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Our Whig Moment

Needed in the debates on gun control and healthcare: more John Browns, fewer Millard Fillmores

The chairman of the UB Department of Psychiatry told the local National Public Radio outlet that “you can outlaw every weapon, and you will have people going out and killing other people with a rock.”

Those comments came the day that a 20-year-old video-gamer killed 27 innocents and his mom with his mom’s Bushmaster .233 semi-automatic carbine and its 30-shot magazines of high-velocity rounds—not, as it happens, with a rock. The apologists for the gun-control status quo have said, in essence, that evil is a permanent human condition, and that there’s nothing to be done. If you’ve never before heard expert nihilism in the service of a criminal enterprise, look no further than here or the WBFO-FM website. For the second time in modern world history, a voice from Buffalo has looked evil in the eye and said, “Okay by me.”

The last time this happened was when Millard Fillmore was president of the United States, back in September 1850, when he signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law. Fillmore may not have had as difficult a time distinguishing between a military weapon and a rock, given that Fillmore had been a militiaman. But at least his words were on the right track. This is what Fillmore said: “God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.”

Note, though, what Fillmore did: He signed the Fugitive Slave Act, and other elements of the so-called Compromise of 1850, which not only allowed slavery to continue but turned federal marshals into tools of the slave-holding class.

The excuse of that day, like this day, was that the rights to slave-holding enjoy, like gun-owning, the protection of the Constitution. But of course, it’s much simpler than that: The big money then was in slavery, and there’s big money now in gun-making and in gun-selling. Surprising numbers of Democrats are on the take from the gun lobby, which has long since purchased Republicans in bulk. Brave words from President Barack Obama about how “we must change” will not much challenge the power of the nihilism lobby. The reality is that there will be new legislation, but no change: There will be no end to the ready availability of powerful weapons that no civilian anywhere in the law-governed world has, except here.

The American gun madness is like America’s lack of comprehensive national health insurance—a national embarrassment that shortens life expectancy here, and that makes us less like Germany, Canada, or Japan, and more like Somalia, Guatemala, or a brutal statelet in Central Asia.

Incremental steps toward gun control have been like Obama’s incremental step toward healthcare reform: The essence of the life-threatening status quo ante persists. Despite a now-lapsed ban on the sale of assault weapons in this country enacted 20 years ago, the availability of military-equivalent anti-personnel weapons is greater than ever, and there is, effectively, no way to wrest them out of all the hands they are already in. (Since Newtown, sales of weapons like the Bushmaster have reportedly skyrocketed.) Healthcare reform may have trimmed the profiteering of insurance companies, but the fundamentals remain undisturbed.

Face it: With both guns and healthcare, we are led by latter-day Millard Fillmores and contemporary clones of those learned, scripture-quoting apologists for slavery, the ones who advised a president and Congress that when faced with slavery, compromise with slave-holders was the only politically achievable outcome. One searches in vain for any difference between promoting an evil, and abetting an evil while deploring it.

Buffalo's capitulator-in-chief, Millard Fillmore.

Guns and money

The Compromise of 1850 didn’t last so very long, actually—just 10 years later came the Civil War. Compromise on slavery was immediate political death for Millard Fillmore, who tried to resurrect himself with a presidential run as an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, hands-off-slavery Know-Nothing. The ensuing decade was when the compromise became crisis. It was a sequence of ugly, bloody, localized conflicts over that single defining issue, culminating John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, which many historians accept as the act that made political and intellectual clarity inevitable.

Guns won’t work out to be similarly polarizing. There had been hope that healthcare reform would offer a clarifying moment, where America would move from the fanciful individualism that serves rent-seeking corporate interests, to an efficient collectivism that would cost everybody less money and close coverage gaps. But once Obama settled for nationalizing the deeply compromised Massachusetts plan of a former Republican governor (his name is lost to history), change became a process of increments.

But now the president of the United States has said that he is going to do something not only about guns but about a culture in which estranged white boys make headlines using assault weapons against crowds, while ghetto kids keep dying from handguns far from television. Systemic change is the announced goal.

The gun question that nobody wants to contemplate is this: The resentful, armed, National Rifle Association membership of white men without economic prospects, the ones who voted against Obama, are as expendable in the current phase of capitalism as are the unemployees of the Occupy generation. The Occupy activists have some class consciousness, in the old sense of economic self-interest, but no guns. The guys Tom Franks portrays in What’s Wrong With Kansas have guns but no actionable consciousness of their own economic self-interest. The two cultures do not communicate except in their resentments, but the main difference is this: The guys with the basement arsenals are feeding an industry that endangers everybody from Columbine to Virginia Tech to the Clackamas mall to Newtown elementary. White guys with guns generally reject the notion that they unilaterally disarmed themselves for class warfare when they embraced the Republican agenda.

That agenda includes, prominently, opposition to any meaningful federal gun control. A plausible definition of “meaningful” in this context is this: restoring assault weapons to their rightful place as military-only weapons. Pulling 30-shot weapons out of reach of kids who play Mortal Kombat would require sending soldiers into gun shows, biker hangouts, survivalist compounds, and basements to confiscate any weapon not designed to whack deer, turkeys, or pheasants. A prospective ban on assault weapons and big magazines will be debated and possibly even enacted, but the estimated two million such weapons already in private hands, and the international black market, make one sigh.

For all our history, an armed American yeomanry has been imagined as the surest guarantor against the mass slaughter visited on the yeomen of Russia, China, Guatemala, El Salvador, the former Yugoslavia, and a dozen other places where the news is always a version of government versus civilians. But the idea that unorganized civilians or even Michigan militiamen armed with handguns, Bushmasters, and shotguns battling Seal Team 6 or even the National Guard is laughable, or insane. The standard in law for insanity is this: being a danger to self or others can get you confined. But today in Fillmore’s home, even the people who are supposed to know and treat insanity accept gun madness as normal.

Sadly, the evidence is, they’re right. Rock on.

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His new book is Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, available at bookstores or at

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