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How To Enjoy Shooting

Todd McGowan

June 1, 2022

After each mass shooting that occurs in the United States, liberals wonder if this will be the one that changes public opinion against the easy availability of guns. And each time, disappointment follows, as American attitudes toward guns remain just as they were prior to the shooting. The liberals continue to be surprised that the more shootings, the less desire, it seems, to change the situation that produces them. Typically, the only effect of a shooting is that it increases the quantity of guns present in the society, as gun owners run out to buy additional arms and previous holdouts decide to take the plunge and arm themselves. The fact that no number of senseless deaths has the ability to change people’s minds about the legal status of firearms indicates that the attachment to this violence is libidinal, that gun violence is crucial to a prevalent form of American enjoyment.

We know that a form of enjoyment is at stake precisely because the way to put a stop to mass shootings is easily discernible and realizable for anyone looking into the problem. The solution to the epidemic of gun violence in the US is not a great mystery that we need to research and ponder. One cannot emphasize this point too strongly: When one looks at the rates of gun violence in other nations in comparison with those in the US, it quickly becomes evident that simply lessening the number of firearms and regulating them through the law would almost immediately bring this violence under control, as the case of reform in Australia reveals. Other countries' attitudes towards guns are instructive in other ways as well. It subverts, for example, the oft suggested idea that gun violence reflects human nature. Clearly, other nations are populated with people who share this same nature. The only genuine question is why the nation doesn’t take the necessary steps to reduce the number of guns in the country and restrict who can own them.

This question encourages us to think about the relationship between mass shooting and the psyche. There must be some psychic benefit to the proliferation of firearms and their widespread use in violent acts. I want to suggest that the increasing possession and use of firearms in the US facilitates a right-wing form of enjoyment. This enjoyment becomes apparent in the rightist response to mass shootings. It is what gives the American addiction to guns its staying power.

Right-wing enjoyment is an enjoyment always under siege. For this to occur, there has to be an endless supply of enemies or omnipresent threats. If these threats don’t exist then they have to be fantasized into existence. In this form of enjoyment, one’s own form of life takes on a value because an enemy is always trying to take it away. Under the spell of this enjoyment, the danger that this enemy poses increases my own sense of worth. I can enjoy otherwise banal activities when I know that someone is trying to take them away from me. If I know that communists want to take away all my possessions, for instance, the tedious act of driving my car to work can become replete with enjoyment. Every mass shooting confirms the existence of such a threat, just as communism did during the Cold War. Mass shootings let those championing guns know that enemies lurk everywhere and that we must be constantly vigilant against them. They are not just an unfortunate side effect of the freedom to bear arms but are themselves integral to the enjoyment that guns provide.

Each shooting underlines the extent to which we are in danger and require weaponry to protect ourselves. But what becomes masked in the mania for protection is that protection is never the point of calls for more protection. The point is establishing a threat to defend ourselves against. If everyone possesses firearms, then everyone represents a potential threat. This is why rightist forces promulgate the widespread distribution of firearms. It is essential for advancing a right-wing form of enjoyment.

One would think that each mass shooting illustrates the folly of the belief that the widespread availability of firearms leads to more safety for the society. But after each shooting, rightists proclaim the need to even more armaments, for greater capacities for defense, for more hardening of targets. Since it is readily apparent that these purported solutions are only ways of avoiding the one genuine solution, we should not be deceived by what they explicitly argue for. The point of such arguments is not to increase public safety but to destroy the public as such, to foster the emergence of a world in which everyone is a potential enemy. If everyone is a potential enemy, my opportunities for enjoyment are exponentially multiplied. Such a world is a right-wing utopia: I must constantly defend myself against ubiquitous threats eager to steal what is most precious to me—either my valued possessions or my life. The preciousness of what I have is established through the enemy that wants to take it or destroy it. The Right promotes guns as a response to gun violence in order to further the establishment of a world where I am constantly in danger. The mass shooting comes along to provide confirmation of this form of enjoyment.

Obviously, no one, not even the most ardent supporter of gun rights, can admit to any enjoyment of the mass shooting. This is where the unconscious plays a central role. A massive operation of disavowal takes place. A fetish object—the freedom or the security associated with the gun—becomes the focus, while the dead children in Uvalde become just the unfortunate victims of a mentally deranged person, not the victims of a collective refusal to adopt the one clear remedy that would eliminate such sacrifices almost immediately. Rather than recognizing that they are enjoying the slaughter, people take refuge in the belief that the gun provides positive, rather than deadly, results. In the end, they have to disavow that they enjoy the brutal death of the most helpless, in order to invest themselves in the fetish of their freedom.

No argument for the gun is a real argument for the gun. All the arguments are not just evidently fallacious but overtly preposterous. A brief survey makes this clear. First, if outlawing guns meant that only outlaws had guns, this would be something to celebrate and would cause the death rate by firearms to plummet. Gun ownership leads to far more deaths for gun owners than to protection against violence. Even those being robbed are more likely to survive if they are unarmed than armed. Second, claiming that we have a mental health problem rather than a gun problem assumes, incredibly, that the United States has a monopoly on mental illness since no other country suffers from the American epidemic of gun violence. And finally, third, the image of an amateur armed militia resisting the combined armed forces of the American state wildly underestimates the firepower of the state.

It takes only a few moments to make clear the speciousness of all the arguments for the current deregulated state of American firearms. And yet, people continue to trot out such arguments, and journalists continue to debate them. What rarely gets discussed, however, is that guns are not actually meant to make the nation safer. They are not meant to make the nation safer. They are the foundation of the psychic operation that facilitates a right-wing form of enjoyment that requires the violence that it wants to build up ramparts against.

Political issues are always conflicts about the distribution of enjoyment. The right-wing defense of unregulated firearms—there is no left-wing defense that is genuinely of the Left—is an argument for enjoyment that masquerades as an argument for freedom. The leftist response must expose this form of enjoyment and put forward an alternative form: perhaps one in which we sacrifice yachts and private jets rather than people.

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