Gaslighting, Bad Faith, And Trauma: The American Gun Nightmare Will Spare No One

Gaslighting, Bad Faith, And Trauma: The American Gun Nightmare Will Spare No One

The American gun violence nightmare, worsened every day by right-wing lawmakers and judges while we become numb to the horrors it has wrought, has taken the form of a never-ending gaslighting campaign.

Some of that gaslighting is expertly wielded by those who defend unfettered access to weapons of war at the local Walmart. We're told access to these weapons and a lack of effective gun regulation has nothing to do with the gun massacres we see on the news every week or two. The blood you see, they say, has nothing to do with guns. The gaslighting hardly stops there though. There is an internal gaslighting campaign that can be described as a psychological survival mechanism for Americans terrified that they could be next.

We tell ourselves that statistically – the number never lie – we are unlikely to encounter a mass shooting if we live to 100. We convince ourselves that these massacres happen elsewhere, that they're someone else's problem. Maybe folks in blue states can pretend innocents being slaughtered by heavily (and easily) armed gunmen is a red state issue. Maybe we tell ourselves that we'll somehow avoid putting our families in harm's way. There are more than a few ways to trick ourselves into not losing our minds in the face of constant mass violence.

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Drew Davenport had these illusions shattered by gunshots at an early December holiday parade in Dayton, Ohio. It was there – with his wife and children – that Drew heard a loud bang about fifty yards from where his family stood after the town's Christmas tree was lit. Was that a gunshot? The uniquely American mass-shooting coping skills kicked into action.

"I instantly chided myself that this was a silly conclusion to draw, that it was a bit dramatic. I dismissed it, thinking that something had fallen off a float, or a horse had caused a loud bang somehow, or maybe a car backfired," Drew told me a week after the parade shooting. "I turned my head back to look at the parade. ... I felt oddly unsure about everything."

Drew, like every American with an internet connection, knows what a mass shooting looks like. We know how this movie goes.

"I've seen enough footage of people running from an active shooter and I recognized what was happening," he said. "The crowd was completely breaking and running towards me and my family en masse. I knew instantly."

Chaos ensued. Drew grabbed his wife's arm and began running away from the gunshots – now echoing off buildings bracketing the holiday parade – before realizing his kids, six and eight years old, were not in tow. Drew's wife pulled away to get the kids; Drew soon realized he had grabbed the arm of another woman, panicked and fleeing from the shooter. Moments later, his family united, Drew – frazzled and trying desperately not to terrify his children – realized the family car had been parked near where the shots rang out. His prime objective in the panicked throng of parade goers was to get as far away from the shots as possible, and to get a building between his family and whoever was doing the shooting.

Drew eventually fell behind his wife and kids in their race away from the gunshots.

I couldn't keep up because I was hyperventilating from the stress and the fear and the running all rolled into one. My son wouldn't stop asking, "What's happening? What's going on?" Clearly he was terrified but trying to be brave. My daughter was shrieking in terror, sobbing, asking over and over what we were doing. I heard someone yell behind me, "Motherfuckers are shooting!" I saw a woman with a stroller. She too seemed to be hyperventilating and I asked her, "Was that what we thought it was?" She said, "I think so." My senses slowly started to return. I heard children screaming and crying everywhere. I saw people sprinting to their cars, heads down, jumping in and taking off. I saw a family throwing their stroller in their trunk and yelling at their kids to get in as they sped out of their parking spot. We reached our car and I opened the rear door to hug my daughter and she collapsed into my arms. Although we were safe my son said, panicky, "Dad we have to go! We have to get out of here!" He still didn't know why everyone was upset, but he could see the fear in the adults around him and he was on the verge of breaking down himself. We took off and got on the road. At that point my wife and I lost it ourselves. Only later would we find out there was no real danger to us. That part hardly mattered, however, as the damage had been done. My kids were terrified. Our family holiday tradition had been sullied and ruined, perhaps forever, and my children's lives had been forever changed.

This, for many Americans, is what freedom looks like. We are in fact made far less free by the proliferation of guns and states' inability to regulate them. The right to assemble without fear of being mowed down by a gunman has been taken from us. The existence of guns is the opposite of freedom. Guns are the end of freedom.

