IDEOLOGY AND GUN CONTROL

Raymond G. Kessler

 

 

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¦Reprinted by Permission of: ¦

¦Quarterly Journal of Ideology ¦

¦Vol. 12 #2(1988) pp. 1-13. ¦

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            Ideologies are important in understanding changes in law and its enforcement, and while some work is being done on "ideologies of crime," much work is still in its early stages (Greenburg, 1981:26, 193). Others (e.g., Bohm, 1986:193) have noted that only limited attention has been given to critical analyses of our assumptions about crime and crime control. Further, very little has been done to explain conflicts between liberals and conservatives sharing the same general ideology. The purpose of this article is to attempt to contribute to this area by offering some very general hypotheses explaining the gun control controversy in terms of ideology and related factors. Support for gun control can be understood in terms of the functions of ideology. The ideology of gun control serves class, individual psychological, and other interests of both elites and non elites.

 

            Most of the work on ideology and criminal justice policy has been done by "critical," "radical" and "Marxist" scholars (e.g. 1979; Reiman, 1984; Bohm, 1986). In an effort to build on their work, this article will utilize these related perspectives to analyze the dominant ideology of crime and to elucidate some of the functions of ideology of crime and to elucidate some of the functions of ideology.1

 

Ideology And Crime

 

In general, those who control the economic or material forces in a society, control that society's intellectual forces thus, the ideology of the dominant classes becomes the dominant ideology (Marx and Engles, 1970:64-67). This control of consciousness is the most important nonviolent mechanism by which elites maintain their positions and justify social and economic inequality. Ideological hegemony is sustained in part by the constant diffusion and elaboration of the dominant ideology and exclusion of competing ideologies (see Wolfe, 1974:50; Milbrand, 1977:Ch.3). "Ideologies foster the suppression and repression of some interests, even as they give expression to others." (Gouldner, 1976:28). Further, the interests of the dominant class appear to be common interests of all members of society. These interests are expressed in ideal form and appear to be the only rational, universally valid one (Marx and Engels, 1970:65-66; Gouldner, 1976:28). However, this does not necessarily mean that theirs is conscious deception or manipulation by those involved in the creation and dissemination of ideas and information, including the mass media. They sincerely believe in the accuracy of their version of reality, and because of their power, their ideology becomes that of most individuals (Reiman, 1984:130-131).

 

Contemporary American theorizing about government, economics and crime is dominated by those who support capitalism in one form or another. The consensus is, however, not perfect and there is conflict over specific policies among various powerful pro-capitalist factions (Domhoff 1978:117-l19). In the "political arena one sees not only classes, but fractions of classes and alliances of classes and class fractions" (Greenberg, 1981:193). To the extent there is any meaningful debate about issues, it centers around the differences between liberals and conservatives over their differing versions of the ideal capitalist society (Gordon, 1977:Ch.1).

 

The Dominant Ideology of Crime

 

One component of the dominant ideology is an "ideology of crime" Quinney, 1979:194) which includes conceptions of both the causation and amelioration of crime. The dominant ideology of crime in America has two major branches, and a number of aspects of these “liberal” and “conservative” approaches to crime (i.e., "ideologies of crime" have been discussed elsewhere (Gordon, 1977:Ch.6; Miller, 1978; Walker, 1986:Pt. 2,4). Suffice it to say that while each approach includes criticisms of different allegedly criminogenic details of American life, neither seriously addresses the role of the political economy of a capitalist society in the generation of violence. While much liberal rhetoric focuses on the need for major social reform to deal with crime, liberal policies rarely go beyond "social tinkering" (Walker, 1986:212,220). For instance, "neither liberal democrats nor conservative republicans have offered a realistic program for massive job creation" (Walker, 1986:220) or any program that seriously dealt with basic structural problems (Walker, 1986;212) or class dominance.

