Using the Poor as a Scapegoat for Gun Violence

Like a lot of kids raised in liberal New York City, I was taught that anyone who wants a gun is probably the last person who should be allowed to own one.  I learned to consider the Second Amendment a quaint throwback to less civilized times and had it drilled into my head that only psychos, criminals, and men with small penises carry guns. Most gun violence could be blamed on economic inequalities created by Reaganomics, according to the elementary school teacher who made sure a Mondale/Ferraro sticker was affixed to each student’s binder.

Then I grew up, read the Bill of Rights, and married a gun nut.

Across the country in Phoenix, Meghan McCain was brought up with a more informed view on the right to bear arms.  Her brothers were avid hunters and she developed a deep respect for the Second Amendment.  Today she’s an NRA member with a lifetime of positive gun experiences under her belt.

I confess I have a soft spot for Meghan McCain.  I don’t agree with all of what she writes and I wish she’d add something new to the national political conversation instead of recycling a mishmash of talking points.  But I admire her practical decision to milk her campaign fame for all it’s worth, and I think she’s wise to go the contrarian Republican route.  Controversy sells, as evidenced by her six figure book deal.

McCain and I agree on the Second Amendment issue.  But while her devotion to gun rights confirms her bitter clinger bona fides, she appears to have absorbed a different kind of liberal humbuggery on the issue of gun violence.

The real solution to preventing gun violence is not taking away the tools, but tackling its causes: poverty, inadequate health care, mental illness, joblessness, inadequate housing, and poor education. Desperate people will make anything a weapon. We need to eliminate desperation, not guns.

Translation: guns don’t kill people, people with less money and education than Meghan McCain kill people.  (And sometimes the mentally ill do it too.)

Way to scapegoat the impoverished!

I was under the impression that identifying poverty as the root cause of violent crime was no longer in vogue – after all, that would let guns off the hook – but apparently President Obama feels otherwise.  Eight days after the 9/11 attacks, Barack Obama attributed the tragedy to the terrorists’ lack of empathy stemming from a “climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.”  And in a 2007 speech, Obama called poverty “a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence.”  Obama’s first pick for Commerce Secretary, Bill Richardson, shared similar thoughts during the 2007 NAACP Presidential Primary Forum when he said, “the key in eliminating gun violence is eliminating poverty, eliminating hate.”

Perhaps Meghan McCain is simply repeating liberal talking points, but it seems to me that even among the political left, violent crime is usually approached as a complex phenomenon caused by a multitude of sociological and psychological factors.  Many recognize that it reeks of classism to suggest that poverty creates desperation-fueled violence.  It’s also unsupported by evidence.  While a correlation exists between certain crimes and poverty, research has not proven a cause and effect relationship.  There are simply too many variables.

Even Marxist criminologists don’t attribute crime to poverty, but rather to relative deprivation like income inequality.  But both are silly assumptions: if all of the poverty-stricken or people who find life unfair engaged in violent criminal activities, the world would be in chaos.  But clearly most of the world’s have-nots eke out their years without erupting into violence.

Instead, couldn’t it be that violent crime perpetuates poverty?  We see this on an individual level among both victims and convicted criminals.  It is also evident on the community level.  Neighborhoods decimated by gun violence fail to attract entrepreneurs who might help the areas prosper.  Crime also keeps property values low and drives up insurance premiums.

It may well be that poverty has little to do with being deprived, and everything to do with being depraved.  And it isn’t economic poverty, but moral poverty that is to blame for gun violence.


5 Responses to “Using the Poor as a Scapegoat for Gun Violence”

  1. goesh on May 20th, 2009 6:36 am

    Well said! As a gun owner, I believe the flea market immediate access to firearms needs to be closed. I’m all in favor of a waiting period for the purchase of any firearm. I believe gun dealers who violate gun laws need mandatory prison time. I believe in excluding convicted felons from gun ownership. I believe my right to live is stronger than a criminal’s right to take my life.

  2. Jenn Q. Public on May 20th, 2009 6:02 pm

    goesh, I’m mostly agnostic on the so-called gun show loophole, but statistics indicate that a very small number of guns used in violent crime come from those person-to-person sales. A compromise might be requiring the use of the background check system by individuals.

    I tend to approach firearm waiting periods the same way as abortion waiting periods: both types of law infantilize adults and are designed to create obstacles to the exercise of constitutionally protected rights.

    But I’m right there with you on mandatory prison for gun dealers who violate the law and agree on excluding felons from gun ownership. And I couldn’t agree more with your excellent last sentence.

  3. Eclectic Radical on June 1st, 2009 3:37 am

    Person to person sales and pawnshops (which are frequently counted as ‘person to person’ sales in my statistical analyses)are the leading sources of guns used in violent crime, yes. Pawnshops frequently serve as convenient outlets for stolen guns (along with other stolen goods) because of the relative difficulty for an individual businessperson to determine if someone really owns the merchandise in front of them, thus making it easy for someone who wants to receive stolen goods to deny that he is actually a fence.

    Interestingly, pawnshops are drawn to poverty. People who pawn their possessions are people in need of money. Pawnshops are nearly always opened in poor neighborhoods, because they are both sources of goods (legitimate and stolen) and sources of customers looking for cheap goods.

