Jon Stewart: Corporate State Stooge

“Oklahoma State Sen. Nathan Dahm went on The Problem With Jon Stewart to advocate against even modest gun control laws and got blasted by Stewart’s debate bazooka,” gushes the Hollywood Reporter, echoing the sentiments of the several dozen stories Goggle’s algorithm has pushed to the top of its search results.

Oklahoma state senator Nathan Dahm (left) and comedian Jon Stewart (right)

My take? The debate between Stewart and Dahm is a mess. Contrary to fanboy perception that Stewart completely owned the debate, Dahm had his moments. Stewart? On logical and empirical grounds? Not so much. Dahm’s inexperience with debating a rhetorician of Stewart’s caliber doesn’t make Stewart’s arguments golden. The video is sharply edited, and I presume the edits favor Stewart. But clever editing is no substitute for substance. Ever since he had his awokening, Stewart has become a much less compelling figure (his programming on the transgender issue, for example, is fraught with problems).

Because he accepted Stewart’s premise, Dahm blew the question about the correlation between gun deaths and number of guns. Stewart claimed that, the more guns there are, the more gun deaths there are, as if it is the mere presence of guns increases the frequency of gun deaths. Since there has been considerable variability in gun ownership in US history, as well as in gun deaths and violent crime, it is helpful to look at these data.

According the General Social Survey, in the mid-1970s, around half of US households reported having at least one gun. By 2018, that number fell to around a third. At least during some of the time that this percentage was declining, the number of firearms owned by individuals increased. In 1994, there were approximately 200 million firearms owned by individuals. By 2020, that number had more than doubled.

Much attention has been paid to the latter figure. Crucially, however, the increase in firearms ownership during this period doesn’t tell us anything about the percentage of individuals who own guns. Data from the General Social Survey indicates that the percentage of American adults who report personally owning a gun has remained relatively stable over the past several decades, hovering around 30 percent, roughly the same as the percentage of households with at least one gun.

While a few studies have found that households with more guns are more likely to experience firearm injuries and deaths, it is important to keep in mind that this does not mean that owning a gun increases an individual’s risk of dying from a firearm-related injury. Risk depends on numerous factors including how firearms are stored and used, as well as the cultural context and social situation in which they appear. More on this in a moment. But first, we need to consider the other side of the correlation, namely aggregate trends in gun violence and deaths.

Source: FBI’s Crime Data Explorer

Crime increased between 1960 and the early 1990s. The increase was drastic, driven by factors such as the rise of drug-related violence, gang activity, and social unrest. By the early 1990s, violent crime was as bad as it had ever been in America.

Source: FBI’s Crime Data Explorer

Readers may object that violent crime is not reducible to guns deaths so these statistics are a poor proxy for the phenomenon in question. However, most homicides involve firearms, and during this period gun homicides in America remained high despite the sharp decline in the number of households with guns. Moreover, a great deal of violent crime involves guns generally, so the broader trends is relevant.

Trends in gun deaths and injuries in the United States over the last six decades have been complex and varied, but there is an obvious trend. In the mid-20th century, gun deaths averaged around 4 deaths per 100,000 people per year in the 1950s-60s. Beginning in the late 1960s, there was a gradual increase in gun deaths, particularly homicides, which peaked in the early 1990s. In recent years, rates of violent crime, especially homicide, have started rising again, especially in inner city areas.

Returning to cultural context and social situation, gun ownership is not evenly distributed among race and ethnic groups. Overall, gun ownership is more common among whites than among blacks and Hispanics. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, around 36 percent of white Americans reported owning a gun, compared to 24 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Hispanics. However, as I have repeatedly shown on the Freedom and Reason, blacks are far more likely to be perpetrate gun violence and to be the victims of gun violence.

Moreover, among white Americans, gun ownership rates are higher among men, rural residents, and those who identify as Republican or conservative. While studies have suggested that political conservatism is associated with higher rates of gun ownership and support for gun rights, there is no evidence to suggest that conservatives are more likely to be implicated in gun violence than other ideological groupings.

