Guns, Paranoia, and Twinkies

What Drives A Trigger Happy Country?

Since the school shooting in Newtown Connecticut, the National Rifle Association reports gaining 100,000 new members. Gun sales have gone through the roof, many items are in short supply. Prices have doubled or tripled. What’s going on?

It’s the law of the market that objects in short supply increase in value. According to The New York Times, one gun dealer said: “many people were stocking up on high-capacity magazines in anticipation that they might be banned. Two weeks ago,” he said, “a 30-round rifle magazine was $12, but it now fetches $60.” The Times went on to quote a pastor in Tennessee who likened the current run on ammunition to the rush to buy Twinkies last year after its maker, Hostess Brands, announced it was closing. “It’s the same thing,” he said. “When you are threatened with the possibility that you are going to lose something, you get a bunch of it.” (See, “Sales of Guns Soar in U.S. as Nation Weighs Tougher Limits.”)

But what exactly are we in danger of losing? The market may be like that, but guns are not Twinkies.

Obviously something else is going on. To be sure, the outrage following the Sandy Hook killings did increase the likelihood that some form of gun control would be enacted. So the logic of the market was not wrong. Moreover, the danger it illustrated no doubt led many to believe they needed guns to protect themselves from others with guns. Anyone who had thought of purchasing a gun for self-defense probably felt pushed to act before it was too late.

But it’s not just fear. Almost 50 years ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter published his classic article on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in which he noted the prevalence of conspiracy theories throughout our history. Over the years, various “threats” to our way have life been targeted: Masons, Catholics, Communists, gold traders, international bankers, and so forth. Rage is the fuel behind these movements. True, people search to pin the blame on someone for trends they fear, but they are enraged that their values, standards and sense of security feel threatened. Hofstadter’s use of the psychiatric term “paranoid” points out how deeply irrational such beliefs are, how immune to argument or evidence, and destructive they become.

The current debate about gun control is yet another example. And it is hard to find calm, rational voices in the discussion. Many sources of rage combine to account for this upsurge in the market for guns. Racism is clearly one source as we experienced a similar surge after the election – as we did four years ago when Obama was first elected. The debate over immigration is almost certainly another one, as people hate and fear the new immigrants from Asia and the near east.

Finally, I suspect that the continuing financial crisis also exerts a pull. It does not seem as if the guns are being pointed in the direction of Wall Street and the big banks. But as people feel the danger and the pinch, they fear their neighbors more. The 99.9 percent may well be more willing now to target anyone who seems to pose a threat to their security. And that’s a very big group.