After Orlando, We Must Ask How Our Society Got This Way

There's a reason we saw such violence this weekend, and why that violence will continue

FBI agents investigate near the damaged rear wall of the Pulse nightclub, the site of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, Sunday. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

The details of this weekend's shootings in Orlando are still coming in, but we know pop singer Christina Grimmie was gunned down after a performance, and then, 28 hours later and 3.5 miles away, the worst massacre in U.S. history occurred at a gay club during its popular Latin night. But we already feel the usual numb horror, the helplessness. The confusion.

In the fog, we search for a motive — and rightly so. It matters that Omar Mateen had reportedly been outraged by two men kissing before he killed 50 people at a gay club, for instance. But the next question we need to ask in the wake of these shootings, after why did they do it, is why did it happen?

Why did they do it varies from shooting to shooting; why did it happen does not.

There's a photograph (via the Orlando Sentinel) from the aftermath of the gay club shooting that tells us much about why it happened. The grainy image shows a group of men who look like soldiers, in desert camouflage, bulky with Kevlar, sitting against a wall. They look like they could be in Iraq at dawn. Then we see the police cruiser behind them, the crime-scene tape, and we realize, these are not soldiers at all — these are cops. The image is from Orlando, the home of Disney World. It was taken early Sunday morning, outside the Pulse nightclub after Mateen was killed.

There has not been a war on American soil since 1865, but that hasn't stopped us from acting otherwise. Since the late 19th century, we've flooded our nation with weaponry. The result is not so much a gun culture as a war culture. The wars we fight in distant lands, often by remote-controlled drone, have come home, enabled by a flood of artillery that our lawmakers have made widely available — even to suspected terrorists.

In her recent book The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture, Pamela Haag makes the case that where we are now is a direct result first of industrialization, then marketing. Before and after the Civil War, gun manufacturers like Colt and Remington could not find an American market for their revolvers and repeating rifles. So, with the help of their marketing executives, they created one, by stoking fear of personal attack, creating narratives of lone heroes surviving close encounters with dangerous "others," and whipping up an origin myth: that for Americans, guns — and maybe even violence itself — is in our DNA.

America's gun culture has created what can be thought of as a nationwide gas leak: Disaster can strike with just the lighting of a match. You need no skill or talent to light said match, and your motive for doing so — Islamic extremism, right-wing radicalism, personal grievance, homophobia, misogyny — doesn't change the outcome. If we're going to see any real change, we must address the hole in the gas pipe.

We can blame this metaphorical hole on several factors: advertising, consumerism, brutal politics and capitalism's insatiable quest for profits. As Haag writes in her book, gun manufacturers like Colt revised history in their (very effective) marketing materials and ad campaigns to suggest that in fighting the Revolution, the colonists all grabbed their rifles from above the hearth and run outside to fight off the tyrants. In reality, so few Patriots had guns that they had to buy most of them from France. And when they arrived, they had to be taught how to use them — by Swedes. America was so decidedly not a gun culture in its supposed gun glory days that its inhabitants needed Sweden to teach them how to shoot.

Gun manufacturers were also responsible for the image of the heroic, virtuous cowboy and his trusty six-shooter, "the gun that won the West." Cowboys were in fact mostly drunken, gnarly guys whose lives were about as romantic as grave-diggers. The idea of the quiet American who owed his independence and self-determination to his gun originally came into being to create a profitable market for guns. Gun sellers deployed such imagery to flatter the potential gun buyer and make him think he needed one to be safe, to be a man, and to be a proper American — the industry first built its market, then protected it with lobbying and vote-buying. Whenever sales stagnated, fresh injections of fear — whether fear of "others" or political encroachments on the Second Amendment — sharpened the appetite for more guns. Case in point: the Obama administration, with its progressive gun-control policies, has resulted in nearly unprecedented boom times for the gun industry.

Those original ideas are still evident today in the NRA's feverish rhetoric. The NRA insists Americans and guns grew up together, that an armed society is a polite society, and that we tighten gun laws at our peril, for if more Americans easily obtain the guns they "need," then shootings like the ones in Orlando this weekend would not happen because the "good guys" would not allow it.

Florida is one of the most favorable states for gun owners. So, following the NRA's logic, it should be one of the nation's most polite societies. The two shootings this weekend in Orlando certainly do not support that.

By enabling the gun industry — which, protected by lawmakers' interpretations of the Second Amendment, enjoys privileged status among consumer manufacturers — and allowing our politicians to bow to their political lobby, we have effectively militarized ourselves. 

That is why the violence happened. And that is why it will continue to happen.