The waves of media panic that follow nearly every mass shooting in this gun-mad republic reliably drive up the demand for firearms. / Tyler Merbler
Chris Lehmann,  December 17, 2015

High Caliber Television

The waves of media panic that follow nearly every mass shooting in this gun-mad republic reliably drive up the demand for firearms. / Tyler Merbler
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The planned launch of Gun TV, a home-shopping channel devoted exclusively to selling firearms to impulsive shut-ins, is an idea so purely American that one can only marvel that it’s taken this long to come to life.

The mass marketing of lethal weaponry to the bored and insomniac channel surfers who make up the core home-shopping demographic may seem like it’s cribbed from the opening reel of a Tarantino film. But as a recent, appropriately goggle-eyed Guardian report makes clear, the network is poised to become a real-world media brand, with a premier air date of January 20. (Sadly, the network’s initial plan to go live in late 2015 with a holiday cornucopia of lethal force went awry, for unspecified reasons.) The project will have an initial soft launch with content airing from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. East Coast time—a slot that arguably represents its viewership’s hours of poorest impulse control. If all goes to plan, though, the network will scale up to a 12-hour menu of gun-porn, and then to the holy grail of infomercial broadcasting: round-the-clock peddling of optimal ammo-delivery systems, with operators forever standing by. (True, the network insists that it will process all its sales at duly regulated arm’s length, via wholesale dealers administering proper background checks—and what could possibly go wrong with that?) 

The venture’s slogan sounds like something out of a Mike Judge film: “Live Shopping. Fully Loaded.” But how, exactly, does one go about filling a perpetual broadcasting-day’s schedule with gun-themed content? A piece of cake, says network cofounder Valerie Castle: “Our broadcast setting is going to demonstrate the products,” Castle told Guardian reporter Joanna Walters. “And we’re going to tell the backstory on the manufacturer, on the materials used to make these products, what kind of wood has gone into the making of the rifle, for example, how it feels to hold it.” There will also be, naturally enough, a rotating cast of celebrity endorsers; as Walters writes, “Gun TV will feature shooting demonstrations by former law enforcement personnel, former members of the military and sharpshooters with a profile among the fan base, such as ex-Olympic marksmen and season winners of the reality-TV show ‘Top Shot.’ ”

Critics might object that the spate of guns-blazing videos featuring actual law enforcement officers in racially fraught shooting incidents might render this particular brand of entrepreneurial display in rather poor taste. But that overlooks the bedrock genius of the Gun TV business model: it’s not merely recession proof; it’s, quite literally, bullet-proof. The waves of media panic that follow nearly every mass shooting in this gun-mad republic reliably drive up the demand for firearms. That’s because roughly half the gun-owning population buys into the NRA-branded line that the only way to stop “bad guys” with guns is for “good guys” to be armed to the teeth—and the other half is sure that each time a fresh round of gun-powered mayhem happens in a Newtown, a Colorado Springs, or a San Bernardino, the jack-booted thugs of the Obama-ensorcelled BATF are coming to confiscate their domestic arsenals, so they’d best start beefing up their stockpiles, pronto.

The entertainment and news arms of our mass media are so thoroughly steeped in gunplay that the American culture industry at large might as well be called Gun TV.

This schizoid mentality of permanent siege mandated by either the unpredictable, demented actions of fellow gun nuts or the scheming bureaucrats of the liberal regulatory state creates nothing remotely close to the “well regulated militia” that the Second Amendment set out to institute. (Indeed, one awkward and discomfiting factoid for the mail-order Dirty Harry set is that the officers of state militias in the early Republic went about their regulating via such nonlibertarian measures as banning the storage of any loaded weapons in public. So much, in other words, for the vaunted originalist case for repealing weapons bans.) But ever since the Supreme Court’s incoherent ruling in the Heller case vindicating the individual right to bear arms and overturning the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, there’s no gun-toting fantasy that’s too toxic, overblown, or woolly to be at least passively sanctioned by the American polis.

Which means, in turn, that there’s all sorts of room in our gun culture for platforms smartly churning out civic paranoia like Valerie Castle’s Gun TV. In an age when cigarette ads don’t sully the airwaves (and MPAA film ratings include smoking warnings) it’s more than passing strange that virtually nothing is done to rein in gun advertising on a mass broadcast scale. (To their corporate credit, NBC and its parent company Comcast refuse to air gun ads, while other media concerns such as CBS rely on recondite calculuses to govern gun-ad policy, e.g., spurning gun advertisers in markets where viewing demographics aren’t 70 percent above the age of 18—a cut-off point that’s especially hard to fathom given the truly appalling rates at which adults blow their kids away.)

47 percent of Americans now belief the best way to fight terrorism is to be individually armed./ ABC News
47 percent of Americans now believe the best way to fight terrorism is to be individually armed./ ABC News

Then again, the entertainment and news arms of our mass media are themselves so thoroughly steeped in gunplay that the American culture industry at large might as well be called Gun TV. The sensationalist exploitation of bloodshed for broadcasting’s sake is now so ubiquitous that glib old formulas such as “If it bleeds, it leads” seem positively quaint and clichéd. When a soi-disant liberal cable network like MSNBC relies on lurid murder and prison fare to goose up its weekend ratings, is it any wonder that the same network’s putative news teams stampede witlessly, cameras blazing, into terrorist crime scenes for no earthly reason? Likewise, is it any wonder that, at a time when ISIS poses a negligible hazard to American life as it actually exists, wall-to-wall coverage of homegrown terrorist “threats” has catapulted the terror panic to the top of presidential-campaign opinion polls, with right-leaning Americans utterly convinced that it’s just a matter of time before they, too, are in the line of terrorist fire? The tireless media pimping of imminent terror threats has produced, with a syllogistic sort of elegance, an American citizenry in which a plurality of poll respondents now favor individual gun wielding over assault weapons bans as the most effective measure of combating terrorism. It’s a bit like fighting the epidemic of campus sexual abuse by naming James Deen the national sexual-harassment czar.

In reality, of course, you’re much more likely to have your soul and body separated by an intoxicated family member than a rampaging jihadist. Yet curiously enough, no cable network or demagogic presidential hopeful has stepped forward with a bold agenda to have your heat-packing relations deported, or to outlaw the formation of new families until we’ve figured out just what is going on. Because, what the hell: we all know by now that guns don’t kill people. No, it’s just that the never-ending marketing of the American firearm as a hot-lead panacea makes us so desperately fatalistic that we can only assume the fetal position behind our cable remotes and phone in new orders to the Gun TV operators until a fresh raft of artillery arrives in the mail. Operators—in all senses of the word—are standing by.

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

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