Can we blame the rise in violent crime and persistently high homicide rates on the declining number of households with guns? The rise in violent crime is indeed correlated with the emergence of comprehensive gun control, a trend driven by fear of crime stemming from the disorder of the 1960s. It would stand to reason that, all things being equal, the occurrence of defensive use of guns, i.e., situations where guns are used to deter, stop or repel an attacker or intruder with the intention of preventing harm or loss, is less likely the fewer people possess firearms. Certainly Stewart and his ilk would be reluctant to accept this reasoning.

Is gun control what brought crime down after the mid-1990? We might ask whether folks can have it both ways. As noted, there is a correlation between the percentage of households and persons with guns and rates of violent crime over the long term. What is obvious is the effect of massively expanding the criminal justice response after the early 1990s: more cops, stricter criminal penalties, aggressive prosecution, tough judges, and mandatory minimums drove crime rates down to the lowest levels on record. Prison abolitionist decry the trend in mass incarceration, and the desire for depolicing in the wake of highly-publicized cases of police brutality is widespread among those of a particular political-ideological persuasion, but the fact is that the war on crime did make America a safer place—and back off of it is having disastrous consequences for the most vulnerable communities in America. The increase in crime is also driven by the rise in anti-cop rhetoric and sentiments of racial resentment and anti-white propaganda generated by academia, corporate state media, and the culture industry.

* * *

Dahm is right about this fundamental reality: Guns don’t shoot themselves. Like any piece of technology that is not self-operating, guns require people to operate them. To his credit, Steward concedes the point, and he wants Dahm (and his audience) to know (i.e., think) that he supports the Second Amendment. He grants that it’s not guns but people who are the problem. Stewart says this because he wants the state to know which people are a problem. To do this, the state needs to keep extensive record on those who buy a firearm. 

This makes Stewart and his progressive brethren believers in precrime. “PreCrime” is a concept originating in Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report. In the story, a futuristic police department uses a system of precognitive beings (“Precogs”) to predict and prevent crimes before they occur. That law enforcement officials rely on psychics to predict crimes before they happen is the perfect metaphor for critiquing the practice of precrime in the real world. To deprive an individual of his constitutional rights on the basis of a belief that the police can predict based on aggregate statistics who is likely to offend or reoffend is an affront to not only to the ethic of individualism but to science.

I will use an analogy to illustrate, one that I have used before, concerning preventative incapacitation. In capital cases in the state of Texas, juries can either impose the death penalty or impose a penalty of life in prison with the possibility of parole. There is no sentence of life in prison without parole in the state of Texas. One strategy prosecutors seeking the death penalty can pursue is convincing a jury that the defendant is at high risk to repeat his crime and capital punishment removes that risk. Prosecutors would bring out Walter Quijano, a psychologist working for the Texas prison system as an expert witness, to testify that, because of the higher rate of recidivism among blacks compared to whites, black defendants should be subject to the death penalty. Death sentences were reversed in several cases where Quijano’s testimony played a role.

For those of us concerned about the Orwellian world emerging all around us, the term “precrime” is shorthand to refer to the approaches and systems of law enforcement that seek to prevent crimes before they happen, often through the use of predictive analytics and surveillance, as well are preventative incapacitation. The idea here is something called “predictive policing.” Agents gather and correlate information about people ostensibly to anticipate criminal incidents before they happen—false positives be damned.

The development of precrime cannot be separated from the government’s growing focus on domestic terrorism, a term that refers to acts of violence committed by individuals or groups within the United States against other individuals, groups, or the government, with the intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or influence government policy through fear. Domestic terrorism, which has no formal designation in federal statute, takes many forms, including hate crimes, political violence, and religious extremism. It can be carried out by individuals or groups who hold extremist views on a variety of issues—with the state selective focusing on some views.

According to the government, the threat of domestic terrorism has grown in recent years, with the rise of white supremacist groups and other extremist right wing organizations. In response, the United States government has taken a number of steps to combat that threat, including increasing resources for law enforcement agencies and expanding programs to counter violent extremism. The Department of Homeland Security has designated domestic terrorism as a top national security threat, and federal agencies work closely with state and local authorities to prevent and respond to domestic terrorist attacks.

