We U.S. Americans are now beyond parody: guns, race, gender, and parenthood, ca. 2014



Jesus Mary and Joseph.

As I’m sure all of you know already, a nine-year old killed the man who was instructing her in the use of an Uzi submachine gun this week at a shooting gallery in Arizona.  The  juxtaposition of this story with a story from earlier this summer, in which a mother spent more than two weeks in jail for letting her 9-year old girl play in a park by herself while she did her shift at McDonald’s, says it all:  “In America Today, a 9-Year Old Girl Can’t Play Alone in a Park But She Can Play With an Uzi.”

Andy Borowitz satirized the current conversation about parenting and guns yesterday in “Nation Debates Extremely Complex Issue of Children Firing Military Weapons,” but then I open the L.A. Times this morning to find exactly this kind of “experts say. . . “/”others argue that. . . ” debate as to the best way to teach children to use guns in the pages of one of America’s great newspapers.  As though the use of semiautomatic weapons by children is a debatable issue!  Where were the voices of public heath experts, family practice doctors, and pediatricians?  Where were the voices of parents in Chicago, whose neighborhoods are routinely interrupted by gun violence and who fear for the safety of their children just walking to and from school?

Let’s not overlook the enormous role that race and gender play in both of these stories.  First, let’s talk about race:  the McDonald’s employee, Debra Harrell, and her daughter are African American.  The Arizona child whose parents permitted her to fire an Uzi appears to be white.  Why do we know Debra Harrell’s name, but not the name of the (presumably white) parents from New Jersey whose daughter killed her shooting instructor?  Shockingly, there are no laws that would permit their arrest and thus their entry into the public record.  Why isn’t their judgment being publicly debated?  Why doesn’t New Jersey (their home state) social services take this 9-year old out of their custody because their poor judgment endangered her life and has led their daughter to do something that will haunt her the rest of her life?

Secondly, gender:  I can’t help but notice the way that teevee and radio news people emphasize the fact that the shooter in Arizona was not just a 9-year old, but a 9-year old girl, as though her offense is particularly perverse (and as though a 9-year old boy’s involvement with an Uzi wouldn’t be just as shocking.)  This interest in her sex indicates that even now, we assume that gun ownership and use are typically male activities.  Gender is also at play here when we think about the ways these public conversations about parental culpability have played out:  Harrell’s judgment as an African American woman and mother was criminalized as matter of course, but the judgment of the presumably white parents, and in particular the judgment of the Arizona 9-year old’s father, the person who according to our cultural assumptions would be in charge of gun ownership and education, is perforce above particular scrutiny.

I really should be taking notes on the book I’ll need to write 30-40 years from now about the dangerous radicalism of the NRA and gun manufacturers, the poison they injected into the American body politic, the ideological fanaticism of many American gun owners, and the distortions of common sense in our civic life that resulted.  This madness will pass, eventually, and your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will marvel at the shocking irresponsibility of adults in the early twenty-first century.

I either need to start taking notes for this book, or explore Canadian citizenship.  My husband used to be Canadian, so I think there’s a way that all of us in our family can get over the border with new passports.

17 thoughts on “We U.S. Americans are now beyond parody: guns, race, gender, and parenthood, ca. 2014

  1. (Historiann, about that Canadian citizenship: definitely. Over the wall is the way to go if you have a ladder!)

    About the fact that the media were all careful to identify the shooter as a girl, my irritated reading was that they were implying a boy would not have lost control of the gun. Nine year-olds are not sexually dimorphic, but, hey, he would have had a Y chromosome which would have made all the difference. Right?

    I don’t know. Maybe that’s not what they’re thinking at all and I’m just over-irritated. But that was the conclusion I jumped to.


  2. I thought that the focus on the girl’s gender was driven by the ‘no women in combat’ taboo, where a girl not only shouldn’t kill anyone because of their innate nurturing instinct but will probably be traumatized for life for going against the ‘natural order’. Whereas whilst it still wouldn’t have been great for a nine-year-old boy to kill someone, boys are designed to kill people so would have recovered. Naturally.

    Rolls eyes.


  3. Nuts. Just nuts.

    Somewhere I think there’s a logical (or rather illogical) connection between the two stories: something about a misplaced sense of where both danger and protection come from. Heaven forfend one would consider the majority of one’s fellow citizens as potential sources of safety and support should the need arise rather than likely sources of danger.

