Rene Ciria-Cruz

Paranoia Feeding American Gun Culture

The gun has an indelible presence in America’s popular consciousness. The myth-making entertainment industry has embellished and magnified the gun’s prominent role in the narrative of the nation’s founding and rapid expansion across the continent over Indian lands and trackless wilds.

But reverence for history isn’t what’s really driving the soaring rate of gun ownership among Americans.

Today something stronger than the hunting culture or nostalgia for an adventure-filled frontier past is keeping gun fetishism alive -- social paranoia. A dread of unseen threats against one’s personal safety feeds the demand for automatic assault rifles and handguns, much to the delight of obliging firearm manufacturers.

Up to 47 percent of Americans reported owning firearms in 2011, according to the Gallup Poll. Consequently, the U.S. has the highest rate of gun-related homicides among the industrialized countries. Changing these statistics is a formidable challenge.

Widespread anxiety over perceived impending violence explains why there are 89 guns for every 100 American civilians, as reported in last year’s Small Arms Survey; that’s some 270 million guns nationwide, the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.

Many believe the high-caliber handgun or automatic rifle is their best defense against crime. Someone may want to invade your home, rape your wife and kill your children. A gun would enable you to “stand your ground,” many are convinced.

The gun is also a tool for projecting personal power. This function has even spawned an “open-carry” movement that would allow men and women — who no one should try to “mess with” -- to walk around like gunslingers of the old West.

And while no one really believes the United States is in danger of a military invasion by any foreign power, a good many gun worshipers believe that they need to be prepared for a social cataclysm of sorts, like mass unrest or a catastrophe that ultimately leads to widespread looting and depredation.

At its core, then, is a lack of confidence that the state can provide sufficient protection to its citizens. Tied to this is a profound sense of individualism, of a deeply held belief that only the individual, not the community or its laws, is the real guarantor of one’s safety.

Thus, while liberals may share some of these same insecurities, the cult of gun ownership is, as most observers already know, conservative at heart.

Writing in the New York Times, number cruncher Nate Silver draws the link between politics and gun ownership: White Republicans are more likely to own guns than white Democrats; by 2010 gun ownership among Democrats dropped to 22 percent but remained at 50 percent among Republican adults.

In its extreme form, gun worship is xenophobic and racist. Self-proclaimed militias and many so-called doomsday “preppers” fear a creeping United Nations “takeover” of the U.S. They also warn of an impending race war in which one must be prepared to defend one’s home and family against marauding and rapacious black and brown hordes.

This likely explains why whites are more likely to own guns than blacks or Hispanics and why gun ownership is higher among middle class households than poorer ones, according to Silver’s findings. And while most gun-related homicides occur in urban areas, gun ownership is higher in rural and suburban areas.

While owning a gun is indeed as American as cherry pie, it need not remain part of this country’s traditions. Owning a broadsword is not as British as steak and kidney pie, despite the prominent role of bladed weapons in British history.

It is admittedly not going to be easy to erase the prevalent social delusions that fuel gun ownership in America, but stricter laws and regulations can and should start preventing its lethal consequences. The law of the jungle through the proliferation of guns has no place in civilized life.

    Are Higher Fees for Immigrants a Plan to Stall the Number of Democratic Voters?

    Is the Bush administration trying to slow down the surge in potential new Democratic voters by tightening access to U.S. citizenship through drastically higher application fees?

    "For immigrants, the price of fully participating in our society would rise by 892 percent," says Larisa Casillas, coordinator of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition in Oakland. She says the citizenship fee "has been raised six times since 1989 when it was only $60."

    "The very first thing Emilio Gonzalez said to us during the rollout of the proposed fee increases is that there's absolutely no politics involved," says Crystal Williams, deputy director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C.

    Williams is willing to give "the benefit of the doubt" to the Bush-appointed director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but, she says, "the effect of higher fees is to certainly slow down everything."

    "Low-wage earning immigrants would have to save up longer to apply," protests Williams, "possibly put off applying for citizenship a year or more."

    Agency officials want to raise the U.S. citizenship application fee from $330 to $595, saying more money is needed to improve its operations and services.

    Applicants for legal permanent residency--the first step towards naturalization -- would be hit hardest, with the fee rising from the current $325 to $905.

    Fingerprinting and biometrics will cost $80 instead of $10, in addition to other related expenses incurred by applicants; hiring a lawyer adds significantly more. Approval of the new fees won't require Congressional action, just a USCIS executive order after a period of public comment.