For decades now, the security state apparatus has sought to establish what is called total situational awareness (TSA). Generally, TSA describes the ability to perceive and understand all aspects of situations—contexts, risks, and opportunities. Technologies such as cameras, microphones, sensors, and other surveillance tools are used to enhance TSA activities. TSA also involves analyzing information from a variety of sources, including government databases, public records, and private sector data.

The Total Information Awareness (TIA) program was an initiative by the United States Information Awareness Office (IAO) under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which was part of the US Department of Defense. The program’s goal was to develop technology to detect and prevent potential terrorist attacks by gathering and analyzing massive amounts of data on individuals’ personal and financial activities. The program collected and analyzed these data without the targets’ knowledge or consent, raising concerns about civil liberties, especially the privacy right.

In response to these concerns, Congress passed the 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Act with a provision defunding TIA. The Defense Department and DARPA announced the termination of the TIA program in 2003. However, eager to continue the project, TIA was renamed the Terrorist Information Awareness, thus keeping the acronym. TIA continued to be criticized for potential privacy violations and it was ultimately cancelled in 2006. But the tactics and technology did not end there; the surveillance function of the program was incorporated in the national security apparatus more broadly.

For those who do not fully comprehend the vastness of the national security apparatus today, I will digress for a moment and sketch the system. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) coordinates the country’s efforts to prevent and respond to domestic and foreign threats to national security. Among the agencies under the DHS are Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A). DHS sits alongside the more traditional security agencies, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The DOJ oversees the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Ostensibly responsible for gathering, analyzing, and providing intelligence information on foreign countries and issues related to national security, the CIA operations are divided into several major directorates, among them the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), the National Clandestine Service (NCS), and the Directorate of Digital Innovation (DDI), the latter which develops and deploys technologies to support the agency’s intelligence-gathering and analysis capabilities.

I hope readers can grasp the scope of information sharing across platforms and tie the significance of this to the desire to track gun owners. Remember what I said about the demographics of gun ownership. White men, disproportionately rural, and identifying as conservative and Republican, have the highest rates of gun ownership in America. Even though they were underrepresented among those who murder people, the attention payed to their attention to the Second Amendment gets an inordinate amount of attention. We know which gun owners are of concern to the national security state. (See “A New Kind of American Radicalism”: The Campaign to Portray Ordinary America as Deviant and Dangerous; The Establishment Project to Demonize Conservative White Males. What’s This All About? Suppressing the Rabble: Portraying Conservatism and Republicanism as Fringe and Dangerous; A Clueless President, Gun Hysteria, and Ulterior Motives; MDM is the New WMD: DHS Issues a New NTAS Bulletin; A Late Afternoon Blog: The Weaponization of the Government; Church 2.0). Stewart’s objection to the loosening of regulations on guns is tied to the corporate state’s project to surveil and suppress the populist-nationalist movement and derail the democratic-republic revival.

Of course, it’s not just scope of the surveillance system and the politics that’s the problem here. One doesn’t need to acknowledge the project or the scale of the problem. Even in limited use, the idea of precrime raises significant ethical concerns, particularly around issues of civil liberties and due process. This approach to law enforcement and social control risks and has resulted in abuses of power, discrimination, false accusations, and the undermining of the presumption of innocence that is so central to western jurisprudence.

Stewart is advocating the expansion of the surveillance state specifically where police authorities are charged with regulating a constitutional right, the second article in the United States Bill of Rights, that is the citizens prerogative to self-regulate. Stewart is very open about the authoritarian desire expressed here. The state needs to know, in his words, who are “the people you are giving a gun to.” But the state isn’t giving people guns. Stewart’s means to make gun ownership appear as a privilege, like driving an automobile. But people have a right to buy, own, and carry guns for legitimate purposes, e.g., self-defense.

It is crucial to bear in mind that governments don’t give people rights. The state only protects or violates rights by it actions. Persons are born with rights. Of course, as French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” But that is only more of a reason to demand a reduction in the size and scope of government control.

