Hands Off the Bill of Rights, Leeza!

| 13 Aug 2014 | 12:19

    On her sub-Rosie talk show one morning last week, Leeza Gibbons and her guests were going on about youth violence and gun control when someone cited the Second Amendment. Well, Leeza plotzed. Forget the Second Amendment, Leeza huffed. Forget the Constitution altogether. It's ancient history. It was written by a bunch of old men. Kids are killing kids in our high schools, people. Maybe it's time we mothers got together and rewrote that darn Constitution anyway.

    Now, on the one hand, if all that stands between us and students blowing each other away is allowing Leeza Gibbons to dick with the Bill of Rights, I say lock and load, kids.

    Then again, I'm not a big defender of the right of every yahoo and yo across the nation to own an Uzi. It seems pretty clear to me, fancy arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, that what Madison and crew had in mind with the Second Amendment was an alternative to a standing army, not a Glock in every cupboard.

    Then again then again, I'm a First Amendment absolutist. If protecting the obsolete Second and Third Amendments is the price for maintaining speech, I'll pay it.

    In his introduction to Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in American History (NYU Press, 453 pages, $24.95), editor Michael A. Bellesiles writes, "It is well known and thoroughly documented that the United States is the most violent nation in the industrialized world. To find comparable levels of interpersonal violence, one must examine nations in the midst of civil wars or social chaos. Yet evidently the majority of Americans accept two million violent crimes a year as the price they must pay for personal freedom, resisting every suggested form of correction except those that call for more violence, whether by a reactive state or through individual acts of self-defense."

    This was written before the current spasm of anti-gun legislation and op-eds. Interesting that this spike of outrage should come at a time when violent crime overall is, at least temporarily, down. Evidently it took a couple of empty-headed, middle-class white kids to pry the Tec-9s from our cold, dead fingers.

    The history of the Americas has always been violent?but, it seems, not always in the ways or places we tell ourselves it's been. Lethal Imagination is one of two new, scholarly (and happily timed) essay collections from NYU Press exploring various aspects of this history and background; the other is Guns in America: A Reader, edited by Jan E. Dizard, Robert Merrill Muth and Stephen P. Andrews Jr. (517 pages, $24.95).

    Both have their weaknesses. Lethal Imagination includes a few essays only a late-90s scholarly collection on violence would consider appropriate, like one dopey women's studies rant about how old-fashioned contraception methods constituted an act of male violence against the female body, a polemic that has absofuckinglutely nothing to do with the rest of the book. And Guns in America, unfortunately, overwhelms its scholarly entries with too much political rhetoricizing; for every interesting history essay there's a so-what op-ed by Wendy Kaminer, or a speech by Sarah Brady sentimentalizing in favor of gun control, or Charlton Heston pompositzing against it. ("Just about everything I hope is good about me...can be traced back to those smoking muskets and the radical declaration of independence by those ragtag rebels. Wearing threadbare coats and marching on bleeding feet..." Shut up, Chuck.)

    The first European settlers came to the Americas carrying a "culture of violence" of a style and scale that apparently baffled the people who were here already. In the 1640s Manhattan, the Bronx, Long Island and surrounds were the site of Kieft's War, "one of the most notorious colonial American Indian Wars," according to Evan Haefeli in Lethal Imagination. This is when New York was still the Dutch colony New Amsterdam, run by Willem Kieft, who distinguished himself by being so pompous, insecure and brutal that the war he incited with neighboring Indians brought the colony to ruin.

    Behind the war were tensions over trade. The Indians had put up with the colonists not least because they prospered from selling them furs and maize. But by 1640 Indian hunters had depleted the local beaver population at the same time that new waves of Dutch farmers were crowding them out of the best land. In the building tensions, an Indian slapped a Dutchman "in the face with a bunch of squirrel skins." The skittish Dutch overreacted, killing and torturing a handful of Indians. The Indians tried to negotiate a settlement before things got out of hand, but Kieft misread their intentions and so mishandled his dealings with them that before long open warfare raged. Soldiers and settlers massacred Indians who'd been peaceful, even friendly neighbors, including a group who'd settled in what's now the Lower East Side (which would've been outside the barricades of New Amsterdam, a tiny settlement crowded into Manhattan's lower tip) seeking Dutch protection against more violent tribes.