    Claiming that blaming poverty for the real social ills it generates is ‘scapegoating the poor’ is oversimplistic or disingenuous, I’d say which depends on the source. Poverty creates circumstances in which people’s survival instincts become the most important life tool, and instinct is not moral. Poverty also breeds resentment of ‘haves’ by the ‘have nots’, which feeds the class war in a variety of ways. After all, most of us concerned with the issues related to poverty are a lot more interested in scapegoating the rich. ;)

    The poor are not responsible for poverty, they are its victims. There IS an intellectual tradition very interested in scapegoating the poor, but it isn’t modern social liberalism… it’s the heavily Randian/Malthusian streak running through the conservative movement that argues that the poor deserve to be poor and poverty is not a problem because people are only poor if they choose to be, so trying to do anything about it would only make it worse. ;)

  4. Jenn Q. Public on June 1st, 2009 8:22 pm

    Studies by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Institute of Justice found that between 1 and 2 percent of criminals’ guns were obtained from gun shows – that’s a pretty small number in my book. As far as I know, pawn shop sales are not considered p2p sales because any business that sells firearms must have a Federal Firearms License.

    Eclectic Radical wrote:

    Poverty creates circumstances in which people’s survival instincts become the most important life tool, and instinct is not moral.

    So you’re saying poor people are basically instinct-driven animals? Then why do most poverty-stricken people act morally (or at least morally enough to stay off law enforcement radar)? I don’t accept the notion that government cheese and food stamps will drive a man to violence. Good people living in unfortunate circumstances aren’t driven to violence, they either accept their lots or they work harder to change their circumstances.

    Poverty also breeds resentment of ‘haves’ by the ‘have nots’, which feeds the class war in a variety of ways. After all, most of us concerned with the issues related to poverty are a lot more interested in scapegoating the rich. ;)

    Again, resentment, where it exists, is hardly a guarantee of gun violence.

    Sure, most liberals are more interested in overtly scapegoating the rich, but progressives are more than happy to use poverty as a political football for whatever purpose they see fit. Blame poverty for the 9/11 attacks, for example, and you don’t have to venture into the politically incorrect territory of blaming Islamic extremism. Not only that, it builds the case for expanding social welfare programs.

    it’s the heavily Randian/Malthusian streak running through the conservative movement that argues that the poor deserve to be poor and poverty is not a problem because people are only poor if they choose to be, so trying to do anything about it would only make it worse. ;)

    I’m not going to spend time refuting beliefs I don’t share. Yes, I prefer the “teach a man to fish” approach to the “give a man a fish” approach, but I recognize that sometimes we just need to get those fish on the table as fast as possible.

  5. Eclectic Radical on June 11th, 2009 10:19 am

    I had to catch myself, I almost turned this into a treatise on human nature. Suffice it say that I have a very Calvinist view of human nature. We are all closer to our animal instincts than we are to a state of grace. Where I depart from Calvin (and Rand and Malthus for that matter) is that I believe we can (as individuals) do something about it. I believe that, as a society, we must be aware of it while retaining the will to love each other despite it.

    Resentment is no guarantee of gun violence, but it is the reason that Robin Hood resonated so strongly with the English yeomanry in the Middle Ages and Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger were considered heroes by many Depression-era farmers and working people angry at banks and the government. Resentment makes violence more likely and makes the perpetrators of violence less ‘evil’ in the eyes of many. Good people living in unfortunate circumstances are not driven to violence, but the circumstances will always have a real effect on the will of individuals to remain good. We are human, we are fallible, and we are not going to become less human or less fallible.

    I don’t like the word ‘progressive’ very much and it bothers me that it has become so popular. That’s something else worthy of a treatise in its own right. I associate ‘progressivism’ with the social Darwinism and programmed efficiency movements of the turn of the ‘Progressive Era’ and their effects on the reform movement of that era.

    I don’t think poverty is to blame for 9/11 so much as anger and hatred in the guise of piety. I tend to agree with Ron Paul that some of that anger is very justified. Justified anger does not justify horrible atrocity, but it makes it more likely. Resentment, again, makes those who perform acts of evil in the name of such resentments less evil in the eyes of those who share those resentments. Witness the willingness of Americans of varying political persuasions to take sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict sight unseen as their political loyalties and religious resentments motivate them rather than using their critical judgment to form a true opinion of their own.

    I was not so much trying to ascribe Randian or Malthusian beliefs to you as to condemn their influence on a great deal of public policy positions that have been credibility by American conservatives. I agree with you, in general principle, about the fishing analogy. One of my chief concerns in this era is that a man who knows perfectly well how to fish may not be allowed to do so because he isn’t certified as a fisherman by an established technical college or cannot afford to underbid a corporation for the boat.

    I’m NOT a utopian who believes we can ever truly conquer poverty. The utopian Marxist idea that we can solve the problem with communal ownership, the utopian liberal American idea that we can solve the problem with universal education, and the utopian conservative American idea that the problem will solve itself if everyone gets a job are all equally wrong. I believe in practicing a critical realism about such issues, and I believe that such approaches inevitably lead to some form of socialism out of necessity. I also believe that a certain degree of socialism is as morally important as too much is morally dangerous.

    Right now, we are far closer to too little than too much, generally speaking.

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