Code Red: US Gun Culture by Joanne Knight

The day dawned sunny, as almost every day in California does. Like thousands from all over the globe, my husband, daughter and I had moved to Silicon Valley on our own tech gold rush. The radio droned away as I went through the morning routine, getting my daughter ready for school. The news report of a shooting in a nearby suburb was shocking. A man had gunned down nine of his work mates. The whereabouts of the man were not known. I did not mention it to my daughter. As I drove her to school, I noticed more police vehicles were cruising the streets and a feeling of tension. The next day the man was shot dead in a suburban driveway by police. I felt relieved and outraged at the summary justice. It was my first direct experience with the infamous US gun culture.

Over the last eighteen months I have heard reports of several mass shootings in other parts of the country. I had become somewhat inured to the shock of these acts until the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The world viewed the Sandy Hook shooting with horror and disbelief. Twenty children, ages six and seven, and six adults were gunned down at the school. The children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre are collateral damage of the militarisation of the US civilian population.

I have watched with growing anger as the gun control debate has been highjacked repeatedly by the National Rifle Association (NRA). The progressive Left in the United States seems mesmerised and paralysed by their inability to make headway on gun control. There appears to be a connection between the strong influence of the military in this country, of paranoia at an international level, and gun violence in the civilian population. The civilian population is now fully mobilised to support most, if not all, US military ventures around the world. A militarised population is conditioned to see violence as a normal response to conflict and to see casualties as an unavoidable consequence of protecting oneself from enemies, whether they be Al Qaeda in the Middle East or the home invader. This fear and paranoia have come to pervade every US neighbourhood.

Kenneth J. Saltman, assistant professor at DePaul University, argues that militarism and the promotion of ‘violence as virtue’ pervade all areas of American life: foreign and domestic policy, popular culture, education, and language. The militarised response to September 11 resulted in the institutionalisation of permanent war. A high level of comfort with rising militarism allowed the suspension of civil liberties and was reinforced by an active hostility from the state and mass media towards any attempt to address the underlying causes for the unprecedented attack on the United States.

Such complacency towards militarism was recently reflected in a comment by Teju Cole in The New Yorker:

I am not naive about the incessant and unseen (by most of us) military activity that undergirds our ability to read, go to concerts, earn a living, and criticize the government in relative safety. I am grateful to those whose bravery keeps us safe. This ominous, discomfiting, illegal, and immoral use of weaponized drones against defenseless strangers is done for our sakes.

The logic seems to be that without a strong military the United States will descend into chaos. Cole recognises that drone strikes and military occupations were generating ‘more of the angriest young enemies money can buy’. As a New York Times report put it last year, ‘Drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants’. The activities of the US military led to the creation of more enemies. More enemies meant more paranoia and greater domestic threat. Cole’s statement reflected an acceptance of violence which may have extended to the massacre of young children, be they Iraqi or American. This is the price paid for freedom.

One of the outcomes of this cycle of violence is the increased presence of military-style weapons in the community. The greater the threat perceived by the civilian population, the greater the fear and the desire for self-defence and for more powerful firearms. A Report from the Violence Policy Center in June 2011 described the militarisation of the US civilian firearms market through access to guns that were identical to those used by the armed forces of the United States and other countries. These firearms included such sophisticated weapons as the Barrett 50 caliber anti-armour sniper rifle and the FN Herstal Five-seveN 5.7mm pistol, many variants of the AR-15 (the civilian version of the US military M-16 assault rifle) and numerous semiautomatic versions of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, popularly known as the AK-47.The use of military-style assault weapons has become commonplace in mass shootings.

This report also detailed the use of ‘patriotic’ and ‘heroic’ imagery in gun industry advertising which promotes a symbolic connection with military-style weapons. This was a powerful psychological factor in the process of militarisation. Such marketing identifies ownership of military-style weapons with grand themes of ‘patriotism’ and ‘homeland defence’ and dovetails neatly with the recruiting strategy of the US military. This is not a conspiracy theory, rather a convergence of interests in a militarised society.

