In the cover story of the August 6 edition of Time magazine, Joe Klein offers a rather grim account of the U.S. national conversation about guns in the wake of recent mass shootings. He writes about the ways in which the political climate, increasingly and rather bizarrely governed by the gun lobby, has made it impossible to have any serious political dialogue about the regulation of guns and ammunition. The article is provocatively entitled, “How Guns Won.” It is clear to me from reading the piece, however, that Mr. Klein wants to stay far from actually attributing victory to guns themselves. Rather, he wants to maintain the more commonsense view that it is those political actors that value gun-owning, certainly backed by the gun industry but also fiercely devoted to libertarian ideals, that have won decisive victories. However, I think we could take Mr. Klein’s title quite literally and say that guns themselves have essentially won what Bruno Latour might call a “trial of strength” in which they had been engaged with their critics.
To do this is to concede that we “rational” decision-makers are not the only political actors: guns may actually exercise agency. How so? Not in a simple way, is the answer (in just the same way and to just the same degree that other persons’ effects on us are never simple). The capabilities of high-powered weapons, when exercised, evoke reactions. Reactions, of course, are always conditioned by the reactants. They are received and processed in terms of what Levi Bryant, in The Democracy of Objects,calls the “internal structure” of the (receiving) object. The physical bodies within gunshot range react by bleeding and causing a great deal of trauma and mess. They don’t react by sprouting wings or by solving mathematical puzzles about the weight and velocity of bullets. Political platforms and the people that support them are also objects that react to the exercise of a gun’s potential. Again, we are talking about high powered, extremely lethal weapons. How are gun enthusiasts affected? What reactions are evoked, given the internal structure of the gun enthusiast (i.e., her convictions about what guns are for, her attachment to her own guns, her way of interpreting events, etc.)? They don’t react by calling for stricter gun laws (or, we might as well say, by sprouting wings, etc.), but by inventing speculative theories about how a well-armed movie-goer or temple devotee might have kept the shooter from harming so many people. My point is that these theories do not come from detached, disembodied reflection on events. Rather, they are in some ways created by them. The discharge of a guns’ potential in public space has a powerful effect of forming subjectivity, though always in terms of the internal structure of the subject-in-process-of-becoming.
Just to be clear, of course guns don’t have strategies, nor do they even “want” anything. But they do leverage force—they are historical agents and not just inert lumps of matter. No, guns “don’t kill people” (Who ever said so?); however, the power that is discharged by them is not simply a matter of ballistics, but of politics. They are conversation shapers and thus also active participants in the always dynamic re-iteration of a community’s identity and system of priorities.
None of this directly answers the question about what is to be done to change things, but at least it provides a fuller account of who the actors in the political struggle are. The debate isn’t simply a matter of different and incommensurable moral perspectives clashing over an indisputable set of inert facts. Rather, the “facts” themselves are intervening in the conversation. Gun control isn’t just about regulating human decisions, but about taking some control over guns themselves. Our struggle really is against flesh and blood—or, at least, it is on the level of materiality. The flesh and blood, and the metal, are crying out, and infecting our politics with the kind of anxiety and fear that breeds knee-jerk reactions and thus undermines the kind of policy-making that could actually lesson the likelihood of further atrocities.
This does perhaps suggest a strategy for liberals who are willing to engage in trials of strength against real flesh and blood enemies rather than against the ghosts of disembodied freedom allegedly in need of regulation. Perhaps the subtle ways we speak about “gun control” in public discourse can be a tool of strength rather than a liability. Rather the using the rather abstract and bloodless language of freedom and regulation, corralling innumerable libertarian-minded Americans on behalf of guns, we might gain strength by framing the conversation in terms of what the most lethal, and thus most impressive, guns actually do. We need to talk about the power of projectiles to tear limbs off, about the numbers of bodies that can be destroyed in a matter of seconds by assault rifles. We need to enlist, not political philosophers or economists or other experts in “rational choice,” but physiologists and ballistics experts and whoever else who can see who the real enemy is and how we might most effectively resist. In other words, we need to find ways to make new connections, new alliances, so that what Latour calls the “power to put in order” that we employ to govern ourselves can do its proper work and curb the power and influence of those things that have far too large a role in the current iteration of the commonwealth.
Thomas A. James is pastor of Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, and author of In Face of Reality: The Constructive Theology of Gordon D. Kaufman.