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February 24, 2013

THOMAS L. STEIGER: ‘Blame the victim’ ideology emerges in gun debate

TERRE HAUTE — Last week while fueling my car, I noticed a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read: “It’s My Choice — Not Obama’s”, then above that are two check boxes, one for “Armed” the other for “Victim.” The bumper sticker suggests that our choice is to be armed or to be a victim. A big red check mark was in the box for “Armed.”

I was struck by such an idea and wondered who the owner of the truck was. Eventually he came out of the store and filled his tank. He was late 20s to mid 30s, short cropped hair, perhaps a police officer or firefighter, but nothing else on his truck gave away any more about him. He wasn’t wearing a gun that I could tell, though with that bumper sticker, I concluded he was “packing” something somewhere.

I admit that I also wondered if someone drove by and took a shot at him, how he would respond. Did he look at me as a possible threat, or maybe his victim since I was unarmed?

With such a line of thinking, “be armed or be a victim”, then what to make of Chris Kyle’s tragic murder? Based on the bumper sticker logic, Chris Kyle is one of the least likely of victims. Or perhaps he is not a victim at all, since he was armed, if we apply the bumper sticker logic to the situation.

The bumper sticker logic also taps into a particularly nasty undercurrent of American ideology; that bad things only happen to those who deserve it, or blaming the victim. For a country that so on the surface champions the underdog, the fact is we detest losers and victims. We blame them. We blame rape victims for being raped, the poor for being poor (even as corporations disinvest in their communities), and the sick for being sick. To even ask for help is to show weakness and poor character. DIY is the true American ideology. We create a safe haven for the powerful to victimize others by creating a sense that victims “choose” to be victims (by not arming themselves, or wearing the wrong clothing, or being in the wrong place). Those out for a pleasant evening at the movies are victims only if they aren’t armed to shoot a would-be mass murderer.

Do knives count? How about clubs? What about a black belt in karate?

I chose to be a victim in high school. One night, while driving my car with a couple of my buddies, on the way to a place we probably shouldn’t have, I passed a car and one of my buddies must have done something to make the driver very angry because at the next stop light, he got out of his car and walked to my window. I thought he wanted matches or something. Instead he dragged me out of my car and beat me up leaving me crumpled on the street and my buddies slack jawed.

I vowed never again. Never again would I be the victim, so I acquired a policeman’s night stick, an older one, hickory with a leather strap and learned how to use it. I kept it in my car, next to my seat. I felt  safe.

A few months later, again, at night, up to no good no doubt, a twerpy guy I’d known since first grade began to hassle me. He dared to even touch my car. I thought, “I’ll just step outside with my club and he’ll run away.” Short version is he quickly took that club away from me and the only person it was ever used on was me. Victim again! My fault. Blame me. Maybe I needed a gun.

I’ve written before that the fears of those who don’t feel safe and secure without a gun should be taken seriously. It speaks, I think, to a serious fraying in the social fabric of U.S. society. Perhaps it’s related to the same thing that has coarsened our society, eroded our civil society, and of people not knowing their neighbors. It’s hard to trust others when we don’t know our neighbors, when we don’t engage in our communities, and feel isolated and vulnerable. There are too many Americans like that for it just to be an individual phenomenon; it’s rooted in the culture of the U.S.

Bumper stickers I’d like to see: “If only Jesus had had a gun.” And “WWJD with a gun.”

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the office of student research and creativity at Indiana State University. Email


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