July 18, 2016

Is it really easier to buy a Glock than a book?


...or book?

…or book?

At his recent appearance at a memorial service for the five policemen gunned down in Dallas, President Obama made the following statement:

As a society, we choose to underinvest in decent schools. We allow poverty to fester so that entire neighborhoods offer no prospect for gainful employment. We refuse to fund drug treatment and mental health programs. We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book, and then we tell the police, ‘You’re a social worker, you’re the parent, you’re the teacher, you’re the drug counselor.’

Because this is a statement by our president about guns, conservative pundits immediately started objecting — though the White House claimed that it had the proof to back up the president’s words.

So who’s right? Given that this is a thorny clash of questions of access versus price, culture versus commerce, it should come as a relief that the hardworking (hardwonking?) wonks at PolitiFact were on the case. Louis Jacobson reports:

The White House offered PolitiFact several news reports to back up Obama’s case.

The gist of these reports was that there are lots of guns to be found in low-income urban areas, but comparatively few books and relatively little access to the Internet.

However, much of the evidence these articles provided was anecdotal, and none of the articles directly compared guns to computers or books — not to mention Glocks, the specific make of handgun Obama cited.

And none of the articles offered a rigorous academic comparison of the specific claim Obama made.

Jacobson goes through the White House’s evidence point by point, which includes citing the existence of book deserts (often in low-income neighborhoods in cities like Chicago and Detroit), anecdotal reports of the relative ease of access to guns in such neighborhoods, and pointing out that Internet access is still dependent on one’s ability to afford a computer and a cable hookup. However, Jacobson points out that the White House fails to cite any data that specifically compares gun access to book/computer access, and that, while it’s possible to envision a scenario in which socioeconomic factors mean that a gun is closer at hand than a book, the high price of guns and extant laws prohibiting their sale to teens make that less than likely. Glocks in particular are expensive, compared to the relatively low price of a paperback or a library card.

So does this mean that we consign “Glocks are easier to buy than books” into the great political fiction sound-bite slag heap? Pitch it next to “welfare queens” and “Muslims cheering after 9/11” and “the Syrian red line”? Not so fast.

First off, citing the high price of the Glock as a logical flaw is slightly disingenous. “Glock” is clearly being used here as a proprietary eponym, a particular brand that stands for a whole type of product (see: Kleenex, Xerox, Tupperware). Glocks dominate the market of privately owned handguns, so when you say “Glock” in, say, a speech designed to touch on common reference points and shared themes of humanity, you mean “gun.”

And yes, it’s true that guns are subject to much more stringent commerce regulation than books. But the two are completely different cultural objects and, Obama’s need for a heartstring-tugging image aside, they can’t be directly compared on any level, whether it be their price or access to them. Instead, you have to look at the cultural spaces they tend to occupy.

The United States has way, way too many guns. It also has way too many books. One product is designed to enrich life in myriad ways, to do everything from titillate to educate. The other is designed to end life, or provide an adequate threat of such.

Gun sellers rack up hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, while booksellers break out the champagne if there’s a single-digit bump in sales thanks to adult coloring books. The ebook revolution, like Amazon before it, was supposed to bring about a paradigm shift in access to books; it hasn’t, not really. The reckoning that you might have expected in the wake of Sandy Hook or (insert horrific shooting here), in which congressional action or broader cultural change would seem inevitable, did not come. There are specific economic forces at work, enabled by the federal government in partnership with significant action by private industry, that ensure that both the gun industry and the book industry flourish and falter, respectively.

Additionally, individual motivations for obtaining a book or a gun are wildly divergent. Books are not often the perceived barrier between life and death, at least not in the short term, and guns are. Citing the law’s prohibition of selling guns to teens is also a dodge; less than 10% of stolen guns are recovered by law enforcement. (Finding ways to stem this source of black-market firearms is, as you might expect, contentious, even in my own hometown.) It might be more accurate, then, to say not that guns are easier to get than books but that it says something damning about our culture and our free market when there is a far greater profit to be made in a public health hazard than in libraries, bookstores, or education.

Obama may have rhetorically fumbled the broader point, which is that the erosion of community-based solutions to gun violence cannot be effectively ameliorated by an increased police presence (and a militarized one at that). Increasing access to books won’t solve systemic social problems rooted in discriminatory housing policy, economic ossification, and the NRA’s political stranglehold on lawmakers, which forestalls anything resembling reasonable debate on gun control. That will require a political ideology that doesn’t worship the market and pre-existing hierarchies of all kinds, be they racial, economic, or sexual. But a future in which a teenager’s desire and means to read is outweighed to the point of completely overwhelming their need to pick up a gun is the one we should all strive to create.



Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.