BOOK REPLIES (2014): Various (1994–2014) Plays About Gun Violence [part 2 of 3]

4 June 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

Guns do kill people.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Various (1994–2014) Notes on Plays About Gun Violence [part 2 of 3]

Lately, I have had the opportunity to read 40+ plays, ranging from 4 pages to 137 pages, that people sent in response to a call about gun violence. The results seem like a Rorschach test, because it’s intriguing and curious to see what people think fits that category. These offer some notes after reading the range of offerings; you can find part 1 here.

The homily runs “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”—and as Eddie Izzard says, “ Well I think the gun helps. If you just stood there and yelled BANG, I don’t think you’d kill too many people” (from here). The principal difference here—and/or why the NRA slogan fails—hinges on the fact that guns afford the lethal infliction of death by design. One treats poisons circumspectly, because mishandling them can lead to death; one doesn’t say, “poisons don’t kill people, people poison people.” Similarly, one doesn’t French kiss plutonium, and neither will a court rule it a suicide—the toxicity of plutonium occurs in or from the thing itself.

So too with guns. And, in fact, that lethality provides a major claim for them for those circumstances where people want “guarantees”. We hear that guns “are the great equalizer”; or we can note that gun suicides succeed 8500 times more often than other methods. None of this provides a pro or anti- gun stance, but simply notes the disingenuousness of pretending that guns “are innocent”.

Most of what might warrant designation as plausible grounds for guns with respect to self-defence (i.e., the woman at home alone) require anxiety, a sense of potential danger; so it becomes curious that this anxiety about potential danger gets “solved” by the introduction of a very real danger into one’s home. A gun in the house makes it 43 times more likely that accidental gun violence will occur, rather than the intended use (self-defence). Of course, the incidence of suicide increases vastly as well, particularly since guns provide such lethally effective suicide attempts.

Moreover, the fact of accidental deaths by guns places culpability on guns. One might want to object this results from improper handling but by definition one cannot avoid an accident; an avoidable accident we fail to avoid points to a piece of negligence, not accident. And multiple lethal accidents not related to guns happen every year; that’s an argument for greater care, not a rational for dismissing accidental gun deaths. Or, alternatively, more people die in car deaths but cars do not by design afford murderous lethality; people may put them to such use—so that, indeed, cars don’t kill people; people kill people, if you like—whereas guns by design afford that lethality. We can’t disregard that distinction.

However, the part that falls on its face in all of this: however terrible gun violence seems, people find excuses to resort to it, and then claim those uses as justified. This provides a problem for the anti-gun set. By an analogy, people say “fuck the police” then call them in an emergency. This needn’t hinge on a contradiction—“fuck the police” can remain perfectly valid, all the more so because in an emergency one has no one else to call. The whining and crying of the police that this amounts to a contradiction has no merit. Similarly, one may denounce guns or gun violence and remain forced or compelled by circumstances to resort to a gun.

My principal objection to this involves the claim by the one who did the resorting that they did no wrong. Shooting people with guns remains wrong always, no matter how necessary it seems. Just because we’ve inherited a fucked up social world doesn’t mean we should offer apologetics for it—that only serves to reproduce the destructive status quo we’d all do better without.

Some Blurby Gun Facts As a Dialogue

The US doesn’t have the highest murder rate in the world.

True, only the highest rate amongst OECD and high-income countries by a very wide margin (i.e., 10,000+ compared to <100 in most European countries).

More people die in cars per year.

True, and car deaths have declined 31% since 1985, while gun deaths gone up and down but are currently stand right where it started: 31,500 deaths. That’s an average of 286 people per day.

On average, 88.8% of American’s own guns; 270 million overall. We’re fifth in the world for gun murder in absolute terms, behind Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. We’re fourth for percentage rate of at 60% (we exceed Mexico in this case). The War on Drugs is the common ground behind all of this.

For whites, states with the highest gun ownership have the highest suicide rate, and vice versa.

