Commentary: Government Violence: The Missing Link in the Gun Control Debate

January 2, 2013
By John W. Whitehead

“We need to look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence.”—President Barack Obama


It didn’t take long for the tragedy of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, which left 20 schoolchildren and six adults dead, to be co-opted by politicians and special interest groups alike, all eager to advance their ideas about how to prevent another deranged madman from taking innocent lives. President Obama is calling on Congress to issue gun control legislation that would limit access to assault weapons. The National Rifle Association (NRA) wants armed guards patrolling every school in America. Legislators in several states, including Florida, want to allow teachers to carry guns on school grounds. Others are clamoring for a lockdown of the schools, complete with metal detectors and guard dogs.

To our detriment, we have revisited this scenario in the wake of every school shooting since 12th graders Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, and opened fire, killing 12 classmates and one teacher. Yet in the midst of widespread finger pointing (not even violent movies, crime dramas and violent video games have been spared) and calls for reform of the mental health care system and gun control, not a word has been said about the greatest perpetrator of violence in American society and around the world—the U.S. government.

Violence has become our government’s calling card, starting at the top and trickling down, from President Obama’s “kill list,” which relies on drones to target insurgents, to the more than 80,000 SWAT team raids carried out every year on unsuspecting Americans by heavily armed, black-garbed commandos and the increasingly rapid militarization of local police forces across the country. We even export violence worldwide, with one of this country’s most profitable exports being weapons.

Thus, any serious discussion about minimizing the violence in our society needs to start with the government and its tendency to use violence as a means to an end, whether in matters of foreign policy or domestically, deploying heavily armed agents to enforce a myriad of arcane, bureaucratic regulations that impinge on Americans simply going about their business, such as the goat farmers whose homes were raided by SWAT teams with the Food and Drug Administration, or those attempting to exercise their constitutional rights such as the Occupy protesters who were subjected to all manner of violence.

It is no coincidence that the assault weapons used by killer Adam Lanza were military-grade weapons. These weapons, commonly wielded in video games, action movies and by invading SWAT teams, go hand in hand with the steady diet of violence that permeates everything in our culture. What is more significant, however, is that these weapons are not just the stuff of celluloid fantasy. In the hands of government agents, whether they are members of the military, law enforcement or some other government agency, these weapons have become routine parts of America’s day-to-day life, a byproduct of the rapid militarization of law enforcement over the past several decades. Over the course of 30 years, police officers in jack boots holding assault rifles have become fairly common in small town communities across the country.

This is what happens when you turn a nation into a police state: weapons become accepted instruments of tyranny, whether in the hands of government agents or in the hands of raging lunatics.

Much of this can be traced to the government’s so-called “War on Drugs,” which opened the door for police to be equipped with military weapons. In 1981, Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act, enabling the military to share equipment, training, and intelligence with local police. In 1997, Congress approved the 1033 Program, which allows the Secretary of Defense to transfer surplus military supplies and weapons—everything from surplus assault rifles to mini-tanks, grenade launchers, and remote controlled robots—to local police agencies without charge. Since 1997, more than 17,000 police agencies have taken advantage of the 1033 Program, acquiring $2.6 billion dollars worth of weapons and equipment, and demand is only getting higher. In fact, a record-setting $500 million worth of equipment was distributed in 2011, twice the amount given away in 2010.

This armory of weaponry designed for war is not limited to local law enforcement agencies. All levels of government, including regulatory agencies within the federal government, are in possession of high-powered weapons designed to wreak havoc on the battlefield. For example, in March 2012, defense contractor ATK agreed to produce 450 million hollow point rounds to be used by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office. DHS placed another order for 750 million rounds of various ammunition in August 2012. In August 2012, the Social Security Administration (SSA) placed an order for 174,000 rounds of hollow point ammunition. The SSA plans to send the ammunition to 41 locations throughout the United States, including major cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, and Philadelphia, among others.

No wonder many Americans are armed to the hilt. Many feel the need to protect themselves against their own government, whose arsenal only keeps growing and whose steady encroachments on civil liberties have resulted in a climate of surveillance wherein 1.7 billion communications between Americans, whether email, text, or phone call, are intercepted by the government daily, not to mention the impact of overcriminalization, which has rendered otherwise law-abiding individuals as lawbreakers for such mundane acts as holding Bible studies at home, making and sharing unpasteurized goat cheese with friends, and growing rare varieties of orchids.

Our culture’s fundamental loss of morality doesn’t help matters, either. Making the case that a government lacking in morality which fails to abide by its own laws is essentially inviting anarchy, acclaimed filmmaker Oliver Stone, co-author of The Untold History of the United States, argues, “Can we kill Bin Laden without having to bring him to trial, can we just get it done? And that ‘get it done’ mentality justifies the ends and that is where countries go wrong, and people go wrong. All of our lives are moral equations. Does the end justify the means? No, it never did.”

There are no easy answers. Clearly, if someone really wants to wreak havoc, they'll find a way to obtain a weapon. Placing armed guards in every school in the country, as the NRA suggests, would merely heighten the culture of violence and contribute to a school environment that is already in lockdown mode. Indeed, as the Washington Post recognizes, there is evidence that the presence of armed guards in schools actuallyincreases the chances of violent incidences occurring.

