Steven Roberts: The rise of virulent vigilantism

Sixteen-year-old Ralph Yarl was picking up his two younger brothers at their friend’s house. But he made a mistake: He went to 115th Street in Kansas City instead of 115th Terrace. When Ralph knocked on the wrong door, 84-year-old Andrew Lester shouted, “Don’t come around here” and shot him twice, once in the head.

Miraculously, Ralph Yarl survived.

Kaylin Gillis did not. The 20-year-old was riding in a car with three friends in upstate New York, looking for an unfamiliar address, when they drove into the wrong driveway. As they were turning around, 65-year-old Kevin Monahan stepped out of his house and fired at least two shots. One killed Kaylin.

What do these two terrible tales tell us? The United States remains the world’s undisputed leader in gun violence.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries in 2021. That’s nearly an 8% increase from 2020, which was already a record-breaking year. Put another way, 79% of American murders were committed with guns in 2020. That compares to only 4% in the United Kingdom and 13% in Australia.

Why? The answer starts with the easy availability of firearms. Lester and Monahan were hardly alone in keeping loaded weapons handy. The Small Arms Survey, a Swiss-based research project, estimates that there were 390 million guns in circulation in the U.S. in 2018. The U.S. ratio of 120.5 firearms per 100 residents, up from 88 per 100 in 2011, far surpasses any other country.

The second answer is that intensity matters in politics, and the gun lobby is extremely active and highly successful. Gallup reports that 57% of Americans want stricter gun laws; 32% said the laws should remain the same and only 10% want rules “made less strict.” Yet the epidemic of gun violence has spurred only minor changes restricting gun ownership.

“Despite being outnumbered, Americans who oppose gun control are more likely to contact public officials about it and to base their votes on it,” states Matthew Lacombe, a professor at Case Western Reserve University and an expert on gun politics. “As a result, many politicians believe that supporting gun regulation is more likely to lose them votes than to gain them votes.”

Race also plays a major role in shaping America’s violent profile. Kaylin Gillis was white but Ralph Yarl was Black, and Clay County (Missouri) prosecuting attorney Zachary Thompson stated clearly, “There was a racial component” to the shooting. According to Amnesty International USA, firearms are the leading cause of death among Black male Americans between the ages of 15 and 39. They are 10 times more likely to die from gunshot wounds than their white counterparts.

Behind all of these reasons is a larger truth: Guns, and violence, are embedded in our culture. They are an essential part of the stories we tell about ourselves, from ejecting our colonial masters to pacifying the Western wilderness. Whether it was routing the redcoats or manifesting our destiny, goes the myth, guns made our victories possible.

But today, guns are not necessary for liberation or exploration. The focal point of the gun lobby, and its political allies, is self-protection. Lobbyists expand their own influence by cynically aggravating fears of rampant criminals, often nonwhite, ready to ravage law-abiding, peace-loving Americans.

Here was Donald Trump, describing Mexican immigrants while announcing his presidential run in June 2015: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists …” (He did also admit, “… some, I assume, are good people.”)

Just last week, House Republicans staged a hearing in New York to accuse Democratic leaders of coddling criminals. No wonder that in a 2019 Gallup survey, almost two-thirds of all gun owners cited personal safety or protection as the main reason they owned a firearm.

As Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland, told Vox, America’s gun culture “brings together the hunting-sporting tradition with the militia-frontier tradition, but in modern times the hunting element has been eclipsed by a heavily politicized notion that gun carrying is an expression of freedom, individuality, hostility to government, and personal self-protection.”

One reflection of that change has been the spread of “stand your ground” laws in about 30 states, which encourage and even glorify the ideal of gun-toting civilians facing down marauding invaders.

Andrew Lester and Kevin Monahan embody this trend of virulent vigilantism. Both felt two emotions: fear and entitlement. They had been taught to dread strangers, to see them as threats. And they had been encouraged to buy guns, to keep them loaded and to fire away at the slightest provocation. It’s the American Way.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].