 

Most of the public, social scientists, and politicians subscribe to the dominant (i.e., contemporary American capitalist) ideology of crime. This ideology includes the assumption that it is possible to create an effective but still humanitarian system of crime control under the present economic and political framework. Proposals for reform are invariably formulated within a structure of corporate capitalism and designed to shape new adjustments to existing political and economic conditions. Radical solutions to the crime problem are rejected and labeled "utopian" (see Platt, 1974:357-359; Greenberg, 1981:9; Reiman, 1984:118-135).

 

The Assumptions of Gun Control

 

In order to examine the ideological dimensions of gun control policies, it is necessary to discuss some of the assumptions underlying these policies. Although different gun control advocates utilize different approaches, their basic assumptions are generally of two types--the "causal model" and the "relative lethality" model."

 

The causal model assumes that firearms somehow cause, stimulate or, at the very least, facilitate or encourage violent crime. A prominent police organization (quoted is Alviani and Drake, 1975;52) concludes that “there is a causal connection between the easy availability of firearms and juvenile and youth criminal behavior. . . .” A former Attorney General (Clark, 1970:104) contends that "easy access to guns causes thousands of preventable murders. . . ." A psychologist contends (Berkowitz, 1986:22) that firearms "not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger."

 

The relative lethality model rests on the thesis that most homicides and assaults are not premeditated but result from relatively spontaneous outbursts of violence generated by disputes between spouses, friends, neighbors, etc. It is not contended that firearms cause the dispute. The assumption is that if there is a gun available, the enraged disputant is likely to use it. If a gun is not available, other weapons (e.g., knives, clubs, etc.) will be used. Proponents of this model argue that guns are markedly more lethal than other weapons and that by eliminating guns less harm will be inflicted by the attacker (see Newton and Zimring, 1970:Ch. 7).

 

Ideological Functions

 

Conceptions of crime and crime control are perpetuated because they serve a variety of group and individual psychological interests, not just the system-maintenance interests of elites. Analysis must extend beyond elite interests, and public support for the dominant ideology can be explained at least in part by the fact that this ideology also serves other interests including the short term interests of the public (see Bohm, 1986:l99,200; Grundy and Weinstein, 1974:307).

 

The Elite

 

The dominant ideology of crime (see Reiman 1984:Ch. 2) has at least two facets clearly relevant here. First is a focus on one-on-one harm. This focus keeps attention diverted away from the more serious forms of social harms caused or tolerated by elites such as death and injury from occupational diseases and hazards, pollution, and infant mortality among the poor (Reiman 1984:Ch. 2).

 

Second, when holding individuals and groups legally responsible and/or morally responsible for crime, it is implicitly assumed that fundamental social or economic conditions are not responsible (Reimar,, 1984: 119). Blaming gun owners, the "gun lobby," and/or gun manufacturers, or guns in general, diverts attention away from other more basic factors. The relative lethality model takes disputes, their intensity, and the willingness to use violence in general to settle disputes, as givens rather than conditions to be explained and ameliorated by reference to basic social or economic features. Both models ignore the possibility that the causes of violent crime may be in the political, racial and economic inequality, unemployment alienation and value distortion generated by capitalism (see Bonger 1916:Pt. 2).

 

A specific example of these ideological functions is the frequently drawn regional comparisons of homicide rates. Both are higher in the South and the conclusion drawn is that there is some type of causal connection between the two rates (e.g. Alviani and Drake, 1975:102). What such speculation ignores is the persuasive evidence that the high late of criminal violence in the South is due mainly to the lower prevailing socioeconomic conditions of the region" (Wright, Rossi and Daly, 1983:13).

 

            Because elimination of these alleged causes might require radical changes in the political and economic structure (Quinney 1974:186-192), it is in the interest of those who benefit disproportionately from the status quo, including those whose reforms are limited to "social tinkering," to keep attention focused on convenient scapegoats such as firearms.2

 

The Public

 

Public opinion polls consistently show that a majority of Americans support all but the most extreme forms of gun control. (Wright, Rossi and Daly, 1983:221-222, 140-141). In addition to being generally consistent with elite interests and the dominant ideology of crime, there are additional factors explaining such support.

