It is with disappointment that Firmin DeBrabander, a philosopher at the Maryland Institute College of Art, spoke with us about the Charleston shooting that claimed nine lives in a historically black church Wednesday evening. In May, Yale University Press published DeBrabander’s book: “Do Guns Make Us Free? Democracy and the Armed Society.” In the book, DeBrabander uses his philosophical background to push back against the common Republican defense of guns: that firearms maintain American freedom. Instead, DeBrabander argues that the increased rates of gun ownership in America drums up fear in the layperson, which thereby dissuades citizens from democratic participation. His most recent examples are the Newtown and Aurora shootings.
Just one month has passed since the publication of DeBrabander’s volume encouraging caution and regulation, and another gun-related tragedy has already made national headlines. On the one hand, commentators and news outlets are calling the incident a hate crime and domestic terrorism. For others, the massacre is more evidence that we need more guns and less regulation — a prospect that has been and will continue to be raised in the South Carolina Senate.
In the midst of the ongoing investigation into the shooting, DeBrabander spoke to Salon mere minutes after the announced capture of the alleged killer, Dylann Storm Roof, about what this incident might mean for the landscape of the gun control debate.
When you woke up this morning, what was your immediate reaction to this news?
Well, my immediate reaction was, to be honest with you, I didn’t put much thought into it because it is so depressingly common. I didn’t put much thought into the Waco shooting a few weeks ago. This is so commonplace now. That was my initial thought unfortunately.
The role of race in today’s incident is very complex. There are some commentators who are saying that the fact that the crime was most likely motivated by racism will detract from the gun control conversation. Your book touches upon race in the sense that you argue whiter communities are more comfortable with guns largely because they are able to distance themselves from violence, whereas black communities that are often lower class generally support more gun regulation because they are more exposed to violence. What are your opinions on how race will factor into discussions on today’s shooting?
I understand what you’re saying, that the race issue will eclipse the gun control issue. However, the mayor of Charleston, when he reported on the crime, he immediately said that he was calling for stricter gun laws. He immediately raised that issue. He’s been a champion of this for some time. South Carolina was in the process of deliberating very expansive gun laws. The lawmakers wanted to make it one of four states where you do not need a permit to carry. My understanding is that that law got scrapped, but that’s not to say it won’t come back again.
There are some commentators who are speaking up saying that this may actually be an effective way to package the gun debate, because the gun debate is so frustrating on its own. The Waco incident had no race element, and that did not dissuade Texas lawmakers from approving open carry and campus the very next week. Some people think the issue of race may actually enhance the issue here, especially since it was closely related to police shooting up the road in north Charleston. There’s good reason to believe that many police shootings are due to the increased availability of guns out there, though clearly not the incident in north Charleston. I don’t know that it will detract from the gun control debate. It’s true, African Americans, who are the ones disproportionately affected by gun violence, they tend to favor gun control. I believe the pastor who was killed in the church was in favor of gun control. In fact, I think he’s spoken out on it.
Some more conservative commentators seem to be advocating for arming priests and pastors in the same way that they’ve argued in favor of having armed guards in schools. What are your thoughts on this proposal?
That’s a very typical reaction. In the last decade, this is exactly how the gun rights crowd would’ve responded to this. They take these incidents as a call to arms. I’m not surprised that they think Christian pastors should be armed to prevent these kinds of incidents. The interview you refer to is with a guy named E.W. Jackson, who was on "Fox and Friends" this morning. He was the one who suggested that this was more of a hate crime against Christians and not against African Americans. He himself is African American, but clearly he and the host completely ignored that there was an obvious race element to this though the shooter himself said it. What was interesting about Jackson is that he is no average or ordinary black pastor. "Fox and Friends" picked him for a reason. He was a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia and for the Senate and is a Tea Party favorite, staunch defender of guns, big critic of the black political establishment in complaining that they’re always claiming racism, but that’s beside the point. The major point is this is not anything new. This is part of the larger gun rights agenda to flood our society with guns.
The other piece of interest on Fox News was actually in the written portion. John Lott, who is a major gun rights advocate, wrote a book called “More Guns, Less Crime.” He has been repeatedly discredited, disproved by the public health establishment, but he keeps coming back because he cites data and statistics. His methods have been disproven, but he is called on as an expert in favor of gun rights. He wrote a column this morning for Fox News saying that the real problem was that the church was a gun-free zone, and that makes it an easy target for killers. But that again is a very common argument that we heard many times about the shooter in Aurora, Colorado. They said that that theater was also a gun-free zone, and that’s why he chose it. There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary: that that doesn’t come into the minds of the shooters at all. It’s pretty clear this guy did not choose this church because it was a gun-free zone. He had a racist agenda in mind. He picked a racially significant church, a historic black church in the civil rights movement. One article pointed out that actually this church had sparked a pretty impressive slave revolt back in the 1820s. Then the church was burned down, and apparently yesterday was the anniversary of the revolt. I don’t know whether he knew that, but he didn’t randomly pick this church. I don’t think any guns in the church would have dissuaded him from doing what he wanted to do right there.
