Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on November 30, 2014
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“A Right Unexercised is a Right Lost.”
Thus was the morning peace broken, and “the ceremony of innocence drowned.”
It was a quiet autumn Sunday morning in southeastern Virginia. After an initial cup of coffee, Contrary realized that she was out of cigarettes (a filthy habit, yes, but not the point of this soon-to-be overheated screed.) She drove several blocks to a convenience store adjacent to the campus of the large urban university with which we share a neighborhood.
She entered the store, and immediately encountered a man displaying a large caliber weapon holstered at his side. He was not wearing a uniform, or any insignia to indicate that he should be brandishing such a weapon. Her first thought whirled along the lines of, “Why is this man carrying a weapon? Is he going to rob the place? Might I be a hostage? Why am I being obliged to entertain thoughts about my personal safety at 7:30 AM on a Sunday morning? She managed to escape with both her Marlboros and her life. As she told me upon arriving back at our home, her first response was to be terrified. “It was a jolt. It’s incredibly disconcerting. You don’t expect to see a big fat gun on someone’s hip at 7 in the morning… It scared me.”
She was unhappy; so thus was I. Having come to near-dotage in a comfortable suburb chosen precisely because it looked a safe place to raise a family, and having lived here in suburban tranquillity for 30 years, thisunwelcome development harshed my mellow. Worse, the open carrier could well have been one of my neighbors.
Contrary’s encounter with the armed man was our most personal and direct experience of the “open carry” movement whipped up among Second Amendment fetishists and endorsed by the shock troops of the National Rifle Association, that gaggle of lickspittles and lobbyists who exist to further the aims and profits of the arms manufacturing industry.
For a brief moment this past spring, the NRA decried the growing trend of “open carry” as “weird” and “scary.” That lasted for about ten minutes as described in Reason:
Are people who assert their Second Amendment rights by bringing rifles and shotguns into stores and restaurants “weird” and “scary”? At least one staff member at the National Rifle Association (NRA) thought so, and he expressed that view in an online commentary that the organization felt compelled to retract last week after it caused an uproar among gun rights advocates.
The controversial essay, which the NRA posted on May 30, argued that protesters associated with Open Carry Texas had “crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness” by openly carrying rifles into coffee shops and restaurants. Although such displays are legal in Texas, the unnamed author said, they “can be downright scary” to people who do not understand what’s going on, and they risk alienating potential supporters, making “folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates.”
That article, which was originally attributed to the NRA itself, has since disappeared from the organization’s website, replaced by a video in which Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, insists that “the National Rifle Association supports open carry…unequivocally.”
Of course they do.
A necessary disclaimer here: I have nothing against Americans executing their Second Amendment rights; indeed, my home, like many others, is insured by Smith & Wesson. Need a concealed handgun for personal protection, because you’re transporting large amounts of money, or because you are endangered by a stalker? Get your permit, and carry away. Hunting? Target shooting? Have at it. Want to amass a stockpile of small arms sufficient to arm your own band of mercs to defend your domicile, ringed by Claymores and concertina wire? It’s your right. Yet the entire phenomenon of open carry, the need for people to brandish weapons ranging from small arms to assault weapons in some overcompensating display of manhood or personal agency, is something very new. And it seems only worth doing if done in some quasi-public space to make a point, that point in dubious taste in the wake of regular slaughter of schoolchildren and other innocents by armed crazies.
So why call “open carry” a cargo cult? In Melanesia, contact with western trading societies led to a breakdown of the old order and to the rise of commodity fetishism, a belief that certain ritualistic acts will lead to a bestowing of wealth or other benefits:
Cargo cults often develop during a combination of crises. Under conditions of social stress, such a movement may form under the leadership of a charismatic figure. This leader may have a “vision” (or “myth-dream”) of the future, often linked to an ancestral efficacy thought to be recoverable by a return to traditional morality. This leader may characterize the present state (often imposed by colonial capitalist regimes) as a dismantling of the old social order, meaning that social hierarchy and ego boundaries have been broken down. (Wikipedia)
Even the casual reader can limn the obvious parallels. The “myth-dream” here is that the Kenyan Usurper is coming for their gunz… When Contrary came home from her encounter, she unloaded her fear and shock to me, and I began to think about what the open carrier was trying to accomplish. Anyone who has raised a child and has learned to rise to the challenge of “being smarter than the kid” will have learned to ask, “What is the child trying to accomplish?” So my thinking went right to, “What is the open carry acolyte trying to accomplish?”
A cry for attention? Check. To strike fear? Terror? To exact respect not otherwise forthcoming in ordinary hours? And certainly to make a point. Open carry is certainly a political statement of right wing dickwaving. A writer runs the risk of perhaps out-kicking his coverage when speculating about the rise of open carry at the same time decent jobs have become so hard to come by, when real incomes are plummeting, when personal bankruptcies are rising, when the average age of the homeless person in the US is nine, and when every other television commercial seems to be for “male enhancement product.” Perhaps men impotent by every important traditional measure find a sense of puissance in such primate display behavior?