    The savagery with which Kieft's soldiers pursued the war disgusted the Indians and sickened even some of the Dutch. A Dutchman named Kuyter, who despised Kieft and argued against the war, recorded the slaying of two Indians whom soldiers had brought into the New Amsterdam fort. Having stabbed one to death, the soldiers "'cut strips from the live body of the other, from the hams, up the back and shoulders, and down to the knees.' According to Kuyter, Kieft stood by, laughing 'right heartily, rubbing his right arm and laughing out loud, such delight had he in the work.'" Eventually the soldiers "'threw him down, and stuck his private parts, which they had cut off, into his mouth while he was still alive, and after that placed him on a mill-stone and beat his head off.'"

    By 1645, the whole area from across the river in what's now New Jersey to eastern Long Island and up to the Bronx and Westchester was dotted with abandoned Indian villages and burned-out settlers' farms. Large numbers of colonists had fled back to Holland. It was Indian leaders, not Kieft, who finally ended the war. Kieft, reviled by his fellow Dutch for bringing such devastation, was sailing back to Holland to clear his name when he died in a shipwreck.

    Was there really one of Heston's smoking muskets in every household in the early days? Several scholars contributing to Guns in America doubt it. Indeed, the records suggest that before the 1840s a good firearm was a relative rarity. They were expensive, easy to break and hard to fix. Early militia officers routinely complained of their men mustering with rusty, crooked-shooting old weapons, or none at all. In 1830, Secretary of War J.H. Eaton found that only 31 percent of American militiamen bore arms. There were enough arms in the whole country for 3 percent of the population.

    Compare that to today, when the FBI says there's more than one gun for every citizen in the United States. The arming of Americans really began in the 1840s, as manufacturers learned how to mass-produce and mass-market them. The Civil War put guns in the hands of many more American men than would otherwise have held one. In 1865, the Union army let all soldiers take their government-issue firearms home with them. The American tradition of guns around the house was set.

    It turns out that the American time and place best known for its rampant violence?the Wild West?may not have been so wild after all. "[A]ny industrial site in the United States was home to more violence and danger than the wildest street in the West," Bellesiles writes in Lethal Imagination. SUNY-Albany historian Robert Dykstra explains that "during its celebrated decade as a tough cattle town only fifteen persons died violently in Dodge City, 1876-1885, for an average of just 1.5 killings per cowboy season." In fact, he points out, the cattlemen, bankers and merchants who needed Dodge City to run smoothly and profitably spent a great deal to keep it orderly and safe, banning firearms and maintaining a large, well-paid constabulary. You'd have been a lot safer on the streets of Dodge City at night in 1880?a year when there was one, and only one, murder in town?"than barhopping in Little Havana, Coconut Grove, or downtown Miami" in 1980, when there were 515 murders there.

    Dykstra notes wryly that if you apply the FBI's standard per-capita accounting system, Dodge City's "homicide rate" that year was a staggering 78.4?that is, 1 murder in a population of 1275 citizens. Miami's in 1980 was "only" 32.7. Then again, "if a bullet fired by John ('Concho') Gill had missed Henry C. Heck instead of striking him in the chest, Dodge City's 1880 murder rate would have been zero instead of soaring to more than twice that of the 1980 murder capital of the world."

    Moreover, Gill and Heck had been hassling with each other (over the affections of a dancehall girl, naturally) for years before their affairs came to a tragic head one night in Dodge City. The response of the citizenry is illuminating as well. Drunken cowpokes did not pour out of the saloons, grab Gill up in a vigilante rage and lynch him out at Ox-bow Creek. Instead, he was quietly arrested by the proper authorities and duly tried in a court of law. Found guilty of second-degree murder by a jury of his peers who'd carefully weighed the heat-of-passion circumstances, he was then given the opportunity to appeal. When his appeal was turned down, he went off to serve 10 and a half years of a 15-year sentence. There are plenty of young black men on Rikers at this moment who'd benefit from such "frontier justice."