 

Bohm (1986:200) notes that many ideas about crime control are accepted by non elites and the public in general because such ideas (l) offer identities, (2) aid comprehension by creating the appearance of order, and (3) help create common bonds reinforcing a sense of community.

 

Some individuals find it comforting to think of themselves as non-violent, law-abiding citizens. Not owning a gun and advocating gun control provides a sense of worth which distinguishes one from the "rednecks," criminals, and right-wing extremists popularly associated with gun ownership.

 

            Blaming violence on guns is comforting in that it creates an explanation and illusion of order by simplifying complex phenomena. For instance, one of the major contradictions confronting Americans is that their relatively wealthy and technologically advanced nation is still plagued by violent crime (Bohm, 1986:203). If gun ownership -- a supposedly irrational carryover from frontier days (e.g.. Hofstadter, 1970)--is a cause, the contradiction lessens and a solution appears.

 

            A number of groups and organizations specifically dedicated to gun control have been formed (see Alviani and Drake, 1983:49-50). The idea that gun control is a solution to criminal violence; and a fear of guns, gun owners, and gun crime may be creating a sense of community among those sharing these ideas.

 

The Media

 

            Most of the mass media is composed of profit-making institutions. Even if they were to consider the possibility, it is not in their interest to seriously critique the ideology of capitalism and the capitalist ideology of crime, irrespective of the profit-nonprofit distinction. The media are largely controlled-by or dependent upon-large corporations and diffuse the dominant ideology of crime (Bohm, 1986:204-206). Further, given the possibility that violence in the media stimulates real world violence (see Garofalo, 1981:329), it is in the interest of the media to point out other possible criminogenic factors such as guns. Thus, many segments of the media, including the nation's most prestigious newspapers and large circulation magazines, either favor gun control or exhibit some anti-gun bias (Kennett and Anderson, 1975:236-239; Bullert, 1979; Shields. 1981:89-92; Kukla, 1972:64-67, 206-207, Tonso, 1983).

 

Academicians, Criminal Justice Officials and Others

 

            Most social scientists, lawyers, writers, agencies, and organizations operate within the framework provided by the dominant ideology of crime (Currie 1971; Quinney, 1974:32-46). Gun control is supported by many, but not all, criminologists (e.g., Haskell and Yablonsky, 1978:593; Zimring and Hawkins, 1987), sociologists (e.g. Etzioni 1968:50-51), attorneys (e.g. Clark, 1970:Ch. 7) and historians (e.g., Hofstadter, 1970). Many mainstream crime control, religious, political and other types of groups, including the Committee for Economic Development and American Bar Association support further gun control (see Alviani and Drake, 1975:48-54). Further, firearm controls are supported by numerous politicians, wealthy individuals and entertainers and much of the business community (see Shields, 1981:88, 96-101,183-184).

 

            To challenge the dominant ideology of crime and its corollaries, such as the models of gun control, might create cognitive dissonance for individuals. For both academicians and practitioners, challenges to the prevailing approaches may limit opportunities for employment, grants, advancement, and service on prestigious commissions and committees (Bohm, 1986:206-207).

 

A number of mayors, prominent police chiefs, and police organizations have been supporters of gun control (Alviani and Drake, 1975:v,52; Library of Congress, 1981:2; U.S. Senate, 1976). This reaction, however, may be one designed to deflect criticisms of inadequate police protection, especially in low income areas, and inadequate responses to the problem of domestic violence.

 

Government Commissions.

 

The Government sponsored commissions and committees which have studied the problems of crime and violence are primarily composed of leading social scientists and criminal justice officials and have often been class-biased groups seeking to insure that crime control policies favor the interests of the dominant classes (Quinney, 1974:55-86; Currie. 1971). Most, if not all, of these commissions, committees, etc., recommend some additional forms of control on firearms (see Newton and Zimring, 1970:App. A.; Alviani and Drake, 1983:47-48).

 

Liberals and Conservatives

 

At this point, it is appropriate to address an obvious issue. If, as explained above, gun control is consistent with the dominant ideology of crime, we ought to have more of it, as do most western European nations, and it ought not to be so controversial. To deal with this inconsistency, it is necessary to turn to a more detailed examination of the liberal-conservative dimension of American crime control ideology.