Part of this is the elevation of the individual to a place of primacy at the expense of the notion of the common good, part of the mischief come of our current libertarian moment. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Angela Stroud, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, has spent years researching social meanings of concealed handgun licensing. She has conducted over 40 interviews and even took the handgun license test herself to be more informed.
There are those opposed to guns who consider ‘what’s best for society’, and those who are pro-second amendment for whom the ‘greater good’ does not form part of their argument. “There is a major privileging of the individual,” she said. “And it’s a powerful experience to become enmeshed in this worldview. There’s a fear. Instead of saying that incidents like Virginia Tech rarely happen, they say that even a one-in-a-million chance of being murdered is a frightening thing. They see two major threats — one is a criminal who wants to kill you; the other is a government that wants to control you.”
And I wasn’t the only person to note or take exception to the open carry phenomenon as practiced in Virginia. Esquire magazine’s Robert Bateman, an active duty military officer with presumed experience with a variety of weaponry, had a similar experience in the seaside village of Wachapreague, a locale I know well. He was in a well-known restaurant, and ironically enough, also on a quiet Sunday morning.
We were passing the Delmarva Peninsula at the time, an area I know well from my youth. My wife sat opposite me across a plain varnished pinewood table and my baby daughter sat in a high-seat next to me. Three tables of this roughly sixty-table restaurant were filled.
As we ate, looking over the beautiful waters at the Island House Restaurant in Wachapreague, I noticed over my wife’s shoulder the large man sitting in the table next to ours. It is not all that often that I notice people significantly larger than I am, but this guy qualified enough so that one could not help but look when he got up a few feet away. Going I know not where, I also noticed something else, the obvious presence of a concealed weapon at his hip, nominally, loosely “concealed” beneath his oversized T-shirt.
Really? A gun, at Sunday Brunch? Are you seriously that afraid of the 75-year-old farming couple, the only other people in the restaurant, who probably raised the daughter who babysat you 30 years ago? Or is it the middle-class transient family of three, with the baby, us, who frighten you? I mean, really, there were eight people in that restaurant at the time.
As people continue to file in, several dozen retirees joined by the after church crowd, Bateman was seized with a recognition of how utterly delusional this person was. As it turns out, the packer proudly displayed his affiliation.
What kind of idiot carries a gun in a family restaurant for family brunch? Well, that would be one of the folks influenced by the NRA-approved “Molon Labe” movement.
The dude sort of confirmed that when I noticed, a few minutes after he returned to his table, that he had the word “Molon” on his left forearm and “Labe” on his right forearm, tattooed in 2-inch letters. Or maybe it was just a Sharpie drawing he renewed periodically, I could not really tell. But either way, it was pretty obvious.
“Molon Labe” what? “What the heck is that?” you might rightly ask…. It is the de facto motto of those people who are absolutely paranoid about how any possible changes to America’s gun culture, which wounds or kills in excess of 110,000 Americans per year lately, might be enacted by the majority of Americans.
Molon Labe purports to be the response given to the Persian king Xerxes by the Spartan king Leonidas when Xerxes demanded that the Greek force lay down their weapons. It is generally translated as, “Come and get them.” And here is where the irony strikes a dramatic, freshly-oiled pose: in choosing this quote and context, the “freedom lovers” are quoting the absolute ruler of the most rigidly controlled military state in the ancient world. Let’s recall that the Sparta of Leonidas was a state in which the individual had almost no rights save the will of the state, and which held a massive population (the “Helots”) in subjugation and slavery. Pretty much the exact opposite of freedom.
Yet the story itself is apocryphal, written by someone who was not there, and makes a point redolent with irony. Sparta was no democracy, and whatever these people know about Greek history was learned from the movie 300. As Bateman says,
“The Molon Labe folks are perhaps the most historically ignorant people in all of American History, and that is saying quite a lot.”
HL Mencken once famously pointed out, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Molon Labe, indeed.
The Republic is now in the grips of people who believe it is their God given right to carry automatic weapons into Target, Starbucks, Kroger’s, and even my local Miller Mart adjacent to Old Dominion University. They make the rules, via having become a noisy and unpleasant minority with no sense of decency. And it is their moment: the enthusiasms are theirs. The vast majority make no sound in protest, we sit on our hands during an election cycle through disaffection or disgust, and cede public life to those who view public life as combat, not compromise. Thus is Yeats (“The Second Coming”) made flesh:
Surly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, articles and spittle-flecked invective on this site, and quit barking and got off the porch long enough to be active in the Occupy movement. He shares a home in Southeastern Virginia with Contrary and is grateful each day for the life he has with her, and that he is not yet taking a dirt nap.