Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Guns in NOLA

This is for my buddy J.P.

As I’ve written before, when you come from Redneck stock and you live in New York you find very quickly that one great dividing points between New Yorkers and people from the country is on the subject of guns. Most New Yorkers I know (though certainlyh not all) view guns as irredeemably bad things. This is especially true of New Yorkers who live in traditionally high crime neighborhoods. I like to shock my public speaking students by telling them that my step father gave me my first rifle when I was 13 years old. They are often mortified: “how could you give a gun to a little child?” Well, it’s simple: in the cities (and the US is becoming more urbanized every day) guns are a problem. They are part of a culture of violence. They represent crime and mayhem and murder. The number of my students who know people who have been murdered is pretty disheartening (I have known three people who were murdered, plus two murderers, and I lived a very calm middle class background, but more on that later). In the country guns are seen as tools of survival. They are marks of independence and freedom. They often have a sacred quality to them, a symbolism that is borne out of the fact that our country was founded in a revolution based on two principles, taxes and gun ownership, and that the first battle of the revolutionary war was fought by local militia using their own weapons and British troops who had been sent to disarm them and destroy their munitions at Concord. Gun rights are therefore at the core of American democracy—at least if you are the type of person who likes guns.

Why am I writing this? One of the big subtexts of the Hurricane Katrina disaster that only a few in the media picked up on was guns. Guns played a specific part in several of the news reports coming out of NOLA and, interestingly enough, it was the New York Times which seemed to have the most balanced coverage of the issue. Now for a moment I’m going to sound like a conservative, so if you don’t like it you will need to go read something else today.

Guns were in the news in several places:

1.) “Street gangs” were rumored to be looting gun stores, supposedly to arm themselves so they could engage in more looting, car-jackings, and all around mayhem.
2.) When Baton Rouge began accepting refugees from Katrina, there was a run on local guns stores. Apparently the citizens of the state capital panicked at the idea of “those people” invading their fair city.
3.) The Times ran a long piece about citizens of New Orleans arming themselves against looters. The accompanying picture was of a husband and wife armed with pump action shotguns and wearing sidearms standing in front of their machine shop. One person interviewed told of how he had driven off some looters by firing a warning shot over their heads and (a very quotable man he was) said, “you’ve heard of law West of the Pecos, well this is the law south of Canal street.”
4.) Later, the Times reported that under martial law, authorities were going into people’s homes and seizing their weapons. A spokesperson for the coast guard (another report had it as a spokesperson for the city) was reported to have said “no one will be allowed to go armed.
5.) Sean Penn, who notably took part in several rescues in the days after the flooding, appeared in a photograph in the New York Post wading through hip deep water carrying a shotgun.
6.) My mom sent me a picture off the internet of several men standing around a home made plywood sign somewhere in the Hurricane Rita disaster zone. All of the men were carrying firearms and the hand painted sing read, “Drunks with guns—you loot we shoot!”

The sign kind of sums up the situation. This was the militia that the 2nd amendment envisioned (not the national guard, no matter what some liberal constitutional scholars may argue): neighbors banding together, armed to the teeth, to protect their neighborhood. And that is why number 4 on this list is so odious. Surely, if there is any purpose to the 2nd amendment, it is so that people can protect themselves and their property when civil authorities are unable to do so (Huey Newton’s demonstration that it’s all so the rich white folks can protect their property from the poor black folks may, in fact, be germane in the case of NOLA, but we should pick that up another day). To have the federal government go into people’s houses and seize their weapons, leaving them with no means of protection (the police force is in shambles and there is no phone service to call 911) is reprehensible. It is certainly unconstitutional. On the NRA website this week there was an item that a federal judge had issued an injunction against the police and military forces in NOLA ordering them to stop seizing people’s guns right away.

I didn’t see that covered in the Times though.


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