At the small village market here in Puyloubier, France yesterday, the roast chicken vendor, Bruno, gave me a sad and sympathetic look as I paid him for a chicken. “I am very sorry for your loss,” he said. He was referring to reports from Lewiston, Maine, widely covered here in France, that a lone shooter had opened fire on a crowded bar and bowling alley the night before, killing 18 people and injuring dozens more. Bruno did not know at that moment that I was from Maine, but he knew that I was an American, and that was enough to prompt his sympathy. When I explained that my home in Portland is only 45 minutes or so from Lewiston, he was even more alarmed. “Terroristes?”, he asked. “No,” I replied, “a person with deep psychological problems, it appears.” A response that begged more questions than it answered.
French news media and their audiences are now fully accustomed to reports of mass shootings in the U.S., and they cover them quickly and comprehensively. Robert Card’s rampage was featured in yesterday’s digital edition of Le Monde, the newspaper of record in France, almost as soon as the story broke in the U.S. Such reporting is almost always accompanied by an implicit or explicit question: why, after so many iterations of the devastation in Maine, has the country not committed itself more aggressively to preventing their occurrence?
In this regard, Bruno’s question — terroristes? — is revealing. France continues to experience terrible incidents of jihadi violence, the most recent not quite two weeks ago in Arras in northern France, where a radicalized young immigrant from the Caucasus killed a young high school teacher with a knife. But France does not know the random citizen-upon-citizen violence that is so common and predictable now in the United States. When these events occur, the reflexive explanatory framework— terroristes? — is the understandable default. What other possible explanation could there be? This first question is quickly and inevitably followed by a second. After so many senseless and preventable deaths, how is it possible that so many federal and state lawmakers in the United States continue to resist the obvious preventive measures: bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, more and more aggressive background checks, and more public resources for the treatment of mental illnesses?
The news out of Maine this morning included reports of the conversion experience of Jared Golden, the Democratic House member from Maine’s second congressional district. In an emotional reversal of his previous position, Golden, who grew up and lives in Lewiston, called for a federal ban on assault weapons. He also apologized to the people of Lewiston and Maine for having resisted such a ban in the past.
It’s an important and moving gesture that might cost Golden and the Democrats his seat in Congress. But it’s unlikely to move House Republicans, especially now that the extreme right is driving the train. That is because in Maine as in so many other places in conservative rural America, guns are not principally utilitarian objects, useful for hunting or self-defense or just messing around. They are symbols of a certain understanding of the relationship of the individual to state power. The insistence on the absolute right to own a gun — any gun, even a gun intended principally to destroy other humans — is a way of speaking belligerent truth to power. “Don’t tread on me!” The closely related, determined, and stretching interpretation of the 2nd Amendment as a statement about private gun ownership is in essence a form of defiance that seeks to trace a circle of absolute, inviolable freedom around individuals haunted by the fear of an ever-menacing public authority.
This elemental, aggressive, and apparently implacable form of defiance is deeply rooted in American political culture and it will not dissipate anytime soon. Indeed, it has undergone magnification in the Trump era and is part and parcel of the angry populism that Trumpism has so efficiently and malignly organized. It’s this, the symbolic role of guns in our political culture, that is so hard to explain to the world. It is a truth at times fugitive even from ourselves.