Are We Driving That Train?

Each day in the U.S., 90 people die by firearms. This isn’t gun violence. This is population control.

It’s like Joon-ho Bong’s postapocolyptic film The Snowpiercer, in which a dictator balances a segregated class system by occasionally encouraging popular rebellion. Because a good firefight culls the numbers. In not acting to abate gun violence, we too are complicit in if not explicitly encouraging small scale rebellions that end in more deaths for the disenfranchised.

To see the population control in the U.S.’s lack of response to gun violence, it’s important to look at who’s dying. Of those 90 deaths a day by firearms, 60 are suicides. That’s an annual 21,900 fewer mental health cases or otherwise down-and-outers for the U.S. to worry about — and pay for.

The U.S. doesn’t prioritize recognizing much less treating mental illness. In government budget cuts, per Forbes, “mental and behavioral health services are often on the chopping block first.” Because of our failure to curb gun violence so, I would add, are the mentally ill. Missouri State Rep. Jeanne Kirkton explains that citizens with mental illness “are by and large invisible people to many state legislators, so they’re the easier cuts to make without having a big backlash.” Budget makers are to blame but so are we all, as we accept their values without backlash.

30 of the 90 deaths a day are homicide victims. Per the FBI, more than half of those victims are men of color. Almost twice as many black men in their 20’s and 30’s die in shootings than do their white counterparts. As Kirkton says of people with mental illness, young men of color are “by and large invisible people to many state legislators, so they’re the easier cuts to make without having a big backlash.”

NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro points out that “despite mass shootings — and despite some 80 to 90 percent of Americans saying they are in favor of background checks — no legislation expanding on the 1993 Brady Bill has passed Congress.” Politicians sometimes speak to the issue, especially when shooting victims are less invisible, like in recent campus shootings. But as Montanaro reminds us, “for all they’re proposing, this is largely about politics. Not much of what they propose will get through Congress.”

The Snowpiercer‘s train and society designer Wilford uses class warfare to maintain social order. He orchestrates rebellions, predetermining how far the rebels will advance and how many on each side will die. Because his closed system begs population control and because, as he explains to the rebel leader, “you need to maintain a proper balance of anxiety and fear and chaos and horror in order to keep life going.”

Perhaps our government isn’t as darkly pragmatic as that of The Snowpiercer whose Minister Mason calculates, “precisely 74% of you will die.” Perhaps here, there’s no governmental understanding that gun violence is useful. But I think it’s reasonable to suspect that most of our elected officials would rather ignore this problem, and that they can ignore this problem because the majority of the victims of gun violence are not likely to be powerful constituents. Like recent Wisconsin State Rep. Sandy Pasch says of mental health, “it’s not one of the heavily lobbied groups.”

I’ve at times waxed romantic about revolution. There’s something desperately impressive in rebelling against an unjust system. But it seems that relatively unchecked gun ownership in the U.S. leads not to an attack on the system, or to an attack on our systemic injustices, but rather to attacks on individuals. In not rebelling against gun violence, we’ve institutionalized mentalism and racism. Perhaps this is why school shootings shock the nation, but the daily deaths of the disenfranchised seem somehow less surprising, and even expected.

Unless those in power really do mirror Joon-ho Bong’s cli-fi antagonist Wilford, there’s nothing expected about the deaths of individuals by firearm. Unless, of course, this is what we ourselves expect of one another.

Aim higher, America.

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