The right to keep and bear arms is a very old right. Found in English common law, enshrined in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the right is older than its affirmation in the Bill of Rights. English common law recognized in the inherent right to self-defense the right to use weapons: weapons are an extension of that right, necessary for maximally effecting this right. This right was incorporated into the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, ratified in 1791, the operative clause affirming that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

To grasp the seriousness of Stewart’s desire, consider an analogy—the First Amendment, the article that guarantees citizens the right to express their opinions and share information. Should the state keep records on those who express and share certain views? I know they do. But should they? Suppose a citizen who may incite a riot with their speech. Should some determination that they may do this, or perhaps evidence that they have in the past, be reason to deprive them of their Constitutional right to speak? Is the principle “prior restraint” to be regularized and registration of opinions required? Would Stewart say that the state needs to know “the people you are giving voice to”? But, as with firearms, the state does not give free speech to citizens. The state only protects or violates rights by its actions. The state is supposed to protect rights. To regulate those rights is a conflict of interests.

* * *

Stewart makes his thematic for the conversation with Dahm the rhetoric of “chaos versus order.” Stewart wants to know about immigration. But immigration isn’t a right, so his point is irrelevant. Instead of saying this, Dahm raises the problem of fentanyl. Fentanyl is worse than gun deaths. True. So what? Stewart has dragged Dahm off the trail. Never argue about equivalencies between two things that aren’t equivalent.

Dahm sort of saves the day by raising the problem of obesity. His argument suggests the question of whether we should we have background checks on people to determine whether and how much they can eat—especially when they have demonstrated an inability to control their food intake. Not a bad analogy. Steward takes the bait and compares allowing people to buy guns without regulation to giving ice cream to fat people. I don’t need to spend time pointing out how absurd Stewart’s argument becomes here. That comeback was especially beneath him.

Stewart doesn’t have an answer to Dahm’s point about the crisis of single-parent households, but Dahm turns to school shooters in relation to this. These are a minority of gun homicide deaths. Had he discussed single-parent households and violence in black-majority neighborhoods, he would have has Stewart on the defensive. But does Dahm know about this? Why school shootings?

Guns make it less safe for police, Steward says. He gives the scenario of police responding to a domestic violence event. He wonders that, if there are firearms in the home, the police will consider this a safe home. The suggestion is that it isn’t. But Stewart can’t know that. He also can’t know that it makes the home safer. Stewart turns to what the police say. But why do we care what the police say? Stewart wants Dahm to admit that he is making it hard for police to “manage the streets.” Is that the job of the police? To manage neighborhoods? Public safety is a human right. The police are organized to protect that right. Their job is not to “manage the streets,” which is a euphemism for “manage the people.” The police respond to threats to the people.  

Dahm is defending the individual’s right to keep and bear arms. Stewart says that this is different argument from the one he’d like to pursue. He says Dahm wants to say he is a Second Amendment purist, and he is making it safer, and he is not. Stewart says Dahm is making things more chaotic. Dahm is right that this is a matter of opinion. Referencing the police, Stewart wants to know why Dahm is taking away “their tools.” Because, Dahm says, this is an infringement on the rights of people. 

Stewart tries to draw a parallel with voting. Poor choice of analogy. This may come as a surprise to some of those reading this blog, but the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibiting the federal government and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, recognizing women’s right to equal suffrage, stating that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” and the 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, stating that “the right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age”—these prohibit discrimination in voting based on certain factor; they do establish an affirmative right to vote for all citizens.

This makes the right to vote, a political right, fundamentally different from the right to self defense, a natural right. Requiring a voter to be registered before casting a ballot, requiring him to prove that he is who he says he is at the poll by displaying a voter ID card, is not the same as requiring gun owners to register weapons or be licensed to use them. When Dahm turns this around on Stewart, Stewart says that he’s not the one making the argument. But he is. He attempted the parallel.

Where does Stewart come down on depriving a man of the right to vote on the grounds that he is felon? That restriction is practiced in most places in the United States and, in some states, the loss of the political right to participate in the formation of laws to which one is subject is permanent or very difficult to recover. If the political right to vote should not be denied on the grounds that a person is a felon or mentally ill, which I don’t believe it should, and I would expect Stewart to agree, then how can the civil right to weapons to make more effective the natural right to self defense be abridged?

