By Alex Ainsley
On Thursday, the Pursuit of Just conference featured Dr. Christopher Strain and his lecture “Evil Black Guns: Hate, Instrumentality, and the Neutrality of Firearms.” Dr. Strain’s primary contention is that in the wake of mass shootings in Tucson, Aurora, and Sandy Hook, it has become increasingly difficult to view guns as neutral actors in the gun control debate. He explores the prevailing view of guns as neutral actors exemplified in the tautology “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This view, that technology is value-neutral, is known as instrumentalism. Examining what he calls “technological determinism,” Dr. Strain challenges the notion that guns are inert actors in this debate. He argues guns, in fact, do change peoples’ behavior and makes them more likely to respond to certain situations with aggression or violence. He cites an increasing body of research from scholars like Frank Zimring and Bruno Latour to prove his point.
Strain further contends that if guns are not neutral, then they must be either good or bad. He believes that they could hardly be considered good. Therefore, even if you use them for self-defense or hunting, society should view them through the conceptual framework of a necessary evil.
Finally, Dr. Strain examined the link between guns and hate. He believes that in the United States, particularly on the far right, the saturation of guns and violent rhetoric is a danger combination. Extrapolating his earlier analysis regarding guns and triggered behavior, he believes that guns run the risk of being supplements to rhetoric and debate. This danger is compounded by the prevailing belief in what Strain calls “insurrectionism,” the notion that guns are necessary as a stop-gap to the tyranny of the government.
In light of the Senate’s recent tabling of expanded background checks, this discussion could not have come at a better time. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, Dr. Strain provides a useful framework for analyzing the gun control debate and, more broadly, how we perceive firearms as a society.