Ben Carson has caught a lot of flak for some of his remarks on the Oregon mass shooting. “I would not just stand there and let him shoot me,” he told "Fox and Friends." “I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.’” And then he smiled and chuckled, apparently quite pleased with himself.
Initially people were upset with Carson's apparent implicit admonishment of the victims—a charge that Carson tried to dismiss by claiming he was looking forward, trying to “plant a seed” for what people should do in the next such incident. But the more fundamental problem was that the victims simply did not exist for Carson. And it's not just Carson, either. Denying the reality of gun violence victims has become a central tenet of Republican ideology in recent years. To regard them as real people is simply too threatening to contemplate, because it would open up the possibility of taking political action—action that even NRA members would support, according to two Frank Luntz polls (2009/2012).
In Carson's case, this reality denial was revealed by the following exchange on CBS This Morning:
Norah O'Donnell: "Do you believe the victims in Oregon just stood there?"
Carson: "From the indications I got they did not rush the shooter. The shooter can only shoot one person at a time, he cannot shoot a whole group of people...."
O'Donnell: "Do you know who Chris Mintz is?"
O'Donnell: "So, Chris Mintz is an Army veteran and he was shot seven times. He did actually rush the shooter, and he's being hailed as the hero, he actually saved people's lives. He's someone who did act heroically."
Carson: "And that's what I'm saying. That's exactly what should be done."
But if Carson is now saying that Mintz did “exactly what should be done," then why didn't he say that in the first place? Why didn't he know what Mintz had done? Why was Mintz an unperson to him? "From the indications I got they did not rush the shooter.” That's what Carson initially said. Why was he so incurious about what had happened in Roseburg, particularly given how quick he was to pontificate in ignorance?
Carson didn't know about Mintz because he didn't want to know. On the right, the first rule of gun violence is you don't talk about gun violence—especially about the victims. If you must talk, then keep it generic. Jeb Bush's “Stuff happens” is perfect—a feature, not a bug. And if you must talk about the victims, say you pray for them—and tell everyone to pray too...and then shut up. The worst thing anyone can do is “try to politicize it,” which means seeing the victims as real flesh and blood people, whose lives should have never been taken, and then acting accordingly.
The GOP's logic is simple: If you let people think about victims, they can become sympathetic, and then action on their behalf is the logical response. But that would violate GOP orthodoxy, especially on guns, so it absolutely cannot be allowed to happen. Of course, the same logic applies on anything requiring government action, except when it comes to the tiny sliver of GOP-approved victims. And so there's a whole set of GOP/NRA rhetorical responses meant to deny gun violence victims status of "worthy victimhood" that would morally impel us to collective action. In this, there's a strong similarity to how the GOP victim blames others it doesn't want to help: low-wage workers, folks without health care, dreamers, etc. (For the classic historical example, see The Undeserving Poor by Michael Katz.)
The difficulty is that gun violence victims are such a diverse and numerous group that many will instantly appear as worthy victims—which is where a whole set of defensive responses (calls for prayers, political silence, etc.) kicks in, pretending to overvalue them so as to remove them from the sullied world of politics. Just as women were once placed on a pedestal, the better to justify denying them the vote (protecting them from the corrupt world of politics!) today's NRA/GOP script calls for “protecting” gun violence victims in exactly the same sort of way: "Don't politicize their deaths!" we are told, as if their deaths weren't already political.
Questions of who's a worthy victim are intimately connected with questions of identity. We protect “our own.” And so the GOP's refusal to see gun violence victims as truly worthy is a reflection of who counts to them as a person, or more precisely, as a “real American.”
As Josh Marshall pointed out recently, reflecting on Pew polling data, “[G]uns have become a key part of Republican partisan self-identification since the dawn of the Obama era.... As Pew's Carroll Doherty noted in this Pew write-up, "as recently as 2007, 48 percent of Republicans and GOP leaners said it was more important to control gun ownership, while 47 percent said it was more important to protect gun rights."