    The dramatic fee increases "would put the American Dream out of reach of many immigrants," charged Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chair of the Senate subcommittee on immigration.

    Recent immigrants are twice as likely to be poorer than are native U.S. citizens, says a study by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., although their poverty rates fell faster than for U.S. natives between 1994 and 2000.

    "The USCIS is putting up even more barriers to integration," says Casillas. Congress, she argues, not immigrants, should fund USCIS operations, and with strict audits of its efficiency.

    Some critics smell politics in the proposed fee increases because voting rights come with naturalization, and the foreign-born electorate is growing faster than the general U.S. voter population.

    The number of foreign-born voters grew by 20 percent between the 1996 and 2000 elections, compared with 1.5 percent for all persons, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. Once naturalized, voter turnout among the foreign-born is high; 58 percent registered to vote and 87 percent showed up at the polls in 2000.

    Most worrisome for the GOP, the party identification of the largest foreign-born group, Latinos, is 58 percent Democratic, 23 percent Republican, even though Latinos tend to be conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, says a 2005 national survey by the Latino Coalition in Washington, D.C.

    Detecting Democratic leanings among new citizens, Republicans in the '90s blasted the Clinton administration for promoting naturalization among immigrants through the Citizenship USA program.

    President Clinton, they charged, was speeding up the citizenship process to create more Democratic voters. Now, Republicans could be accused of trying to slow down the increase of those voters.

    "Immigration policy has practical political implications," concluded a 2001 paper by the Center for Immigration Studies, which found, for example, that "a generous Hispanic immigration has contributed to a solid Democratic edge with Latinos" the longer they stay in the U.S.

    Laws barring non-U.S. citizens from public benefits have driven immigrants to protect themselves by naturalizing in large numbers.

    The number of new U.S. citizens jumped in the last few years, from 6.5 million in 1990 to more than 11 million in 2002. About half of all legal immigrants in that decade had naturalized by 2002.

    The naturalization rate among Mexicans rose from only 19 percent in 1995 to 34 percent six years later. Among immigrants from other Latin American countries, the rate rose from 40 percent to 58 percent in the same period.

    Traditionally high naturalization rates among Asians and Europeans remained steady.

    Today, some 8 million permanent residents (those who have been legal immigrants for at least five years) are eligible for citizenship, and they are applying in a hurry.

    Citizenship applications nationwide soared 79 percent this January, compared with the same month last year, reports the USCIS. The agency attributes the spike to efforts by immigrants to avoid the proposed higher fees.

    However, a self-protective response by immigrants to the national debate over immigration - as in the past -- is most likely also fueling the surge. Republicans are on the losing end this phenomenon too.

    A 2006 Pew Hispanic Center survey, for example, showed Latino support for the GOP position on immigration dropping from 25 percent to 16 percent, with the highest loss of support coming from the foreign-born - future voters.

    President Bush once declared that the Latino vote was "in play," but studies of voting trends show immigrants-turned-U.S.-citizens tend to identify with Democrats more than with Republicans.

    The Center for Immigration Studies found that Latinos identified more with Democrats across all nationality groups, except Cubans, and across nearly all states.

    "The gap is even wider among immigrant Latinos who have not yet become citizens. As many of these non-citizens naturalize, the political affiliation of Latinos is likely to shift still further toward the Democratic Party," noted a center study.

    Will Arnold And Arianna Rally the Immigrant Vote?

    In California, where one out of four residents is foreign-born, the entry of an Austrian Hollywood superstar and a Greek anti-corporate pundit has electrified the messy recall contest. But will their gubernatorial bids make immigrants the swing vote at the ballot box in October?

    Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington touted their immigrant roots when they launched their candidacies. Though fewer immigrants know about Huffington, or even that she is an immigrant, Schwarzenegger's success story does resonate among California's foreign-born.

    Raymond Virata, a Filipino-American graphic designer in Daly City, at first found it hard to think of Schwarzenegger as other than a pumped-up superstar with grandiose ambitions.

    "You laugh at first because you think of an actor like (former) Filipino president Joseph Estrada who was a joke," Virata says. But on second thought he is struck by the fact that Schwarzenegger is "a self-made man," a bodybuilder who came from Austria and really made it.

    "Perhaps immigrants buy into the American dream much more than Americans who have been here two or three generations," concurs Firoozeh Dumas, the Iranian-born author of the memoir "Funny in Farsi."

