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Guns, Drugs, and Suicide: Death in America

The routine has become as surreal as it is banal: a pharmaceutical laced white male opens fire with a high capacity gun in a crowded space for the express purpose of slaughtering his fellow homo sapiens. Liberals strike up the chorus for futile ‘gun control’ measures. Conservatives chastise Liberals for ‘politicizing’ tragedy and rush under the banner of lamentations and prayers. For all the hand wrangling, it could be said the nonpolitical sack cloth and ashes bit is an improvement over the politics that would have emerged had the Vegas shooter been a Muslim, a black man, or a migrant from Central America.

Liberals, while acknowledging that none of their proposals would have prevented the Las Vegas massacre, insist on the need to do something about guns. Certainly there are facts on their side. The October issue of Scientific American refers to dozens of careful studies have revealed that more available guns are linked to more violent crime. What liberals generally miss is the overall context. Two thirds of American gun deaths are suicides. According to a 2016 study by a National Center for Health Statistics the overall suicide rate for Americans rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014 with the most dramatic rise starting in 2006. Much of the increase is due to middle-aged white Americans- suicides by middle aged white women increased by 80 percent.  These are just part of the despair wave of opiates, alcohol poisoning, and obesity described by Princeton University’s Anne Case and Agnus Deaton that has raised the mortality rate for white working class.

By no means does the white working class have a monopoly on despair. The same study that found the increase in white working class suicide found that the largest increase in suicides belongs to American Indians where the numbers were an almost 90 percent increase for women and nearly 40 percent for men. The black working class has long been long been brutalized by a combination of segregation, deindustrialization, and draconian ‘broken windows’ policing.  The stagnant ghettos created by all that were perfect cauldrons for violence. The underlying problem of all forms of gun violence is economic, guns are the cultural manifestation.

Suicide being a largely impulsive act gun control measures like mandatory waiting periods, trigger locks in homes, and permit requirements can go some ways towards stemming the tide but certainly wouldn’t alleviate the motivation. Holding one’s breathe for even these measures isn’t advisable. If federal gun control is dead, it’s on the state level where its corpse has truly rotted. 41 of 50 states are currently ‘shall issue’ states, meaning those legally able to buy a gun cannot be denied a concealed-carry permit. About a dozen of these states do not even require a permit. If concealed carry makes the stomach queasy don’t overlook the 44 states that allow open carry, that is not concealed, in full public view- 30 states allow that without a permit.  Scores of states have passed laws that explicitly allow loaded guns to be brought into bars or restaurants that serve alcohol. None of this figures to be undone any time soon.

Acknowledging that one still doesn’t need to have patience with gun fanatics who claim that gun control is impossible in a nation awash with 300 million guns when the very policies they advocate are directly responsible for that very reality. Nor with the inherent corollary: if Trump can be said to represent anything it is the cynical hegemony of American late-capitalism whose proponents on one side of their mouths glorify a social Darwinism where everything is a zero sum game of all against all in which the smartest and most ‘productive’ rule while on the other side of their mouths rave that everything is fixed, corrupt, and stacked against the common man. Thus capitalism always pukes up its contradictions.

It is instructive to point out that much of the permissive gun legislation came along at a time when violent crime was declining nationally. A national survey conducted by Harvard and Northeastern Universities last year found the national gun stock grew by more than 70 million between 1994 and 2015. Half of that stock is owned by only 3 percent of the population. Handguns made up the majority of that increase and now make up over 40 percent of the overall stock, up from one-third two decades ago.

Crime was in decline but so were wages and union jobs. Healthcare costs spiraled as did the ranks of the uninsured. Oxycontin spread like wildfire. Mark Ames, in his book Going Postal, explained the rise of workplace shootings as a consequence of the squeeze on workers that accelerated during the Reagan years.  The post office itself, semi-privatized by Reagan, was an early victim of this kind of thing, hence the origin of the phrase ‘going postal’.

Today the jobs picture is worse. In 1967 95 percent of ‘prime age’ men (ages 25-54) worked. Today more than 15 percent aren’t working with some localities having fewer than 70 percent of men without a college education unemployed or out of the workforce entirely. The percentage of underemployed Americans appears to be near the double digits. Paradoxically over 7 million people currently work more than one job, the highest in two decades. A study by economists Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger showed that nearly 95 percent of jobs created during the Obama Era were temporary, part-time, or contractual (i.e. of the mythical ‘gig’ variety).

The beauty of ‘cultural’ issues for those who wield power is that when issues become cultural they become unsolvable. The ballyhooed urban-rural divide, where it all comes down to God, guns, symbols, and wars over craft beers, is the perfect instrument to keep the airwaves white hot while the one percent continues to soak up the lion’s share of economic growth. Meanwhile in recent days the New York Times and Financial Times have circulated stories that the Chamber of Commerce isn’t pleased with the Trump Administration’s renegotiating of NAFTA, a campaign promise that was broken by many a Democratic candidate. Obama didn’t even get through his campaign in 2008 before he assured Fortune magazine that his anti-NAFTA talk was a matter of campaign talk. Let health care fail long enough, let whole sections of the country decline and drown in opiates, and the demagogue appears. From there the body count rises everywhere.

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Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City.

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