1966: A Turning Point in America’s Gun Culture
The Hidden History of Guns and the 2nd Amendment
1966: A Turning Point in America’s Gun Culture
There are no free and democratic and wealthy countries in the world
that have our rate of gun violence.
—E. J. Dionne, PBS NewsHour
In October 2017, Stephen Paddock rained down bullets on concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. By the time Paddock shot himself and ended the massacre, he had shot 58 people to death and injured 851 others.
Following the massacre, criminologist Grant Duwe documented for the Washington Post that between 1916 and 1966, there had been only been 25 mass public shootings.1
Since Charles Whitman climbed the University of Texas clock tower in 1966, well over 1,000 people have been killed in more than 150 public mass shootings. That figure includes the February 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.2 By the time you read this book, those figures will certainly be even higher.
Many authors use the University of Texas clock tower shooting in 1966 to mark a sharp divide in American history in terms of gun violence. But Whitman’s massacre wasn’t a lone incident that set the United States on course to be the only developed country on earth where public mass shootings regularly occur.
In late 1966, the United States was in the throes of social transformation:
More and more young people were turning out to protest the illegal war in Vietnam and to speak out against what they saw as the sacrifice of an entire generation in a senseless war-for-profit.
Civil rights activist James Meredith was shot by a white gunman while Meredith marched to highlight ongoing racism in the South despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While Meredith and other civil rights activists felt that social transformation was happening too slowly, southern white racists felt that their world was being turned upside down.
A reactionary B-movie-actor-turned-politician named Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, promising to “send the welfare bums back to work” and to “clean up the mess at Berkeley.”3
Between the Vietnam War and racist gun violence, America was already steeped in gun violence before 1966, but not the same type of mass killings that we’ve seen since August 1966. America’s racist gun culture had been well established throughout American history.
As of this writing, October 2018 was a high-water mark for white male terror in America. Donald Trump was on the campaign trail for Republicans in the lead-up to the midterm elections, and he spent much of the month stoking fears about a migrant “caravan” approaching the United States from Central America. But while Trump stoked fear about a faceless nonwhite horde approaching the United States, white nationalists and anti-Semites repeatedly made headlines for various acts of terror.
On October 15, Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced that Portland police had found a “cache of firearms” during an extreme-right-wing rally in August. A group called Patriot Prayer had hosted the march for “law and order,” harking back to the tried-and-true southern-strategy dog whistle. The event had national attention from the moment it was announced, as citizens in Portland organized for a counterprotest. The August protest sparked a brief national debate about political violence; a minute-long melee had broken out between the two groups before police intervened.
Wheeler’s announcement may have surprised some, especially since two months had passed and no one had reported on the weapons cache, even though police reportedly discovered the stockpiled weapons before the event. Wheeler told reporters, “The Portland Police Bureau discovered individuals who positioned themselves on a rooftop parking structure in downtown Portland with a cache of firearms.”4
According to police, the guns were unloaded, one was disassembled, and the men all had concealed carry permits, so the police simply told them to put the guns in a locked container, and then they left them alone. It’s hard to imagine a similar outcome if police had found a group of Black Lives Matter activists with a stash of guns, unloaded or otherwise, in a parking garage.
Later in October 2018, a bomb arrived at the home of billionaire George Soros. Soros was likely targeted because he was a big supporter of Democratic causes and a survivor of the Holocaust. That made him the perfect person for right-wing conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites, and white nationalists to focus on as the ultimate bad guy. Soros had been blamed for everything from “inventing global warming” to funding the migrant “caravan” that dominated much of the news cycle in October 2018.
On October 26, police arrested Cesar Sayoc, an avowed Trump supporter from Florida. In total he mailed 13 packages to high-profile Democrats, including former Attorney General Eric Holder and actor and activist Robert De Niro, along with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama. He also mailed one package to CNN.
The thread tying all of the targets together was that they were all people whom Trump had insulted or otherwise disparaged during his rallies. Trump, of course, denied any influence on Sayoc’s actions, even though Trump offered to pay his supporters’ legal fees for assaulting protesters5 and even suggested that “the Second Amendment people” might have somehow stopped Hillary Clinton if she had won the 2016 election.6
On October 27, an anti-Semite named Robert Bowers shot 11 people to death in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the weeks leading up Bowers’s anti-Semitic attack, he had posted online about his handgun collection, which included 21 registered handguns. He also spent time online blaming Jewish people for supporting the migrant caravan, much like what Cesar Sayoc seemed to believe.
Minutes before he entered the synagogue, Bowers posted online, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”7
All these headlines dwarfed the defacing of a string of synagogues with anti-Semitic graffiti over the course of October, from California8 to Brooklyn.9
On November 2, a 40-year-old white man named Scott Beierle entered a yoga studio in Tallahassee, Florida, and shot six people, killing two women before he killed himself. In the aftermath of the shooting, reporters found that Beierle had posted a series of online videos espousing misogyny and blaming women who refused to sleep with him or date him, echoing decades of American men who have picked up guns and committed murder in the pursuit of “masculinity.”10
These headlines represent a growing trend of right-wing male violence in America. As the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) notes, “Terrorist attacks by right-wing extremists in the United States have increased. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of such attacks was five or less per year. They then rose to 14 in 2012; continued at a similar level between 2012 and 2016, with a mean of 11 attacks and a median of 13 attacks; and then jumped to 31 in 2017. FBI arrests of right-wing extremists also increased in 2018.”11
In that same report, CSIS states that the weapons of choice for right-wing terrorist attacks are firearms: 37 percent of right-wing attacks between 2007 and 2017 were committed with firearms. The second-most-common weapons for right-wing extremists are incendiary devices, such as pipe bombs, accounting for 35 percent of right-wing attacks over the same decade.12
As of this writing, the murder of a dozen people at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, on November 7, 2018, was the 307th mass shooting of the year. USA Today reported that 328 people were killed, 1,251 were injured, and thousands of families were shattered.
USA Today noted that the California mass shooting “came during three weeks of hate and terror that have jolted the country [in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections]: a bloodbath at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 elderly people dead and a series of 16 pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats, CNN and critics of President Donald Trump.”13
But in the long run, it was the southern-strategy race-baiting of Richard Nixon; the reactionary economics of Ronald Reagan; and the hate-driven “othering” of Mexicans, African-Americans, and Muslims by Donald Trump that collectively transformed America economically and socially.
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