But as this chart shows, by last December, Republicans said it was more important to protect gun rights by a whopping 3-to-1 margin: 75 percent t0 24 percent. The majority of this shift came before even the first Luntz poll mentioned above, during the 2008 campaign and the first few months of Obama's presidency. Thus it appears to connected both to the collapse of George W. Bush's internationally swaggering style of conservatism, and to the rise of Barack Obama, against whom Sarah Palin appealled to “real Americans,” even though it was her husband who belonged to a secessionist political party, not exactly what most folks think of when it comes to being an American.
Luntz's 2009 poll found that 79 percent of NRA members and 57 percent of non-NRA gunowners thought Obama “ will attempt to ban the sales of guns in the United States at some point while he is president.” He was widely seen as secretly plotting a dictatorial power-grab, a delusional fantasy in synch with the high percentage of GOP voters who continued to believe Obama was not an American citizen.
Yet, even then, in that same poll, Luntz found high levels of NRA member support for sensible gun control measures supported by President Obama, and opposed by the NRA. Specifically:
- 69 percent of NRA members, and 85 percent non-NRA gunowners supported “A proposal requiring all gun sellers at gun shows to conduct criminal background checks of the people buying guns.”
- 82 percent of NRA members, and 86 percent non-NRA gunowners supported “A proposal prohibiting people on the terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns.”
- 78 percentof NRA members, and 88 percent non-NRA gunowners supported “A proposal requiring gun owners to alert police if their guns are lost or stolen.”
None of these actions by themselves will bring America close to European-levels of gun safety. But they will make a significant difference. And they will show that modest, reasonable policymaking is possible without anything close to a totalitarian apocalypse. That, in turn, could lead to even more such lawmaking over time.
This is why gun violence victims can't be allowed to be seen as worthy victims, and no one running for president on the GOP side can do anything to grant them that status, except in completely apolitical—if not anti-political—ways. Once a conversation begins on that basis, the overwhelming threat is that the NRA's base will desert it, and that simply can't be allowed to happen. So gun violence victims must not become worthy victims. Chris Mintz must be an unperson. There is simply no alternative for the GOP. The conversation must remain fantastical at all times.
During the 2012 election I wrote a piece for Al Jazeera English, “Planned Parenthood vs the NRA: Contrasting models of freedom,” in which I said:
On the one hand, the killing of Trayvon Martin highlights the NRA's paranoia-driven promotion of vigilantism, undermining the very foundations of the social contract that secures the totality of all our liberties against just such violence. On the other hand, the anti-choice shift of focus to birth control, trans-vaginal ultrasound and the like, makes the pro-choice perspective inescapable: the basic issue really is: who will control womens' bodies - themselves? Or remote, unaccountable male power-wielders of church and government? Connecting the two is the question of which organization represents and defends the more authentic and robust model of freedom - the NRA, or Planned Parenthood?
It's a legacy of patriarchy that it seems so “natural” to think of “gun rights” as synonymous with “liberty,” while for many it still seems odd, or forced, or perplexing to talk of reproductive rights as a matter of liberty. I went on to say:
It's not just that conservatives are opposed to womens' freedom, they genuinely can't even conceive of it. That's the ultimate reason why no women were allowed to testify before Darryl Issa's committee, when Sandra Fluke was specifically excluded from testifying. Conservatives simply don't see the point. Women are non-persons. They have nothing to do with discussions of freedom - unless, of course, they want to buy a gun.
Similarly, victims of gun violence are also non-persons. They have nothing to do with discussions of freedom - unless, of course, they are a “good man with a gun.” Then Ben Carson will know all about them.
Oh, but wait... there were armed students on campus that day, and one of them, John Parker Jr., explained the very level-headed reasons why he didn't play the hero in the NRA deluded fantasy mode:
"Luckily, we made the choice not to get involved," he told MSNBC. "We were quite a distance away from the actual building where it was happening, which could have opened us up to being potential targets ourselves. And, you know, not knowing where SWAT was on their response time, they wouldn't know who we were, and if we had our guns ready to shoot, they'd think we were the bad guys."
This is the sort of reality-based thinking that absolutely can't be allowed to intrude, if the NRA is to maintain its stranglehold on America. Only fantasy figures can be allowed to speak. Only wildly imaginary threats are real. There are no innocent victims. They all had it coming. They could have moved to Australia, after all.
Or they can stay here, and vote as if their lives depended on it.