The Magical Thinking Behind Gun Culture

In the minutes before an 18-year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist from Conklin, N.Y., drove to a Buffalo grocery store, where he is suspected of shooting 13 people while livestreaming the carnage, he obsessed over his equipment and, implicitly, his legacy.

Filmed in the teenager’s car, the footage unfolds unremarkably at first. He sits in the driver’s seat and futzes with the GoPro attached to his helmet. Then he fiddles with the helmet and places it in the passenger seat, next to firearms covered in white-nationalist slogans. The camera lingers on the glove box. A strange silence sets in, unbroken until he scoffs at his paltry viewership: “There’s only five people, but whatever.” He sighs and puts on the helmet, securing its chin straps. Then he checks his phone. His audience, it seems, has not meaningfully grown. “Thanks for the memes, bro,” he says. Finally, he begins driving, but only briefly. He pulls over and again looks at his phone. “I just wanna make sure,” he says.

The portion of the recording that later went viral is less than a minute long, distilling the shooting to its staggering violence. But this long preamble of deliberation and performance anxiety is as essential to the event as the gruesome climax.

Until he brandishes his weapon, the man onscreen is anonymous, his voice muffled and unaccented, his perspective indistinct. The manifesto he is believed to have written, publicized alongside the livestream, gratuitously cites Wikipedia, memes and conspiracies, his deepest convictions and passions crowdsourced. And throughout his racist writings, he routinely couches his statements in the future tense, his every thought and belief anticipatory, provisional, subjunctive.

The wavering at the start of the video captures the fragility of his plan and identity. He is auditioning for a place in the pantheon of American lynchmen, and a single hitch — a traffic stop, technical difficulties, a misunderstanding of his motives — could imperil his spot. But then he picks up a gun. And the way the gun centers him, resolving all this teetering and imbuing him with purpose, should frighten all Americans, gun owners or not.

The Buffalo shooting was livestreamed on the platform Twitch, which says it pulled the video within two minutes of the first gunshot. Within that time frame, which captures a sliver of the racist mayhem that terrorized the majority-Black East Side neighborhood and left 10 people dead, at least one viewer was able to copy the footage and soon began sharing it.

The largest tech companies curtailed access to the video in the days afterward. But it lives on, tweaked by anonymous users to bypass filters and algorithms, and uploaded to fringe file-sharing sites. Analysts estimate that millions of people have seen the recorded killings, and that many more eventually will, an outcome predicted and anticipated by the livestreamer.

In the wake of Buffalo, some elected officials have turned to technical and legislative answers to gun violence. The Democratic New York governor, Kathy Hochul, has argued that the livestream should have been cut more quickly, and called for platforms like Twitch and Discord, which hosted a log of the accused gunman’s plans, to be investigated. Officials have also turned their attention to expanding “red flag” laws, which vary across states but generally allow people to petition courts to confiscate the guns of those they deem dangerous to themselves or others, or prevent them from purchasing firearms to begin with. Though New York already had such a law, the Buffalo suspect, who reportedly talked about wanting to commit a murder-suicide a year before his rampage, was not identified for a red-flag intervention.

In late May, New York officeholders responded to that oversight by introducing a package of bills that, among other changes, raises the minimum age to purchase semiautomatic rifles and modifies the state’s red-flag law to broaden who can file petitions. In early June, Hochul signed the bills into law.

But these interventions, though worthwhile and pragmatic, don’t address the deeper questions raised by the livestream. I have watched it many times and have been angered and numbed by it in an exhausting loop. I’ve been trying to see through it — to dwell not just on its contents or its creator, but on its circuitry. The video is a snuff film, but you can also see it as a perversion of civic participation that posits guns as the ultimate podium, bullets as virtuous oratory.

The hate, of course, stands out. Payton Gendron, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges, seems to have been inspired by replacement theory, a eugenic conspiracy that suggests that immigrants and people of color are driving white people to extinction. But it’s the gun that actualizes his agency and hatred, pressing his beliefs into innocent bodies.

Replacement theory, at its heart, is a kind of libertarian colonialism. It insists that all resources, including life, should be controlled by white people, and that it is their right to annex whatever they covet and defend what they have seized. Paranoid and provincial — and outrageously ironic considering the United States is built upon centuries of displacement and plunder — the theory proposes that white people are endangered by interlopers intent on ousting them. Most significant, the bedrock of replacement theory is an extreme definition of personal responsibility that imagines violence as the sole guarantor of order and safety, and exclusively deputizes white people to wield it. Guns are central to this worldview, and the Buffalo video shows in real time their power to reify belief into deed.

The gravity of such power is built into the device, which is constructed with bolts and catches and guards to contain its might. But this engineering increasingly feels like theater. Every year, tens of thousands of people in the United States shoot themselves, partners, relatives, friends and strangers. These shootings stem from malice and illness as well as impulse, defense and mishap. Reducing access to or outlawing firearms would immediately lessen that manifold harm, but less clear is whether we’re willing to wean ourselves off gun mythology.

Americans increasingly depend on firearms to authorize our voices and values. We enlist them to affirm our identities, signal our politics and protect our homes. We place them under our pillows and car seats. We buy them for mass shootings, but also for birthdays, anniversaries and graduations.

This magical thinking — that one tool can do anything, protect everything — is ballasted by a tide of bodies so boundless that a sentence strains to hold it. To keep pace with the death, whole lives must be condensed to datelines and locations: Buffalo grocery store, Uvalde elementary school, Atlanta spa, El Paso Walmart, Las Vegas music festival, Louisville apartment.

The omnidirectional chaos of this steady liquidation can feel indiscriminate, but a rationale guides it. It rears its head throughout the Buffalo video, particularly in the clip’s final moments. Toward the end, the gunman, no longer unsure of himself, points his weapon at a white man whom he has shot, apologizes and turns away, presumably to go kill Black people. “Sorry!” he says. It scans as an act of mercy or kinship. The gun confirms it isn’t.

Above, from left: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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