot away.
On my office wall is a framed photograph of Buffalo Bill and his troupe given to my grandfather when he was a young boy attending Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The American strain runs in the blood.
What price have we paid for the many bullets that have been fired in the year since Newtown? To answer that we need to know: What’s the value of a human life? What’s the cost to a society for allowing itself to be distracted from decades of economic plunder? What’s the value of a child’s lost future, which lies like some subatomic phenomenon in a field of potentiality? Most of all: What does a society lose when it values its children’s lives so cheaply?
As of this writing, one year after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, they are interrupting regularly scheduled programming to report on another school shooting, at Arapahoe High School in Colorado. That’s shouldn’t surprise anyone. We are the People of the Gun.
The cost of a bullet is the price of a fantasy paid in blood. Let’s hope it isn’t also paid with the price of our souls.