    I haven’t read much of the coverage, but my sense has been that women are being encouraged to learn to shoot because they’re seen as especially in need of protection. Ideally, a “good guy with a gun” would do the job himself, but, if he can’t be around, then the next best thing is for him to provide the little lady with a gun, and make sure she knows how to use it against any “bad guy” (with or without gun) who shows up. I suppose that, with this (il)logic, one could even argue that girls need to learn to shoot before they reach puberty, and so become potential targets for a wider variety of bad guys.

    But, given the NRA’s insistence on and pride in teaching gun safety (which I had thought, up until now, had some basis in reality), handing a weapon to a child too small to handle it, regardless of the child’s gender, is, well, just nuts.


  4. Contingent Cassandra, I think you’re right about the inability of people to assess potentially dangerous situations accurately. We know this based on the way we know sexual abuse works, but we still continue to fear strangers and trust family members & the clergy, don’t we?

    We’d all be SO much better off reading Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, eh? I remember reading that book in college and thinking that it just made sense: cityscapes with people around at all hours of the day and night are safer than urban spaces that are devoid of other human beings.


  5. I do hope you are right, but what makes you think that this will ever change? Being a senior citizen, I have no hope of it happening in my lifetime


  6. I don’t know if it will happen in your lifetime. I’m not even sure it will happen in my lifetime (I’m 46). But I know as a historian that things change, and I’m hoping that they’ll tend to change in the direction of increasing safety and common sense.

    But that part is just a hope, not knowledge or confidence.


  7. The whole thing makes me feel sick. The dissonance between rich US-Americans on gun fetish holidays and desperate mothers and children fleeing gun (and drug) violence in Central America is just too much for me to stomach.

    Here is how US gun tourism is reported down under.


  8. @truffula: the targets at the Machine Guns Vegas range (third picture down) are fascinating in themselves. I can’t see them all that clearly, but I think they include a white(?) thuggish-appearing male with a machine gun (or similar weapon), a black (?) guy holding but not pointing at least one weapon (making his bare chest an easy target), a man with a beard, turban, and gun (intended to portray a moslem terrorist, I suspect), and an entwined male and under/partially-dressed bosomy female that I suspect is meant to be a depiction of assault/domestic violence. Someone shooting at one of those targets at that range is being given a chance not just to shoot a particular kind of gun, but also to participate in (and choose among) a variety of scenarios where shooting is supposedly justified/necessary.


  9. Just a snarky note that the LA Times dis- invested in news a decade ago, so really isn’t a great paper any more. They wouldn’t have needed to go to Chicago to find parents whose children’s lives are shaped by guns; they could go to South Central LA.

    I think what stunned me is that there are a bunch of tour companies which will take you from Las Vegas to these shooting ranges. So this isn’t some weird isolated outing, neither the shooting gallery nor the tour company thought a 9 year old was too young. Geez.


  10. Off-topic blog maintenance note: Susan, CC, and truffula’s latest comments all got caught in my SPAM filter, so my apologies if it looked like your comments didn’t get posted. I’ll try to keep on top of this.

    Susan: I guess this is just the state of the news business these days, but the LA Times sure seems substantial compared to the Denver Post, which is all wire stories and AP bylines with very little original reporting outside of their local news section.

    truffula–thanks for the link. Maybe emigration to Australia is something to consider, too.


  11. Maintenance reply: I got the “comment awaiting moderation” notice both times I commented on this thread. I assumed that you’d decided to moderate comments on a controversial topic. I don’t think anything is different on my end from other times I’ve commented.


    • I’ve got the comments shut down on posts more than 7 days old, but I’m not moderating the comments on current posts any differently. My admin switched servers recently & we’re learning how to get everything to talk to each other properly, hence the extra spam on the side around here. I hope we’ll get this tamed soon! Sorry for any inconvenience.


  12. Moments such as this are why I cling to my hard-won Canadian citizenship with both hands. The US needs to stop worshipping at the altar of firearms or treating guns as some kind of magical amulets with prophylactic powers.


  13. Pingback: Link love | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured)

  14. Pingback: Steady. Aim. Fire. Everyone’s SAFE! | Historiann

  15. Pingback: Wrung out. | Historiann

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