Beyond Gun Control: Examining Neoliberalism, Pro-Gun Politics and Gun Violence in the United States

By Esposito, Luigi; Finley, Laura L. | Theory in Action, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Beyond Gun Control: Examining Neoliberalism, Pro-Gun Politics and Gun Violence in the United States


Esposito, Luigi, Finley, Laura L., Theory in Action


INTRODUCTION

The widely reported mass shootings of 2012 have once again reinvigorated the long-standing debate about gun control in the United States. Particularly in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CTwhich many have regarded as a "tipping point"- calls for stricter gun control seem more popular than ever (Hindman, 2012). Spurred by these developments, President Obama announced, in January of 2013, a series of legislative proposals and executive actions intended to tighten gun control and minimize gun violence (What's in Obama's Gun Control Proposals, 2013). At the same time, it is clear that a majority of Americans remain uncompromising about their right to own firearms. Indeed, shortly after the tragedy in Newtown, a Gallup poll found that opposition to ban handguns hit a record high, with 74 percent of Americans opposing such a ban (Saad, 2012). Furthermore, during the same period, gun dealers in various parts of the country reported record gun sales, particularly for AR-15s-the weapon used by Adam Lanza in the Newtown shooting (Shropshire, 2012).

While much has been written about America's "gun culture" and how this culture is tied to a long history of anti-statist individualism in the US, much less attention has been given to how this culture (i.e., the set of values and beliefs that underpin pro-gun/anti-gun control politics) has, especially in recent decades, been supported and reinforced by the prevailing market ideology commonly referred to as neoliberalism.3 This paper contributes to the existing literature by addressing directly how the legitimacy of pro-gun politics in this country, especially in recent years, has relied on specific beliefs and cultural tropes that are at the heart of neoliberalism.4 Widely regarded as the dominant political-economic paradigm of our time, neoliberalism entails a view of the world that downplays the social realm and emphasizes the individual as the only viable unit of concern and analysis (e.g., Esposito 2011). Neoliberalism stresses competitive individualism as a natural outgrowth of human freedom, encourages a religious-like faith in the presumed powers of the free market to promote freedom and an optimal order, and understands the state as a protector of the prevailing market order as opposed to a guarantor of social or economic justice. In effect, supporters of neoliberalism envision an ideal universe as one consisting of autonomous, self-contained individuals freely pursuing their selfinterests with minimal political interventions.

Efforts to promote this neoliberal vision of the world involve among other things, doing away with "big government" (otherwise known as a "nanny state"), emphasizing personal responsibility instead of social justice, prioritizing the private realm over the public sphere, and treating social problems as personal issues. This paper addresses how these typical neoliberal tenets are linked to (and support) pro-gun politics in the U.S. After providing a general overview of neoliberalism within the context of the gun control debate, we address the following key points: (1) the quasi-sacred status accorded by many gun enthusiasts to the Second Amendment has, especially in recent years, been invoked as a rhetorical tool to justify citizens' right to defend their liberty and property against the presumed evils neoliberals associate with "big government" (i.e., tyrannical state intrusion on private lives, increased regulations, etc.); (2) America's gun culture is tied to notions of selfreliance and "rugged individualism" that current neoliberal ideology associates with virtue and responsibility; (3) the sort of hyper-masculine subject associated with pro-gun politics-the type of individual prepared to take any measure, including violence, to protect "what is his"-is compatible with (and reinforced by) the sorts of values and forms of agency encouraged within a neoliberal market society (i.e., being competitive and doing whatever is necessary to survive and thrive in a "winner take all society"); and (4) unjustified gun violence is typically understood by many opponents of gun control and throughout much of the mainstream media as a personal trouble involving irresponsible, evil, or sick individuals rather than a societal problema position that is consistent with the neoliberal tendency to personalize social problems, thereby discouraging questions about the social dimension of this issue. …

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