Many are calling today’s shooting a “terrorist” act. Vox.com ran a story explaining why it’s “important” to so many Americans to call today’s incident terrorism. What do you think about this classification? How might it relate to your argument that more guns leads to fear, which ultimately hinders democracy and freedom?
I would say a couple things. First of all, this incident is now going to be used by the NRA as one more reason to be armed because “now we’re not even safe in our churches.” But one thing that I do point out in the book is how terrorism, at least the threat of foreign terrorism or Muslim terrorism, is used by the gun rights crowd as one more reason we should be armed. When LaPierre talks about Muslims crossing the border, he even employs ISIS over here and targeting us and we should be armed for that. I believe Ben Carson, the presidential candidate in the Republican Party, also made a similar claim at the NRA convention. This is a common plea that they make, that Middle East terrorism is the major reason we should be armed, but Islamic terrorism is not as significant or common a threat over here as the media would have us believe. There was an interesting article in the New York Times a couple days ago pointing out that there’s a far greater threat of terrorists coming from right-wing terrorist forces. These are sovereign citizens and militia movement people who are all staunch gun-rights supporters. They are, of course, the most extreme and radical kind. I do not know yet enough about this guy, if he figures into that. He probably doesn’t if race is his agenda. But there’s ample evidence that, while Muslim terrorism is something that we don’t necessarily need to fear, at least over here, the real terrorist threat is coming from the radical right, who include a lot of absolutist gun owners. That’s something that is not widely acknowledged yet, except by police and law enforcement officials. They recognize it. They’re the ones who are afraid of the anti-government extremists on the right, while everyone else seems to be unaware. And, I’ll point out that the NRA fosters these extremists — just look at Wayne LaPierre's impulsive suspicion of government, and perennial hostility towards it. Of course, the NRA also ensures that these extremists are armed.
How do you predict the public will react (or continue to react) to this incident? How do you hope they will react?
I feel pretty negative about how they’re going to react right now, in the short run. At this point in U.S. history, the last five to 10 years, we seem to be in a stage where people are either open to or unalarmed by expansive gun rights, or they’re actively supporting it, of course. In my book, I argue that even while it seems to be a minority that’s in favor of expansive gun rights, the problem is that the majority of people who would be critical of that, they don’t for whatever reason seem to be bothered to speak out. If the Sandy Hook shooting did not give people enough cause to press their lawmakers, I’m not sure that this will either. From the looks of it, looking at the legislative agenda in South Carolina this week, there is another expansive gun law that they were looking at and considering. It just seems like South Carolina, as with many other states that have Republican legislatures at the moment, are in a mood for expanding gun laws. Georgia just passed their carry-everywhere law last year, and Texas just approved open-carry and campus-carry. At least for the moment, I don’t think this is going to slow anything down. The NRA and the gun rights people have been deceptive in using these kinds of incidents for their own benefit. “One more reason to be armed.” In my book, I argue that as guns enter society, as the NRA wants, then indeed it seems to make sense that we should be armed because we’re always in a situation where we have to use a gun as a last resort. It’s a horrible kind of world where you feel the need to have a gun in church to protect yourself, and LaPierre is happy to point out, that we live in that kind of awful world. Well they’re responsible for making this awful world. They made this armed society in which you have to live by the gun. And this is just another case for them to make it come true.
Is there any optimism here? I’m curious to see if the racial angle does not change things, does not help with the debate here. As we’ve seen in recent American politics, the arrow can shift very quickly on issues. The case in point is the gay marriage issue, which 10 years ago was a lightning rod of controversy that politicians ran away from. Now, all the Democrats are busy running to it. That’s one thing. Also, climate change of course. The arrow swings up and down on that all the time. Could things change? Absolutely, they could change very quickly. But I’m not optimistic that things will happen in the near future. I think South Carolina is probably going to continue on its pro-gun stance, at least for the near future. This incident will not stop it and will probably be used to justify it. Perhaps in the long run — but who knows what the long run means? In the gay marriage debate, the “long run” was five years. It was only 2004 that Republicans were trying to get it on the ballot in every state because they knew people would come out and vote against it. But now, suddenly, the tide has changed dramatically. It depends on your perspective. Is 10 years a long time?