Attempts at suicide are twenty times as likely to be fatal when a gun is involved. More than 1,900 young people in the U.S. ages 5 to 19 committed suicide in 2010. Nearly half of these suicides involved firearms. Research suggests that about one-third of children live in homes with a firearm, Miller said. And about 1.5 million children live in a household where guns are kept loaded and unlocked. Nearly 20% of children and young people at risk for suicide say there’s a gun in their home, new research shows. Teens are more likely to attempt suicide than adults; about 45% of teen attempts involve guns. And among these youth, 15% know how to get their hands on both the gun and bullets.

The statistical difference is dramatic, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A white person is five times as likely to commit suicide with a gun as to be shot with a gun; for each African American who uses a gun to commit suicide, five are killed by other people with guns.

Common sense tells you that criminals will never obey gun laws, so you’re just leaving the public vulnerable to them.

In 2012, 62% of gun violence victim died by suicide (80% of them white males); so when people talk about gun control, we are talking more about preventing suicide and accidents. (11,078 firearm homicides, 19,392 firearm suicides, and 606 unintentional firearm deaths).

That’s real sad. But I’m not crazy. I have to protect myself, and my family.

But isn’t a gun in the house is 43 times more likely to kill a household member than to be used for self-defense?

I’ll be careful. Still got to protect myself. And my family.

From what?

From what? You crazy? Listen. In 2012, 83 people died by homicide in Baton Rouge. Of that number, 87% were black, and 87% were male. Two-thirds had been in trouble with the law before, and one-third had been in trouble with the law for drugs. The median age of victims: 26. Of the perpetrators, the median age was 22. Get this: 96% of them were black, and 90% were male. Almost two-thirds had previous arrests. One out of four had a drug record. Most of the murders took place in the poorest parts of the city.

The rate of murder arrest of youths under age 18 fell by an astonishing 65% from the late 1980s to 2012, including an 80% decline since the early 1990s. In 2012, youths committed just 3.8% of the country’s murders, the lowest ever recorded. Similarly, from the late 1980s to 2010, the rate of gun fatalities among Americans ages 10-19 fell by 37%, including a 55% decline since the early 1990s. In 2010, those under age 20 comprised 8.5% of all gun deaths. In tandem, the Violence Policy Center’s 2011 analysis of General Social Survey trends found a distinct “lack of interest in guns by youth” compared to the “aging” gun-owning population.

On 16 January 2013, President Obama directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct research into the causes and consequences of gun violence. With that action, the President confronted the agency’s 17-year silence on gun violence prevention research, which was prompted by warnings from Congress that federal funding could not be used to advocate for gun control.

Studies prove that the idea more guns equals more death is false. Look at the statistics around the world.

That wasn’t a study. It wasn’t peer reviewed or scientifically validated. But let’s stop kidding around. You don’t care about gun violence. You don’t care that

Guns Kill People

This, reprinted from elsewhere, offers part of the larger picture and analysis for how not just people but guns kill people.

In considering how we interact with things in the world, Krippendorff (2007) suggests for the case of human use that “artifacts are manifest in the form of interfaces” (¶3)[2].

By interface is meant “sequences of ideally meaningful interactions—actions followed by reactions followed by responses to these reactions and so on—leading to a desirable state” (¶8); by artefact is meant that with which we interface and thus the kinds of interactions for use that any artefact affords. “When an interface [with an artefact] works as expected, one can say … that the artifact in question affords the construction that a user has of it; and when it does not work as expected, one can say that the artifact objects to being treated the way it is, without revealing why this is so (¶3). … [This] conception of affordance is important in that it admits no privileged knowledge of the objects of an external world other than how one conceives of them and interacts with them.” (¶6, my emphasis).

Thus, the meaningful interactions with the artefact of a gun include (but are not limited to) “the perceived ability to use a gun to inflict injury or death or to intimidate people. For its manufacturer, the gun is a product; for its distributor, a problem of getting it to a retailer; for a merchant, it means profit; for its user, it may also be a means of self-defence or security, an investment, an aid to criminal activity, an identity marker, a (dangerous or ineffective) hammer, and more” (¶11)[3].