 

Means and Goals

 

As discussed above, the two perspectives comprising the dominant ideology of crime are the conservative and liberal. Liberals and conservatives are alike in that both are willing to use repressive measures, including criminal sanctions, and seek the same goal crime control within a capitalist political economy (Gordon, 1977:355-361). They differ, however, in the choice of specific means. Conservatives, for example, stress incapacitation, deterrence, and capital punishment, and oppose gun control (Walker, 1986:Pt.2,3). Although there are exceptions, liberals, tend to favor rehabilitation and gun control and oppose capital punishment (Walker. 1986:pt. 3,4). Zimring and Hawkins (1987:Ch. 17) offer two related explanations for the gun control controversy. Liberals tend to stress institutional causes of crime, while conservatives focus on individual responsibility. This conservative approach, which may have its roots in eighteenth and nineteenth century "Classical" theories of criminology, negates any need for social change to deal with crime. Liberals, under the influence of the social sciences, point to environmental or social causes to justify their "within-the-system" reforms. Guns are seen as a social or environmental cause. Conservatives, on the other hand, view gun control as an unacceptable shift away from focusing on individual responsibility.

 

Relatedly, conservatives tend to view "criminals" as a distinct class apart from the rest or society, while liberals view criminals as normal people subjected to social or economic disadvantage and criminogenic factors such as gun ownership. Conservatives are generally not opposed to keeping guns out of the hands of the "dangerous classes" (e.g.. convicted felons). However, they see no value and much social harm in keeping guns out of the hands of the law abiding (Zimring and Hawkins, 1987, Ch.l2, 17). Some additional factors of relevance are examined below.

 

Conservatives

 

While some gun ownership and opposition to gun control may be explained by situational factors, such as fear of crime, it is clear that cultural and, ultimately, ideological factors also play a role (Young. 1986; Wright, Rossi and Daly, 1983:Ch. 5, 6).

 

The most important factor is a link with the values of an older rural or frontier culture (see Kennett and Anderson, 1975; Stinchomebe, et al., 1980:Ch. 5; Wright, Rossi and Daly, 1983:112-122; Kessler, 1987). Survey results consistently show that ownership and opposition are highest in rural areas and in the South and West (Wright, Rossi and Daly. 1983:104-107 Flanagan and McGarrell, 1986;190-20l). Gun owners are unlikely to see gun ownership as part of the problem and themselves as contributing to it (Stinchombe et al., 1980:Ch. 5; Smith, 1980:307,312). Conversely, support for gun control is highest where gun ownership is lowest. These same rural and regional patterns hold even for those who don't own guns (Stinchombe, et al., 1980:Ch 5; Smith, 1980:307,312). Conservatives tend to be more oriented toward American tradition including "frontier values" and "rugged individualism;” gun ownership is part of that tradition (Kennett and Anderson, 1975:247-256).

 

Capital punishment was a more traditional response to murder than gun control. Conservative politicians are more likely to represent, identify with, or be a part of a rural, farm, and small town constituency with a relatively high rate of firearms ownership (see Kennett and Anderson, 1975:238-239, 244-245; Seitz, l1978; Wright, Rossi and Daly, 1983:Ch. 6). Although the evidence is far from conclusive, some studies show a positive relationship between gun ownership and opposition to controls on the one hand, and punitiveness on the other. "Punitiveness," defined as support for capital punishment and harsher punishments (Stinchombe, et al., 1981:Ch. 5; Smith, 1980:308. 314-315), is consistent with American traditions and conservatism (Walker, 1986:Pt.2).

 

Until recently at least, the major push for gun control legislation was at the federal level (Bowditch, 1951). Unlike liberals who are generally "much more likely to use the state as an instrument of corporate rule," conservatives are "reluctant to see the means of repression centralized in a federal bureaucracy in Washington" (Wolfe. 1974:57). Conservatives are thus generally opposed to federal solutions such as federal gun control, and prefer state and local solutions such as harsher punishments. However, even local gun controls tends to be opposed by conservatives because it is inconsistent with the traditional values discussed above.

