Extrospectives: America’s Kabuki theater – The Mountain-Ear


Kabuki theater originated in the early 1600s, when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. This ancient form of drama is known for heavily stylized performances. Costumes, makeup and masks are used to create elaborate physical caricatures of each subject.

In its earliest incarnation, Kabuki was performed by female dance troupes. It often featured ribald themes and (for the time) suggestive choreography. By 1629 women’s kabuki, known as onna-kabuki, was banned because the shogunate believed its erotic content fostered moral turpitude. In the yaro-kabuki tradition that followed, male actors played all the roles and ritualized drama was emphasized over dance.

The result of this politicized evolution is an artform defined by a litany of traditions and taboos. Scripts follow formulae that date back centuries, as do some of the costumes and masks. Controversial themes are sanitized. Meaning is conveyed primarily by inference.

America’s endless debate over tragedies like Uvalde has calcified into a latter-day form of Kabuki theater.

It isn’t difficult to envision Biden and his allies donning masks of grief and outrage as they denounce the gun lobby. It’s even easier to imagine NRA chief Wayne LaPierre slathered in black kumadori makeup (signifying villainy in the Kabuki tradition) as he retorts “only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns.”

Beyond restating intransigent policy differences, our reaction to mass shootings has devolved into a set of rituals that accomplish nothing while ignoring hard truths that underpin gun violence.

Liberal pundits point out that most Americans support universal background checks, longer waiting periods for purchases, and red flag laws to remove guns from unstable individuals. This is true. They also claim that the only way to meaningfully reduce gun violence is to eliminate the Senate filibuster. This is disingenuous.

Progressives say the filibuster unfairly blocks the will of the majority, undermining American democracy. But the filibuster is working precisely as intended, constraining controversial legislation that doesn’t have bipartisan support in a narrowly divided congress. That includes new gun control laws.

There is little candor regarding the massive scope of gun controls that would be required to make America safe.

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently acknowledged “the truth that no one wants to tell – the one that opponents of gun safety laws understand and the reason so many of them resist new laws – is that no one law or single package of laws will be enough to solve America’s gun violence problem.”

Mr. Blow conceded that Republicans see “gun safety laws as a slippery slope that could lead to more sweeping laws and even, one day, national gun registries, requirements, and bans. I see the same and I actively hope for it.”

There are an estimated 400 million guns in America, over 98% of them in civilian hands. With 120 firearms per 100 citizens, reducing the rate and managing the circumstances of new gun purchases will have only a modest impact on gun violence. For gun control to make a meaningful dent, the number of weapons in circulation must radically shrink.

There are a few policy ideas – like a massive federal gun buyback program or a national minimum gun ownership age of 21 – that could impact gun violence without getting swatted down by SCOTUS, but they aren’t the focus of our Kabuki debate.

And there are more hard truths lurking behind the theater.

Matthew Yglesias wrote in Bloomberg, “progressives are going to need to move beyond a strategy of tweeting harder, fulminating more and placing blame on the financial clout of the now nearly defunct NRA. They will need to come to terms with the fact that reducing gun violence will require more policing and incarceration, not less.”

In 2020, handguns accounted for 59% of all gun murders in the US, while assault weapons accounted for only 3%. Handguns are easy to conceal.

To find illegal handguns police need tools to stop and search people. But progressive dogma post-George Floyd dictates that stop and frisk policies are discriminatory, and the low level crimes that facilitate police stops under a “broken windows” philosophy should not be enforced in minority communities.

Even without the filibuster, illegal gun stocks won’t be reduced if progressives exempt members of their coalition from obeying the law in the name of social justice.

As Mr. Yglesias noted, demanding “new rules while shying away from enforcing existing ones burns credibility with conservative voters, who see a left that’s eager to penalize their hobby and reluctant to punish criminals.”

Addressing the role of mental illness in gun violence is also an irreducible challenge.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently framed mass shootings as a mental health issue, drawing outrage as mainstream media accused him of scapegoating an already victimized population. In a classic “whataboutism,” Abbott’s critics called him a hypocrite given Texas spends less on mental health than all other states. They also point out the number of bills recently passed in the legislature that encourage, rather than restrict, gun use.

The US averages 45,000 deaths annually from guns, and their circumstances vary greatly. If our goal is improving safety, we cannot conflate gang and drug related shootings with crimes of passion, robbery involved shootings, or mass shootings.

Improved data analysis increasingly demonstrates that the pathology of mass shooters is markedly different from other forms of gun violence. There is an expanding body of evidence showing a strong correlation between mass shootings and suicide.

One study indicates that most mass shooters in the past 15 years exhibited strong social alienation and suicidal ideation prior to acting. Many left footprints blaming others for their anguish, depression, and collapsing self-esteem.

Incidents like Uvalde should be understood as suicide by mass shooting. Alarming as that is, it means improved social media profiling and other early detection tools could ultimately prevent more of these events than gun control legislation.

Satirical website The Onion routinely responds to mass shootings with a headline: “ ‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Posturing by Second Amendment and gun control factions is a Kabuki play preventing us from exploring alternative solutions that could accelerate the quest for a safer America.

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