On fear, action, legislation and the BDN concealed weapons permit “scandal”

I have been struggling to better understand why I was unsettled to my core by the concealed weapons permit hoopla that occurred last week and has, by way of inspiring the passing of emergency legislation, carried over into this one.

On one hand, I was outraged by the response of those claiming to act in the name of protecting gun rights. Those who reacted with such intensity overlooked the fact that in the request for permit information, it was made clear that the data would not be published wholesale (as the Journal News had in December). As a means of justifying the force of their response, the outraged asserted themselves as experts in journalism, insisting there is absolutely no way to synthesize raw data into research for a feature and that it was obvious that the paper would be publishing it outright.

In retrospect it seems that the paper could have done a better job in preparing for the clearly inevitable shit-storm, but since it is a week later and guys like this are spending time on the BDN Facebook page drawing parallels between an imagined plight and the plight of rape victims, it is hard to tell what a series of rational, resonant preparatory steps would have looked like.

At the same time, when people make the suggestion that this is an issue of some putting the Second Amendment before the First, I push back. In fact, late last week I spent two hours talking about this with someone, trying to get a better sense of how she could not understand how permit holders come to feel upset by the fact that a the Journal News published permit holder information wholesale. Anyone who asks, “Where’s the pride in their responsible ownership?” is willfully looking the other way on the fact that permit holders are citizens who have taken the steps to do things legally and by the book and in this way, it is arguably understandable how they might feel uneasy about being inserted into a popular narrative, true or not, that is tells a scary story about the proliferation of firearms in our anarchic, bloody society. Combine this with the oft-perpetuated myths about the road to fascism being paved with anti-gun sentiment and legislation, and we find ourselves with a volatile constituency.

I am in a position similar to the one in which those who claimed to be up in arms and attempted to shame this paper into some kind of apology while assessing what is and is not journalism are. I have the luxury of looking at the BDN from the safety of outside of the decision-making process, from where I can say that I am disappointed that the paper backed down. I believe that doing so made this fabricated situation all for naught and a win for reactionaries everywhere.

And I have the luxury of being disappointed with the overwhelming majority of state  politicians who pushed through the emergency legislation, as I do not have to worry about money from the NRA flooding my next race, painting me as a freedom-hating communist. I do not have to worry about being on the receiving end of scorn from the Sportsman’s Alliance, which claims this issue is about guns when it is really about jumping to conclusions, not backing down on zealousness and mob mentality, and giving into fear rather than fostering transparency and access.

Sure, rhetorical cases for danger could be made by way of claims that the locations of at-risk domestic abuse victims might be made public should the aforementioned data be published wholesale, or homes might be targeted for robberies, but since this was never the intention of the paper these points are moot. When it was made clear that the BDN was explicit about their self-imposed limits from the start, the reactionaries pivoted, claiming that the newspaper simply couldn’t be trusted. This is why I push back when I hear people suggest that this was an issue of the Second Amendment trumping the First, as, at its core, I don’t know that this had much to do with guns to begin with. Americans have a rich history of fabricating monsters to slay, particularly preemptively. This is, after all, a popular and reoccurring model for the inspiration and implementation of damaging action and legislation.

I cared about issues here and there when I was in high school, but it was when I graduated into the Bush Administration’s America that I really came of political age. The lead up to the invasion of Iraq unsettled me to my core. The Administration, aided by representatives of an ideological interest that promoted virtues of American Empire, asked us to look at Iraq while they insisted, “There is a potential danger in that country, and so we should occupy them so that said danger is never realized.” Unsettled by the attacks of 9/11, and convinced Iraq looked a lot like another country that housed a guy who was the mastermind of that terrible thing that happened to us, we found ourselves persuaded. And so even though they’re alike in that they’re countries but still have nothing to do with each other, America was sold a war.

The news agencies put a hold on criticism, and Congresspeople on both sides of the spectrum, whether or not they believed this was a good idea, agreed to the act because any other choice would have had dire short-term political repercussions. We ended up in a conflict that resulted in tremendous loss of life, a weakening of our national security, decimation of civil liberties, astronomical debt, the creation of new terrorist safe havens and a number of other problematic repercussions, only to be informed later that the threat of said danger never existed in the first place.

It is no secret that Governor LePage is an enthusiastic permit holder, and aligns himself with the perspectives of gun rights interest groups. And it is no secret that unless it has to do with shining a light on numbers, he is no friend of access or transparency. That he touted a fabricated fear pertaining to the former issue as a means of rallying a majority against the latter comes as no surprise. The results may be sloppy and dangerous, but fear lubricates the process of lawmaking far better than reason and transparency, particularly when the laws being created are designed to limit access. The emergency legislation is supposedly temporary, and the issue will be deliberated at a later date, but when it comes up again, will politicians risk “flip-flopping” or open themselves up to the scrutiny of a tenacious gun lobby with money to burn? I find that hard to imagine.

And so whenever I see an administration, interest group, mob or some combination of the three say something to the effect of, “This thing is potentially dangerous,” before rallying their collection of troops to act with an imaginary fear tattooed on their hearts, I get nervous. In this way the LePage Administration, secretive and perpetually accusatory, makes me nervous most of the time. It is not, however, until I see news organizations and political institutions buckle in the face of this brand of collective intimidation that my heart breaks and I grow fearful. The news organizations might lose advertisers and congresspeople their seats in the short-term, indeed, and thus reason is distorted accordingly. In watching these things unfold, the observant are reminded that monied interests, intimidation and fear determine our fate more than most care to admit.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.