    Feminists who like to peg all violence and mayhem as a strictly male preserve might want to study the 1908 case of Mrs. Belle Gunness of LaPorte, IN. "Although the FBI declared in 1992 that Aileen Wournos was the 'USA's first "textbook" female serial killer,' she was in fact the latest in a long line of them, something that even modern-day theorists seem reluctant to admit," writes grad student Paula K. Hinton in Lethal Imagination.

    Gunness was a classic black widow, luring lonely single men?and their money?to her farmhouse, where she'd poison, bludgeon and dismember them, then bury them in the yard. All this was discovered when her house mysteriously burned down and she apparently died with her three young daughters. Problem was, the female corpse didn't seem to match her, and the little girls seemed to have died before the fire. Poking around in some "soft spots" in the yard outside the house, suspicious investigators discovered the bodies of 11 of her victims. Two were female?including yet another daughter, who'd long been missing, presumably (and, as it turned out, euphemistically) having gone to California. The rest were hapless male pen pals she'd drawn to her lair with sweet love letters containing wonderful double entendres like, "My heart beats in wild rapture for you. My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever." (My emphasis.)

    A Dr. Meyer, who performed the autopsies, was impressed with how professionally Gunness' victims had been butchered. He "informed eager journalists that the legs of all the victims had been cut?with a 'keen knife and then the bone sawed squarely off.' Meyer noted that 'the disarticulation of the ball and socket joints of the shoulders' was not the job of 'an amateur...'" Gunness, Hinton informs us, "was strong, and she had experience with slaughtering hogs and making sausage... She had carved up her victims as she had carved up animals on her farm."

    The authorities simply stopped digging after the 11th corpse. There may have been more. Gunness also apparently killed two husbands, who, with her three little daughters, brought her murder count to at least 16.

    Or maybe 17. It's likely she burned her house down and escaped, having killed whoever that woman was found in the ashes with the Gunness girls. No one knows to this day.

    Being a thoroughly modern grad student of the 1990s, Hinton uses the Gunness case as the pretext for some knee-jerk gender-studies palaver about how the late-Victorian patriarchy just couldn't deal with the idea of a woman committing the sort of brutal crimes usually associated with males and blah blah blah. I quote the Donnas: "B-O-R-ING."

    What I find far more instructive is the reaction of the populace and the press: They ate this story up, just as we would today. After the first bodies were discovered, "As many as fifteen thousand people a day (an astonishing number for a town of approximately ten thousand residents) gathered on the Gunness grounds to watch the digging and to view the bodies. Sundays became 'Gunness Sundays,' the day when the largest number of people ventured to LaPorte. Newspapers all over the country commented on the 'morbid curiosity' of the crowds and on the mood, which should have been subdued, but was in fact the same as one might find at a circus or carnival.

    "On the grounds, revelers could find 'souvenir vendors, ice cream cone men and lemonade dispensers.' Incredibly, 'boys were actually seen peddling alleged bones of the burned and murdered victims.'" Harried authorities had to designate specific times during the day when the crowds could be filed through the charred rubble to get closer views of the bodies.

    Gunness fever spread. Newspapers around the nation trumpeted ghastly stories of the "Unspeakable Mrs. Gunness," "high priestess of murder plotters," "Modern Lucretia Borgia" and (my favorite prefigurement of the New York Post) "Hell's Belle." In Chicago, 60 miles from LaPorte, a restaurant featured "Gunness Stew."

    Inevitably, there came a point where the masses had had their fill of the story; the gory euphoria, Hinton tells us, "gave way to disgust." Doesn't it always, after the blood-lust is sated.

    Today, it's estimated that 40 to 50 percent of U.S. households contain at least one gun. Is it the presence of those guns alone that makes Americans so much more violent than other industrialized societies? Put the other way, would Americans be more peaceful if they took away all the guns? Or is there something inherent in American society?its politics, its economics, its class and racial structures?that promotes violent behavior? Would we, deprived of firearms, just knife and club and strangle one another to death at the same high rates?

    Yes, well, that's the big issue, isn't it. On the one hand, gun-control types can point to a place like Great Britain, where there are nearly no guns in private hands, and the homicide rate is also practically nil. Nearly no guns, nearly no murders. Simple.