“It is important to emphasize that [these] meanings are not entirely subjective. They reside in the expectation of afforded interactions[4] … Equally important is that artifacts for one discourse community may have entirely different, even incommensurable meanings for members of another discourse community (¶10)[5]. Thus, “while different people may interface rather differently with the same artifact … [none] can claim to have privileged access to what the artifact ‘really’ is” (¶7, my emphasis). Moreover, while “someone may consider one meaning [of an artefact] more important than another, even by settling on a definition—[e.g., that guns afford protection]—it would be odd if an artifact could not afford its [other] associated uses [for others]. [Consequently,] one can define the meaning of any artifact as the set of anticipated uses as recognized by a particular individual or community of users” (¶11, my emphasis).

From the above, then, (any given) technology has a finite range of affordances[6]; that is, it affords certain uses while not affording others.

A gun, for instance, affords both shooting things (the original use intended by the technology’s inventor) and also hammering nails (a use most likely not intended or foreseen by the technology’s inventor) but does not afford transporting oneself[7]. A technology’s affordances, then, describe the set of (designed and emergent) applications to which that technology might effectively be put to use. Thus, while one person might hammer nails with a gun and another might shoot a deer with it (even with the same gun), the set of designed and emergent applications to which guns might be put remains the same.

Affordances shed light on the contentious debate whether guns or people kill people. Gun proponents have emphasized the (subset of) guns’ affordances that they deem legitimate and socially desirable (e.g., hunting, crime deterrence, self-defence, &c), while gun opponents have emphasized the (subset of) affordances they deem illegitimate and socially undesirable (e.g., accidental gun deaths, increased ease of suicide, gun violence in general, &c). However, just as using a gun as a tool for hammering or hunting constitutes an individual use of that technology against a background of its full range of affordances, so then to claim a (subset of) guns’ affordances as either legitimate or illegitimate equally constitutes a (personalized) use of the technology against the full range of its affordances.

Why does this matter? Any “thing” in culture is shaped by how it is talked about. Both sides of the gun debate—“people kill people” and “guns kill people”—are socio-politically motivated in a multitude of ways, but both propose to limit the discourse about the affordances of guns to only a subset of guns’ actual affordances. The issue here has nothing to do with whether there is any justness to either side of the argument but rather points to how argued uses for guns (or for any given technology) attempt to define the social meaning of that technology (its permissible affordances) in a distorted, limited way. Thus, in contrast to a discourse about (any given) technology in terms of individual or personalized uses I distinguish another discourse about that technology in terms of public affordances.

Few are those who are unaware either of guns’ potential for deadly effect or for intimidation; gun proponents in fact specifically cite the intimidation factor of guns as a reason for carrying one[8]. It is similarly not only for defensive reasons that police (and other armed personnel) carry and display guns in public. A Black friend of mine (from college) informed me that he found the guns of police officers more intimidating than the guns of civilians he’d known growing up; police guns conveyed a greater sense of danger than civilian guns. For someone else, the reverse might hold. Context matters too. It may well be that fewer people would feel intimidated by an armed soldier standing guard at the edge of a parade (or at the gates of an embassy) than by the same guard walking into a café. For others, the reverse might again hold.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] References here are to the section “Second-Order Cybernetics and Human-Centeredness” in Krippendorff, K. (2007). The cybernetics of design and design of cybernetics. Kybernetes, 36(9/10), pp. 1381–92. The entire article may be read here: http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1048&context=asc_papers. For conciseness, I have altered and rearranged the paper’s exposition without, I believe, misrepresenting or distorting the original. However, partly to avoid the confusion and recurrent argumentative distractions that tend to arise when the epistemology of second-order cybernetics enters a discussion, I have elided the article’s crucial distinction between “object” and “artifact”. For this essay, it seems unproblematic if readers fail to maintain this distinction. Even so, I wish to include the article’s useful exposition of the distinction:

From the perspective of second-order cybernetics: worlds arise in sensory-motor coordinations. It suggests that the worlds as we know them cannot exist without human involvement. They are brought forth when re-cognizing stabilities in the circularity of acting and sensing the consequences of one’s actions in return. Stabilities of this kind enable us to draw distinctions among them and to rely on them selectively. This is the conclusion of von Foerster’s (1981) recursive theory of eigenbehaviors. ¶ Consistent with the above, the first axiom of human-centeredness states: in human use, artifacts are manifest in the form of interfaces. ¶It mentions artifacts, not objects, as they arise in the experiences of sensory-motor coordinations, not separate from them. They are constructed by those involved and account for their experiences under conditions of recursively stable and hence reliable interactions. Thus, what we ordinarily call objects are artifacts indeed, made up, enacted, and afforded. Incidentally, the word “fact” derives from the Latin “factum,” something made. Hence, artifacts are crafted skillfully. Artifacts may come about materially by design, conceptually by re-cognition, and interactively in the form of interfaces, which can be distinguished along the lines of less reliable interactivity (¶1–3).

[3] This passage substitutes “gun” for Krippendorff’s original example of a “chair” (and modifies the text accordingly). While this entails no substantive change to the original, I include it for the sake of intellectual transparency: “The meaning of a chair is the perceived ability to sit on it for a while, stand on it to reach something high up, keep books on it handy, for children to play house by covering it with a blanket, and staple several of them for storage. For its manufacturer, a chair is a product; for its distributor, a problem of getting it to a retailer; for a merchant it means profit; for its user, it may also be a conversation piece, an investment, a way to complete a furniture arrangement, an identity marker, and more” (¶11).

[4] Furthermore, “Unlike what semiotics conceptualizes, from a cybernetic perspective artifacts do not “carry” meanings from designers to their users. They do not ‘contain’ messages or ‘represent’ meanings. Meaning cannot be inscribed in material entities nor do such entities have agency as proposed in actor network theory (Latour, 2005). There are only alternative ways of seeing (Wittgenstein, 1953:154)” (Krippendorff, 2007, ¶10). The citations here are included in the original article’s bibliography.

[5] Further summarizing Krippendorff’s (2007) exposition: “Humans do not respond to the physical qualities of things but act on what they mean to them (Krippendorff, 2006a). This axiom acknowledges the second-order cybernetic insight that humans experience reality only through detailed conceptions, models, and narratives they create within their discourse community. … What describes the world as human-centered is a discourse as well. It addresses how artifacts are con-sensually (sensed in each other’s presence) experienced and describes these experiences in relational terms, as interaction sequences, in which humans and machines participate but in different ways” (¶9). “Taking one way of seeing in one context or by one community as leading to another way of seeing at a changed context or by a different community, is the basic idea of meaning in the course of interfacing with the world (Krippendorff, 2006b)” (¶10). “Typically, artifacts afford many meanings for different people, in different situations, at different times, and in the context of other artifacts. … One can list these uses and empirically study whether this set is afforded by particular artifacts and how well” (¶11). Here again, the citations may be found in the original article’s bibliography.

[6] Etymologically, “technology” means the “systematic study of an art, craft, or technique” but has since come to mean “the embodiment of any process or thing for accomplishing a particular end”; in other words, technology now points to an embodiment of a product of a technology in the older sense.

[7] Unless, perhaps, in a journey to “the other world.” Creativity will often consist of finding affordances for technologies that were not originally foreseen or intended by the technology’s innovator(s).

[8] Gun advocates report that 8 percent of “defensive gun uses” (DGUs) involve a fired gun. “In most DGUs, a firearm is merely displayed by the intended victim, and the criminal flees. No one is injured. Civilian gun ownership clearly gives the edge to the law-abiding defender, because in 82 percent of DGU situations, the criminal has no gun” (http://gunsafe.org/position%20statements/Guns%20and%20crime.htm) What is not reported here is how many fired gun cases involved unarmed (perceived, actual, or would-be) criminals. The “accidental” shooting death of Trayvon Martin obviously resonates loudly here.

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