    Dumas likes the idea that the California's next governor just might have a foreign accent, remembering how her parents struggled with their thick Iranian accents in blonde, blue-eyed towns like Whittier, Calif.

    But, "there is a hierarchy of accents," Dumas warns. "When someone with a pronounced Middle Eastern accent runs for governor, I'll know change has really come."

    This "hierarchy" may be hindering Hispanic and Asian immigrants' instant identification with European immigrants Schwarzenegger and Huffington.

    "It's interesting -- they both have these strong accents like most immigrants do," says Pilar Marrero, political editor of the influential Spanish-language daily La Opinion in Los Angeles. But, she adds, "Most immigrants in California don't sound like Arnold or Arianna."

    For Marrero, the true immigrant story is Cruz Bustamante's. "That the son of a working class immigrant family from a small town in the Central Valley can have a shot at being the state's first Latino governor -- now that's exciting, that's a real immigrant dream."

    Schwarzenegger's big hurdle with Latino voters is his admission that in 1994 he voted for the divisive Proposition 187, which cut off social services to undocumented immigrants and angered Hispanic voters.

    His campaign manager, former California governor Pete Wilson, was the main sponsor of Prop. 187. "The Republicans are utterly clueless about Latinos and other immigrants," says Roberto Lovato, a Los Angeles-based political consultant. "They hope that star power can erase the effects of repressive power like Prop. 187."

    But Schwarzenegger has powerful name recognition -- celebrity estimated by some experts as worth hundreds of millions of dollars if paid for in advertising. In San Francisco's Chinatown, for example, everyone knows the Terminator.

    "Arnold is a household name not just because of his movies, but also because an ad he did for an instant cup of noodles company was broadcast all over mainland China, " says Leon Chow, a community organizer with the Chinese Progressive Association. "In Chinatown, perhaps only 20 percent may know the name of the governor," Chow adds.

    For some, it's not Schwarzeneger's celebrity but his politics that appeals. "Russian immigrants like Arnold not because he's an immigrant or famous, but because he's conservative, and we have conservative values like freedom and family," says Janna Sundeyeva, publisher of the Russian newspaper Kstati in San Francisco. "And as an Austrian he understands the value of good public education."

    Hispanics and Asians traditionally have low turnouts. Only 32 percent of Asians and 26 percent of Hispanics voted in 1996, compared with 68 percent of whites. But can the candidacies of two non-politicians galvanize Hispanic and Asian voters, who are 14 percent and 4 percent of the state's voters, respectively?

    They can, says David Lee, who heads the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, but not because they're immigrants.

    "You will see a different kind of voter turnout -- maybe those who normally don't vote and are maybe less concerned about issues, but are drawn by star power," Lee says. "With 'Da Terminator' in the race, turnout will likely increase as the media go bonkers over his candidacy."

    But in a system where immigrants often feel left out of the electoral process it is no coincidence that the two high-profile immigrant candidates are both not career politicians. "Their candidacies are an indictment of bureaucratic politicians," says Arvind Kumar, editor of the San Jose monthly India Currents.

    Though he thinks the recall is "a costly waste," Kumar hopes Huffington and Schwarzenegger can energize the debate. "What's interesting is that they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, proving you cannot put immigrants in a box."

    Sandip Roy (sandip@pacificnews.org) and Rene P. Ciria-Cruz (reneccruz@pacificnews.org) are both editors at Pacific News Service. Additional reporting for this story came from Pueng Vongs and Elena Shore.

    Yankee Stay Home

    With the recent arrest of scores of alleged al Qaeda operatives who want to set up an Islamic state comprising Indonesia, Malaysia and some islands in southern Philippines, the United States might be tempted to extend its war on terrorism more aggressively to Southeast Asia. But getting a foothold in the region's hotbeds of Islamic extremism will not be easy.

    The White House is certainly itching to jump onto the scene. "Going after al Qaeda in Indonesia is not something that should wait until after al Qaeda has been uprooted from Afghanistan," U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary and former envoy to Jakarta Paul Wolfowitz told Newsweek recently.

    Wolfowitz will have to wait. Unlike the Philippines, where more than 600 U.S. Special Forces are helping to quash the Abu Sayyaf extremist gang, Indonesia and Malaysia -- though threatened by Islamic radicalism -- won't welcome U.S. troops. Neither wants the domestic backlash. Both say they can quell homegrown extremists on their own.