However, if President Obama, Congress and the American people really want the country to reconsider their relationship with guns and violence, then it needs to start with a serious discussion about the role our government has played and continues to play in contributing to the culture of violence. If the American people are being called on to scale back on their weapons, then the government and its cohorts—the military, the defense industry, the special interest groups, etc.—need to do the same. We owe it to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary and Columbine High School and the victims of every other senseless act of gun violence in this country to do more than score political points off each other. If we’re serious about real change, it needs to start at the top.

Shared by Jerry D. Hill

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Jerry, if I remember correctly, you were raised in Arkansas and now live in Texas.  I was raised in SW Missouri and now live in Oklahoma.  I also lived about 5 years in Louisiana, and about a year in Fayetteville.

What is significant about these red states?  We know there is a large subculture in these states that hates the federal government and another subculture that loves guns.  There seems to be a large overlap between the two groups.  Your statements, Jerry, seem to be reflections of rants I've heard most of my adult life.  I'm suggesting it might be of some help to step outside your culture.   

This anger towards the federal government was probably initiated by the civil war.  This anger was quite evident when our government integrated the Little Rock public schools.  Much of the anger that I currently see comes from enforcement of alcohol and drug laws. Another component of anger seems to come from resentment of government help given to the poor.

These two subcultures – known collectively as the “Right Wing” – never miss a chance to demonize our federal government.  Based on statements made by Timothy McVeigh, the frenzy whipped up by this group led directly to the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

I've heard the Right Wing rant for most of my adult life, and I tend to turn it off when someone complains, for example, that “heavily armed agents … enforce a myriad of arcane, bureaucratic regulations that impinge on Americans simply going about their business,” Frankly, I think this is a gross exaggeration. 

Also, it seems to me the 80,000 swat raids a year might be a tad exaggerated. 

Just because you can associate A (the government) with violence, and you can associate B (school shootings) with violence, doesn't mean that A caused B.  There is much wrong with our government, and we should be concerned about loss of freedoms, but you haven't shown any reason for us to believe the violence at Newtown was in any way caused by our government.

Jerry, I’d be curious to see one way in which the government caused the shooting.

Wake up and look around, what do you see?”

Good government or bad?” 

Much of both. 

But your subject was “Government Violence: The Missing Link in the Gun Control Debate.”  Why do you raise other issues about government performance?  Are these somehow related to the Sandy Hook shooting? 



Jerry, you started this conversation with numerous complaints about the federal government. When I challenge you to tell us how our government contributed to the shootings, you write:

I am very happy to reply to the place Government played, it is in providing schools that are not safe for kids in this present day.”


If the federal government had tried to set standards for local schools, the government haters would have complained about “bureaucratic regulations,” and would have claimed the fed's were taking control away from local communities.


Regarding your questions:


Does warfare promote killing.” Absolutely


Does arming our police to fight drugs with auto weapons promote killing.” I don't know how their choice of weapons would make any difference.


Does television promote killing.” Seeing acts of violence on TV could possibly make it easier for someone to commit such an act. The larger question for me is, why are young men so much attracted to violent programs? What is the attraction? What reward do they get from watching these programs? Is it possible these programs provide a way to vicariously direct general anger at a fictional target? When the fictional targets no longer provide the relief sought, do they graduate to actual targets for directing their anger? Where does the anger come from? If the anger comes from offenses committed against them, why don't religious leaders simply teach them to “turn the other cheek?” Are they using drugs to mask the anger? Could drug use be shielding us from other school shootings? Could a rage against the world be a byproduct of the separations: material v spiritual, individual v community, and culture v nature. (See Charles Eisenstein)


Do movies promote killing.” See question about television.


Do games promote killing.” See question about television.


Does Santa promote killing with the toys and games He delivers.” My parents thought so. All my friends during WWII had toy M1's to play soldier with, but I never had one. I simply used a wooden stick substitute, which shows that culture is likely to win out in the long run.


Who does promote killing? Gun manufacturers? The NRA? I once read that many movies like Rambo were financed by right wingers (people who hate government) who wanted to counter the anti-war movement. Which reminds me, where have all the young men gone who once wore flowers in their hair? They never committed school shootings.




Jerry, In your ID photo you seem to be standing behind a pulpit.  I notice you don’t claim that sin causes us to kill. You haven’t chosen to discuss sin, and I appreciate that.  I left the S. Baptist about 50 years ago and gave up sin.  I didn’t give up sinning; I just called it something else.

But, with your religious background, I thought you might be interested in connections between killing and Lucifer.  “The Lucifer Principle” by Howard Bloom is a fascinating look at sin and sinning.  (Not from the S. Baptist perspective.)  From p. 2:

“At its heart, the Lucifer Principle looks something like this:  The nature scientists uncover has crafted our viler impulses into us: in fact these impulses are a part of the process she uses to create.  Lucifer is the dark side of cosmic fecundity, the cutting blade of the sculptor’s knife.  Nature does not abhor evil; she embraces it.  She uses it to build.  With it, she moves the human world to greater heights of organization, intricacy, and power.

Death, destruction, and fury do not disturb the Mother of our world; they are merely parts of her plan.

To dismantle the curse that Mother Nature has build into us, we need a new way of looking at man, a new way of reshaping our destiny.”


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