The collective trauma of nonstop gun violence and mass shootings in the United States (and nowhere else) is impossible to calculate and dangerous to fathom. You might break down if you read a string of these trauma-drenched stories of Americans running for their lives, or bullets whizzing by, of dead or dying people in a pool of blood in the aisle of your favorite big box store, of a maniacal gunman locked in a classroom full of kids while criminally cowardly cops wait patiently for him to finish his business.

My chest tightened and my pulse quickened as I read Drew's account in which none of his family members were hurt or in any danger of being hit by the bullets shot by some asshole at a holiday parade in Dayton. I imagined going through this ordeal, or worse, my children – ten and six years old – ensuring the sheer terror of getting away from not-so-distant gunshots.

Then the coping takes effect: No, it did not happen to me. It happened way the fuck elsewhere, in Ohio. And really, when you look at the stats – when you go Full Nate Silver – I have next to no chance of being killed in a mass shooting. Let's be rational adults about this, the coping goes. This is no big deal.

Then I think of Drew and his family weeping and clutching each other in the car and the numbers do not matter.

Fire Is Hot And Guns Kill People

The good folks at Bad Faith Times (me) have written extensively about the overwhelming bad faith deployed by conservatives in the so-called gun debate (are mass shootings good or bad? It's hard to say). It's mental health, it's video games, it's absentee fathers, it's drugs, it's alcohol, it's the lack of prayer in public schools, it's boys failing to mature into real men, it's women refusing to act like women – it's all of these things, but it's never the access to automatic weapons guaranteed by the vile cretins on the Supreme Court.

That's never the problem, according to the American right, which makes a concerted effort to normalize mass public killings as some perverse defense of what they think of as a constitutional right. The right to be killed, perhaps.

The bad-faith gaslighting ever present in the toxic American gun discourse reminds Drew Davenport of a poker game he once had with his buddies.

The poker game's host had recently installed a fireplace and was psyched to use it even with soaring outdoor temperatures (as someone who has hosted backyard fire pits in the crushing humidity of a July night in Maryland, I can relate). The poker players within minutes squirmed in their seats.

"Those of us sweating at the table casually mentioned that it was too hot and that maybe the giant flames were to blame," Drew said. "We've never forgotten that moment because it was so funny, but also disturbing on some level. [The poker game host] wanted us to believe that the flames in the fireplace were not responsible for it being hot in the room."

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And so it goes in the American gun discourse: Normal, well-adjusted – even nonpolitical – people are told over and over that mass shootings have no connection to the nation's insane gun policies. That I can leave my home right now and purchase a weapon that can fire several bullets a second is perfectly fine, and in fact is the definition of freedom, the right tells us. They go even further, ramping up the gaslighting to mind-numbing levels by insisting that the solution to our gun-sick culture is even more guns.

"This is not only illogical on its face, empirical evidence shows that to be false as well," Drew said, linking the defense of unfettered gun access to the poisonous American belief that freedom is the ability to do whatever we want, no matter how much it harms others. "Guns are a direct and proximate cause of the rampant gun violence that persists in America. Once we understand that freedom means responsibility, compassion, and empathy, that can change. Until then, we are out of luck, and even a children's Christmas parade can turn deadly in an instant."

Solving our gun crisis by flooding the zone – also known as our communities – with more killing instruments is nothing more than a miniaturized version of the Cold War's concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD). If we're all armed and terrified of each other, maybe the shooting will stop. Maybe enough fear will do the trick. Maybe if you know you'll be shot if you shoot, your finger will slide off the trigger. Maybe you'll think twice about shredding another human's body with bullets.

While it's slightly lower stakes than the idea that mutually assured nuclear death – the end of humanity – would stop both the US and the Soviet Union from eviscerating each other, it's equally as idiotic and dangerous. Just as the only way to ensure competing empires can't nuke each other is to remove nuclear weapons from the planet, the only way to stop mass killings is to remove guns from society (as an aside, I believe the left's starting point in gun-control negotiations should be the repeal of the Second Amendment and a nationwide gun buy-back program).

We have to reject the argument that guns are not the cause of gun violence. Don't let those beholden to the murderous gun lobby make you feel crazy for believing (correctly) that gun access has to be crushed if we are ever to be safe, if there is ever going to be an end to this American gun nightmare.

Reject the right's gaslighting. Reject its bad faith. Objective reality exists, and in that reality, Americans are slaughtering other Americans with weapons of war they can buy while shopping for groceries. Any counterargument to this must be dispatched. And the urgency must be real, for the American gun nightmare is coming for you.

Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.