    Extensive al Qaeda operations in Southeast Asia came to light with the arrest in Singapore of 13 suspected members of the Indonesian Islamic radical group Jemaah Islamiyah in January. The militants allegedly planned to bomb U.S. embassies in Singapore and Jakarta. Several more suspects were nabbed in Malaysia. Singaporean intelligence discovered the plot from videotape seized in Afghanistan.

    At about the same time, Philippine authorities arrested Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, a Jemaah Islamiyah member who was allegedly plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in Manila. He confessed to the Dec. 30, 2000 bombings in that city that killed 18 people and injured many others. Seized with al-Ghozi were fake passports, $50,000 in U.S. currency, a ton of explosive materials and several M-16 rifles.

    Meanwhile, a foiled bank robbery in Kuala Lumpur had earlier revealed the existence of a radical group, Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia, which intended to send the loot to Muslim fighters in Indonesia and the Philippines.

    According to regional intelligence officials, al Qaeda's Southeast Asian network was built by Riduan "Hambali" Isamuddin, an Indonesian militant who envisions a radical Islamic state linking Indonesia, Malaysia and some southern Philippine islands. Isamuddin fought Soviet troops in Afghanistan, where he became a close associate of Osama bin Laden. Recruiting followers in Malaysia and Indonesia, he eventually sent fighters to Afghanistan, Indonesia's strife-torn Maluku islands and Mindanao, Philippines.

    Chillingly presaging the Sept. 11 attacks, Isamuddin's group plotted to bomb or crash into buildings 12 U.S.-bound passenger jets flying out of Asia. It also planned to kill Pope John Paul II as he visited Manila in 1995. The plots were aborted when the cell's hideout caught fire and Philippine police seized computer files of its plans.

    Isamuddin is still at large. Much of his network, authorities believe, is still intact.

    To the White House's dismay, President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government hasn't cracked down on suspected Indonesian terrorists, claiming lack of sufficient evidence to make arrests. More likely, it fears a backlash from restive Muslim groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Laskar Jihad, a Taliban-like vigilante movement. Some groups are also backed by Indonesian generals with their own political agendas.

    Neither is Megawati likely to follow Philippine President Gloria Arroyo's example by inviting U.S. troops.

    "The presence of U.S. troops would only create a lot of controversy with various opposition groups and non-government organizations," Dr. Azyumardi Azra, president of the State Islamic University in Jakarta, said in an interview. "The best way to help is technical assistance in police training," he added.

    A high-profile U.S. presence may also revive ugly memories of the 1965 bloodbath that accompanied now-deposed President Suharto's seizure of power. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has admitted playing an active role in the anti-Communist coup.

    Meanwhile, in Malaysia, by arresting more than 40 militants and immediately condemning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad regained the prestige he lost in Washington for prosecuting former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on questionable charges.

    Still, mindful of possible attacks from opposition parties, Mahathir rejects a direct U.S. military role in Malaysia, where Muslims make up more than half the country's population of 23 million, and widespread anti-Americanism is fed mainly by the strong U.S. support of Israel.

    Although Indonesia and Malaysia signed an anti-terrorist cooperation accord with the Philippines, both reject outside help. Unlike the Philippines, which is hungry for U.S. aid, oil-producing Malaysia and Indonesia believe they can control extremism single-handedly.

    Citing the long-standing influence of "liberal Islam" in Indonesia, some observers doubt that sparks from a separatist rebellion in Aceh and the Muslim-Christian conflict in the Malukus will spread extremism among the country's 170 million Muslims.

    The Mahathir government, meanwhile, is brimming with confidence. After the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Mahathir struck damaging blows against the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) by deftly comparing it to the Taliban. The PAS had won a huge following among Muslims alienated by the jailing of Ibrahim. But voters deserted it in a recent state election, scared away by PAS leaders' calls for an Islamic state.

    Indeed, Southeast Asia's Muslim intellectuals tend to reject zealotry. Brought to the region not by conquerors but by traders, Islam was adopted by established elites, who preserved much of their pre-Islamic cultures. Thus, many middle-class Muslims, while critical of their governments and the West, hesitate to embrace al Qaeda's Arab brand of Islam.

    Mahathir, for one, has denounced extremist groups for denying the cultural expressions of Malaysian Islam. No foreign troops, he has clearly stated, are necessary to defeat such organizations.

    Rene Ciria-Cruz (reneccruz@pacificnews.org) is an editor of Filipinas Magazine.

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