    But then there's Switzerland. "In Switzerland, all adult males are required to serve in the Swiss equivalent of our National Guard," the editors of Guns in America note. "As a result, all must possess a military weapon and maintain minimal proficiency with it until they reach fifty-five years of age. For all practical purposes, this means that there is a firearm (indeed, what we would regard as an 'assault weapon') in nearly every household in Switzerland." And yet, "Crime rates in general and the homicide rate in particular are even lower in Switzerland than in Great Britain."

    Meanwhile, in the U.S. two-thirds of all homicides are committed with guns. It does seem logical, as Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins argue in Guns in America, that "[f]irearms make some attacks possible that simply would not occur without firearms. They permit attacks at greater range and from positions of better concealment than other weapons. They also permit attacks by persons physically or psychologically unable to overpower their victim through violent physical contact. It is because of their capacity to kill instantly and from a distance that firearms are virtually the only weapon used in killing police officers."

    On the other hand, as is often pointed out, few killings in America are coolly premeditated hits involving strangers. Rather, studies cited by Zimring and Hawkins indicate, "Four out of five homicides [occur] as a result of altercations over such matters as love, money, and domestic problems, and 71 percent [involve] acquaintances, neighbors, lovers, and family members."

    So if most killings are enacted in the heat of passion and rage, what would happen if guns were not so readily to hand? Would all the drunken husbands and raging lovers simply reach for the knife in the kitchen drawer instead of the .22 by the bed? The answer is probably yes?but the murder rate would still go down. Statistics show that guns are five times more deadly than knives, the next deadliest weapon of choice. It's just a hell of a lot easier to point a gun and kill?even if you don't really intend to kill?than it is to hack, stab, bludgeon or strangle your cheating spouse or noisy neighbor to death. Ever been in a fight? Killing someone with your bare hands is hard work.

    That, in the end, may be the best argument the gun control advocates have: what's called the "instrumentality" argument, the pure statistics of lethal weaponry. Maybe it's true that guns don't kill people, people kill people. But it's also true that five times more people who do kill people kill people with guns. Afterwords What year is this? Number 12 of The Baffler came last week, and that pony's looking awfully tired of turning that same trick by now. Nothing in here The Baffler hasn't said before, and with more anger and energy.

    Like everyone else, I enjoyed the first couple-three issues of The Baffler I saw, back when Tom Frank was an angry young pisher first laying out his notion of how the corporate image factory had co-opted hipness, irony and rebellion, how even punk and alterna-rock had sold out, etc. It was not a bad argument the first few times you heard it. Not that it was a terribly new one. Every MAD magazine Tom Frank's dad read as a kid included pointed reminders that advertising was deceitful, and the Darren Stevens Madison Avenue advertising weasel was a stock villain of 50s and 60s mass culture, sort of the Punch and Judy Devil in gray flannel. Still, it's always fun to see some smart new kid rediscovering the deathless truth that grownup culture sucks, man, it's all a pack of lies, and Frank's old (Frankfurt) school faith in the evil power of corporate propaganda was sort of charming.

    Well, that was a few years ago. We got the message, but Frank doesn't seem to notice. It became his signature riff, his one-hit tune as he commodified his own spiel, merchandising it in the briefly ubiquitously cited books Commodify Your Dissent and The Conquest of Cool, becoming more and more full of himself, co-opted by his own celebrity. In a great bit on how the left has lost its sense of humor a few weeks ago, Salon media columnist James Poniewozick wrote about hearing "professional anti-ironist Tom Frank" on NPR "remind[ing] us again that this consumerist nihilism is all the fault of those advertising bastards, alluding to Taco Bell's Marxist-themed Gorditas commercials as further proof that you might as well not laugh about anything, because the Man's just gonna find a way to turn it against you."

    That hobbyhorse is all growed up into an old nag ready for the glue factory now, but Frank's still flogging it. Number 12 features him sniping at "cult-studs" academics in a piece I could swear I read five, six years ago, as well as three utterly no-shit-sherlock "exposes" of how (a) American Irish bars are phony reproductions of authentic Irish pubs (No!), (b) Cadillac marketing is based on snob appeal and (c) punk and indie rock sold out. I'll go easy on NYPress art critic Christian Viveros-Fauné for having a piece in here; it's about the Bret Easton Ellising of Latin American fiction, and it's the one article in Number 12 that told me something I didn't already know.