 

Liberals

 

Liberal politicians are less likely to represent areas with high rates of gun ownership and thus face less opposition to gun control (see Kennett and Anderson, 1975:238-245; Seitz, 1978; Smith, 1980; Stinchcombe, et al., 1980:Ch. 5). In the political arena, public posturing by liberals about the need for gun control helps satisfy strong public pressure that something be done about crime in a manner consistent with the dominant ideology of crime. Gun control is the liberal version of "law and order"; the crime problem can be blamed on conservatives, the "gun lobby" and "rednecks" who oppose the liberal panacea. Vigorous advocacy of gun control puts conservatives in a defensive posture and helps blunt their efforts to implement alternative means of crime control. Advocacy of firearms controls may be, "at least in part, a strategy to divert the mob away from the issue of capital punishment" (Bruce-Briggs, 1976:61) and other "taboo" issues such as race, I.Q., and crime (see Sagarin, 1980). Another explanation may flow out of the tendency of liberals to identify with and seek political support from the poor and minorities who are apparently disproportionately responsible for one-on-one violent crime (see Netter, 1982:60-61; Flanagan and McGarrell 1986:421). When liberals hear of an especially revolting murder, they, like most people, feel anger or hostility toward the offender. The discomfort of having inconsistent feelings can be alleviated by transferring the anger away from the offender to an inanimate object--the gun.

 

Blaming the Gun

 

Another useful perspective for understanding liberal support for gun control is found in William Ryan's (1976) Blaming The victim. The dominant ideology of poverty and other social problems serves ideological functions similar to the ideology of gun control. Although Ryan says little or nothing about gun laws, his approach can be applied to it, for both "blaming the victim" (i.e. focusing on individual defects caused by '"cultural deprivation" and "blaming the gun" serve the long-term interests of elites and the short-term interests of others.

 

Most liberals, like most other Americans, are from, aspire to. or have found a place in the middle or upper classes. They enjoy, or anticipate enjoying, the political, social and economic benefits the capitalist system provides for members of their class. They are aware of the problems of crime. racism, poverty, etc., and feel something must be done. Unlike conservatives with a similar awareness, liberals tend to want government to do something about the problems. Liberals tend to view conservative solutions as old-fashioned and even repugnant (Ryan, 1976:Ch. l) - Like conservatives, however, they reject radical reform because it is inconsistent with their perceived self-interest. For instance, a "more equitable distribution of income might mean [they] would have less. . . ." (Ryan, 1976:28). Liberals thus face a conflict between their humanitarian impulses and their own self-interest. The solution is to blame the victim and the gun. By doing so, however, they may be "inevitably blinding themselves to the basic causes" of the problem (Ryan, 1976:29). While Ryan does not address the ideological dimensions of gun control, such policies may be among what he (Ryan, 1976:26) describes as "make-believe liberal programs" which evade basic issues and serve the interests of dominant groups.

 

Conclusion

 

Simple explanations in a complex world provide a sense of order and a potential for control and security (Bohm, 1986). There is much support for those (either conservative or liberal) who can promise quick solutions through means which do not challenge fundamental conceptions.

 

Gun control is a policy consistent with the dominant ideology of crime. While such consistency can explain support for the policy, it does not explain opposition by others who also subscribe to the dominant ideology. Fuller explanation has required an examination of other factors operating within the general area defined by the dominant ideology of crime.

 

Footnotes

 

1. The empirical validity of any of the various ideologues of crime or theories of the relationship between firearms and violence discussed here is irrelevant to this inquiry. All theories or conceptions of human behavior, whether true or false, serve or potentially serve ideological functions.

 

2.         The term "social tinkering" is borrowed from Walker (1986:212,220). Conversely, those who are hostile to the basic economic structure would tend to seek. the causes of crime in that structure.

 

3.         An example of liberal opposition to new controls on firearms is Kates(1979)


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