Stewart resorts to a cliché: “rights have responsibility.” It depends on what one means by responsibilities. If this is referring to the responsibility those enjoying free speech have to not engage in hate speech then, no, such rights don’t have responsibilities. If, on the other hand, it means that a gun owner has the responsibility to keep and handle firearms in a safe and responsible manner that does not put others at risk, then sure. A person who acts in a reckless way will be held responsibility for their poor judgment.

In the extreme, the cliché risks communitarianism, which places the wellbeing of the community or society as a whole above that of individual rights and freedoms. But the American Creed is liberal, even libertarian in character. The American Creed emphasizes individual rights and freedoms, the ethic of individual autonomy and limited government intervention. Given that we are all members of the same species, the latter is not in contradiction with the former. But that convergence is emergent. Starting with the former goal, individuals become subordinated to those who presume to know what the wellbeing of the community or society requires–with an eye towards those individual rights and freedoms believed to obstacles to the realization of those presumptions.

To be sure, the substance of actions protected by a right has parameters. I will return to the example of speech. One cannot disrupt a gathering where disagreeable or offensive speech is being uttered (the “heckler’s veto”). Nor can one make true threat, i.e., utterances that a reasonable person would interpret as a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of violence or harm to another person or group. However, these cases are difficult to determine and it is understood that the government may not prohibit the publication or dissemination of speech or expression before it occurs, except in rare and narrowly defined circumstances, such as in cases involving national security or the safety of individuals. The “prior restraint” doctrine is intended to prevent government censorship and ensure that individuals and the media are free to express their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation or suppression.

Before readers see in this an opening to an analogous principle in preventing dangerous people form obtaining firearms, recognize that the amount of personal and private information that would have to be obtained in order to accomplish the preventative effect Stewart seeks would violate the privacy rights that undermine the Fourth and Fifth Amendments in the Bill of Rights.

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. This means that the government cannot search your person, your property, or seize your belongings without a warrant issued by a judge, based on probable cause. The Fourth Amendment ensures that individuals have a certain level of privacy in their homes and personal effects, free from government intrusion. The Fifth Amendment protects individuals from self-incrimination, which means that a person cannot be forced by authorities to talk to them.

The Supreme Court has interpreted these amendments as protecting an individual’s privacy interests. This interpretation has been used to strike down laws that infringe on a person’s privacy. In addition to these amendments, the Supreme Court has recognized a constitutional right to privacy based on the concept of personal autonomy. This right to privacy has been used to strike down laws that criminalize, for example, consensual sexual activity, such as same-sex relationships. To require a person seeking a firearm to provide personal health records is an invasion of their privacy.

* * *

Stewart raised Dahm’s opposition to Drag Queen Story Hour. This was a predictable move. The goal here was not so much to amplify the theme of hypocrisy he was leveling at Dahm, but to delegitimize him before his audience. Dahm reminded Stewart that his opposition was not about drag but about protecting children.

Dahm wondered why we can restrict children from voting. Stewart doesn’t let that crappy attempt as a response sink in and moves to where he wanted to go—the question of free speech, But the performer’s free speech is not the question at hand. The question at hand is the protection of children from sexualization by adults. Drag queens are not being stopped from exercising their free speech rights. They are only being told that they cannot sexualize children. What is being restricted is not drag but grooming and inappropriate sexual encounters between adults and children.

* * *

Stewart says that the leading cause of death among children in firearms. This is misleading. Guns, including accidental deaths, suicides, and homicides, were the leading cause of death in children and teens ages 1-19 years old in the United States in 2020. But it’s a bit of a trick to include 18 and 19 year olds in this statistic. Those who do so know that they will push gun deaths to the top of the list by including young adults, as firearm deaths are most common among young adults. Excluding young adults, the numbers look different. According to the CDC, the leading causes of death among children ages 1-4 are accidents (defined as unintentional injuries), followed by congenital malformations, and then homicide. For children ages 5-14, the leading cause of death is also accidents, followed by cancer and suicide. Stewart wants to you have an image in your head.

* * *

The Stewart-Dahm debate was witnessed by millions. Dahm had his moments. Folks are ill-advised to take on Stewart. He has honed his skills in the art of rhetoric. Steward is very good at manipulating emotions. One must not confuse manipulation with persuasion. Judged by the standards of reason, Stewart had a bad showing on this day.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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