The gun industry was a major contributor to the NRA and had an interest in promoting this type of imagery as part of its advertising. Patriotic imagery on the NRA homepage focuses on the US constitutional right to own guns. The NRA displays banners proclaiming that ‘We have the right to defend ourselves’, ‘Anti-gun politicians are wasting no time: their mission to disarm the American people’, Sheriffs refuse to enforce ‘unconstitutional gun laws’, and a quote from a Sandy Hook parent that the government will take his guns from his ‘cold, dead hands’. It was chilling that these slogans reflected the sincerely held beliefs of ordinary people. People seem to view the deaths of children as an acceptable consequence of their right to own guns. This attitude is similar to the acceptance of collateral damage in war.

NRA propaganda allows the drawing of the connection between attitudes related to foreign policy based in paranoia and domestic gun violence. In a section titled ‘Life of Duty’, a video paying tribute to soldiers killed in Afghanistan declares ‘Cut from the sacred cloth of liberty, these heroic men defend the innocent, vanquish the oppressors and restore hope in places once hard to find’. Existing side by side with exhortations to defend rights to own a gun, these two sides of patriotism become intimately entwined in paranoid propaganda about the defence of the unique US way of life against foreigners and domestic government.

The military has been one of the few options for advancement available to impoverished populations. Brian Galaviz and colleagues argue that military recruitment aims to develop strongly positive feelings about military-related activities and service in these youth. They found that supportive feelings about and articulated interest in military service by high school seniors was a strong predictor of actual service. Free first-person shooter video games were part of this campaign, along with promises of enormous cash signing-bonuses or college scholarships. In fact the military has had increasing access to children without the presence of parents or guardians, such as in targeting public schools. For example, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a multiple-choice test used to determine eligibility for enlistment, is integrated and used in schools as a recruitment tool.

Another strategy of military recruitment has been to promote the perception that participation in the military indicates leadership and strong moral character. As part of the campaign for the national draft for the Frist World War, in 1914 there were calls for universal military training in public schools and colleges as a way to resolve perceived social problems, including ‘moral rot’. Proponents of military training in schools claimed that it would create better citizens and a ‘spirit of obedience, of subservience to discipline’. An increase in the number of private military schools in poor areas of Chicago in recent years may reflect this perception among the population.

A further infiltration of education by militaristic attitudes is reflected in the Hart-Rudman Commission. In 2000 the Commission called for education to be classified as an issue of national security. It required increased federal funding for school security at the cost of community policing, and the continuation of the Troops to Teachers program. Today, under conditions of perpetual warfare, US military recruitment strategies converge with the interests of the gun industry and the NRA to mobilize militarised attitudes in the civilian population.

The militarisation of everyday life may explain the inability of the government and gun control groups to make any headway in preventing massacres like Sandy Hook. The lobby group Move On has produced a video to counter NRA anti-gun control arguments. The first point made is that nobody is coming to take your guns. It is shocking. This is exactly the thing which needs to happen. Guns need to be surrendered to protect children. The Sandy Hook shooter stole the guns he used to shoot children from his mother. She had obtained them legally. The very existence of so many guns in the community mean that deaths are inevitable.

In an attempt to protect students from a massacre, our local school district has planned. The announcement was framed in the innocuous terms of a ‘Safety Plan’ and of equivalence with fire and earthquake drills. Our school newsletter stated that the drills will involve practicing ‘“lock down” procedures in the event of an immediate threat of danger on the school grounds’ including ‘barricading the classroom door and turning out the lights’. I am now haunted by images of my child trying to protect herself from an armed attacker. It was a graphic instance of culture shock.

Such drills, in fact, date back to the ‘Duck and Cover’ drills of the 1950s. Friends have told me that Code Red drills were a normal part of their schooling growing up. During these procedures, classes were moved into the hallways away from the windows; they were kept in lock down and were not able to go outside. These were simply considered a regular part of school routine. It appeared that such drills have been a normal part of American life. There is strange blankness when my friends speak about these events.

These drills reflect the need for ‘obedience and subservience’ in schools and to the militarised state. It would not be beneficial to the Code Red drills for students to question what was going on. Militarised life in the United States does not now involve formation marching and saluting the flag. It does, however, consist of a high level of acceptance that military violence is a necessary evil to keep the United States safe from enemies. It also requires a fundamental acceptance that the troops need community support, materially and emotionally. These deeply rooted assumptions need to be challenged if any headway was to be made in controlling gun violence in this country.

About the author

Joanne Knight

Joanne Knight is a housing advocate, community activist and writer living in Sydney.

More articles by Joanne Knight

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