The Social Justice Foundation publishes something called ‘Pacific Standard.’ And ‘Pacific Standard’ has published a post called What Guns Do To Our State of Mind By Dartmouth cultural anthropologist Chelsey Kivland.
It’s absolutely everything you’d expect from the Social Justice Foundation with a soupçon of irrational mysticism thrown in just for fun. In looking at “gun violence” in the Caribbean basket case nation of Haiti, Kivland attempts to invest in guns a kind of magical ability to affect the poor unwitting souls who come in contact with them.
“Whoever touches that gun, he’ll die at some point … because it acts on you,” explained a 37-year-old man who lives in the poor neighborhood of Bel Air in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where I have worked as an anthropologist since 2008. Kal* was talking about a specific Smith & Wesson .38 special caliber revolver, long the standard issue gun of American police and United States-trained security forces in Haiti. After being purchased for $75 from a former army soldier, this gun passed through the hands of three men: a young father, Frantz; Papapa, a young man; and Henri, another new father.
All three were shot and killed in their community between December of 2012 and February of 2013. Although the trant-uit (.38), as residents called the gun, did not fire all the lethal bullets, all died while in possession of it.
When I asked Belairians why these deaths occurred, they often surmised that the gunmen fell victim to maji, or “magic.” In Haiti, magic refers to an unethical use of spiritual power, distinct from ceremonial forms of Vodou, which call on ancestors to heal and protect the family. (Vodou is the preferred spelling, rather than Voodoo, which some practitioners view as derogatory.) This form of magic entails engaging with secret powers that allow a person to advance at the expense of another. To many, the men died because the occult forces they had been using for unethical gain had ultimately turned against them—opening them up to conflict and failing to protect them.
Yet when neighbors relayed how the deaths happened, they offered explanations involving a different kind of occult transformation: the supernatural potency of the .38 to change people into unethical agents. With each subsequent death, lore intensified around the gun, with people surmising that “touching” this gun could portend death. “Ever since they touched the gun, those poor young boys were not the same,” said one community member. Residents spoke about the gun as if it were an amulet that could change otherwise good people and what they did in the world.
It would be shortsighted to dismiss these claims as the misguided logic of a “superstitious people.” That racially inflected trope, long used to marginalize and demonize Haitians, among others, blinds observers to the way in which guns do exhibit a power akin to magic: the power to create a change in someone’s state of mind.
Got that? It was the gun that changed these people into “unethical agents.” If not for the malevolent influence of the firearm, they’d have been noble, positive contributors to their community. And if you dare to attribute the kind of mystical powers that guns are said to have in the armpit of the western hemisphere to ignorance or superstition, you’re A RACIST, mired in closed-minded white supremacy.
Kivland’s message is, when it comes to “gun violence,” forget human frailty, corruption, personal responsibility or agency…it’s the gun that makes us evil, exerting its powers on our state of mind.
The natural conclusion then is…we have to do something about the guns.
According to Kal, it all started because baz leader Frantz brought his gun to his birthday party, a big affair thrown in the street, complete with a DJ. At the time, a rival baz led by Papapa was competing for control of the neighborhood, and the group made this clear by coming to the party uninvited and armed. Papapa was not happy to see that Frantz had his gun on him and was waving it in the air. “When they saw the .38, they wanted to ruin the party,” Kal told me. “Then Papapa shot at him. It happened quickly. Boom! He was lying on the ground. Everyone ran.”
If you read that paragraph and thought that what happened was an almost inevitable outgrowth of a gang-related turf dispute, you’re hopelessly blinded by your own Eurocentric prejudices.
Kivand then describes two more subsequent shootings attributable to that same magical .38 revolver and then concludes . . .
Although the gun had a potent effect on all three men, it did not act on them in the same way. For Frantz and Papapa, the gun enabled and epitomized their doomed claims to sovereign control of the block. For Henri, the gun pushed him into a trajectory of criminal action that could only have one outcome. Echoing Kal, Henri’s friend explained, “He saw the weapon, and he saw the road before him.” Yet another said, “Before, he was a nice young man. But the .38 showed him another way. He wanted to carry a bad name like Papapa.”
The .38 “showed him” that alternate path…one he never would have traveled had it not been for that little ballistic Beelzebub.
A gun is not just an inanimate object that can be separated from its user’s intentions. A gun held by a person is a human-technology composite that transforms what both can do in the world. As the philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour has argued: “You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you. … A bad guy becomes a worse guy; a silent gun becomes a fired gun.” The crux of this view is that people are needed to activate technology, and technology is necessary to activate and augment human capacities.
Yet Belairians’ accounts push this idea even further. Guns and people work together not only to fire a gun but also to imbue that technology with social meanings of power and violence. The potency of the .38 results from the way in which material objects and people must co-participate in creating lethal actors and actions in the world.
How are we ever to resist the corrupting influence of these demonic devices?
There is a lesson to be gleaned from understanding the supernatural potency of guns. We cannot think about guns and people as separate entities, debating gun restrictions on one hand and mental-health policy on the other. The target of intervention must be the gun-person composite. If we are to truly understand and control gun violence, we need to accept that guns have potent technological and psychological effects on people—effects that inspire violent ways of being and acting in the world.
Here’s something Kivland’s insane ramblings and theorizing fail to take into account. Over the last quarter century, civilian gun ownership here in the Unites States has more than doubled. There are, by most estimates, nearly 400 million civilian-owned guns in this country (and probably far more).
At the same time, firearms-related crime has sunk to historic lows. We live in a country awash in guns that’s also remarkably safe and, other than a few notable urban exceptions, largely free of “gun violence.” If guns possess the mystical properties to beguile and corrupt those unlucky enough to come in contact with them, how could that possibly be?
We’ve run some posts recently describing how a couple of gun owners argue the pro-gun side. Both cases, however, pre-suppose the person on the other side of the argument is open to and capable of rational thought regarding the subject. We’re not sure there’s anything short of an exorcism that might reach an Ivy League intellect like Chelsey Kivland’s.