The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Party

The best party ever is back for its tenth year.

Freedom is not about allowing people to do things that you approve of. Freedom is about protecting peoples’ rights to do things you find distasteful.

So said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute at its 10th Annual Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Party last Saturday.

The ATF party – "the most fun, most politically incorrect event of the year" – invites members of the public to "celebrate the perks of adulthood" by partaking in a "PETA-friendly clay pigeon shoot followed by a clubhouse luncheon complete with whiskey and cigars in one of the last places available to smokers – the outside".

As reported by C-Span:

"This year the forum focuses on personal liberties and gun rights. Participants discuss government regulation of tobacco, food and drink, and are critical of what some speakers call the "Nanny State". Other topics include the New York City ban on trans fats, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on certain soft drink sizes, global warming and this year’s presidential campaign.

It would be easy to dismiss an event where one of the speakers, David Matosko, considers global warming "an aggressive hoax" as yet another case-in-point to the sheer lunacy of the American 'right'. But much more lucid speakers, such as David Kopel, the Institute’s Research Director, point to some unpalatable truths about the hypocrisy and intolerance that plague both sides of the partisan fence.

Kopel begins by criticising Mayor Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns as a powerful lobby for the prohibition of guns in general, rather than simply the prohibition of illegal guns. He goes on to state that the there are 19 members of the group "who have left office for felony convictions, or are under indictment (...). Mayor Bloomberg's organisation has a much higher crime rate than people who have permits to carry guns for lawful protection. I think in the interest of truth in advertising that the proper way to refer to this group is Illegal Mayors Against Guns.".

The tongue-in-cheek tone of the party is later sobered by Kopel's call to divert Colorado tax money from unconstitutional "corporate welfare" to more grassroots community projects. In particular reference to the Aurora shooting this summer, the speaker calls for more investment in mental health services.

He later highlights the glaring hypocrisy of a country that has banned smoking in films, but emphatically glorifies violent gun misuse. Kopel argues that violence is indisputably condoned, but the key is to encourage a responsible gun sports culture:

We are not only on the pro-choice side, we are on the pro-life side as well. What we do every day is to fight for those lifesaving values of safety responsibly.

The underlying ethos of the ATP is best summarised by Caldara himself – in many places, a liberal accepting gun culture is as socially unacceptable as being against same-sex marriage. In this sense, the ATP stands as an attack to the tribal, divisive, and outright illogical divide that keeps the USA in gridlock.

As Rob Dreher notes:

As with so much in contemporary American politics, the gun control issue is not about reason and dispassionate analysis of the facts. It's about emotional assertion and rhetorical bullying amid an atmosphere of mutual incomprehension.

The ATF logo. Photograph: Getty Images
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United States of Emergency: will the North Carolina riots stain Obama's legacy?

The latest flare up of violence in the US is a reminder that the election of the first black president did not herald a new age of post-racial harmony.

Last April I travelled to Baltimore the morning after the Governor of Maryland had declared a state of emergency in the city, following riots that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Time had just published a poignant article comparing images of disorder on America's streets in 2015 with those 50 years earlier, during the struggles of the civil rights era. However, the scene that greeted my companion and I as we looped round the I-95 into the inner harbour looked more like photos we had seen of Helmand in 2001, or Mosul in 2003. Except this wasn't Baghdad, it was Baltimore – the birthplace of Edgar Allen Poe, Babe Ruth and The Star Spangled Banner. And yet it was clearly a warzone, for how else could you explain the presence of 4,000 national guardsmen, either poking out of armoured vehicles or patrolling the streets with automatic weapons?

During the protests that have erupted in Charlotte, and elsewhere, following the shooting of yet another black man by the police, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has warned against this kind of violence becoming the “new normal”. As North Carolina governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency on Thursday morning, the horrible truth was that the normalcy of it all was plain to see. Such is the frequency with which riot police and even soldiers have been deployed on America's streets over the past few years, that the “United States of Emergency” would not seem like an inaccurate rebranding. Of course all of this civil disobedience plays into the hands of a Republican presidential candidate who is making the restoration of “law and order” one of the central tenets in his bid for power.

It is not hard to see the desperation on Obama's face as he reaches the denouement of his own tenure. While the 44th President's political legacy will be debated for years to come, it is now obvious that one thing it did not herald was a new era of post-racial harmony. America's obsession with symbolism almost willed him to the White House but as so often is the case with US politics: the higher the pretensions, the harder the fall. 

Charlotte doesn't represent anything particularly unique in this long struggle against police racism. It's just another place name to be added to Ferguson, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and dozens of others that could form a particularly grim tourist trail. The horrible truth is that as long as there have been black men in America – especially in places like Charlotte – they have always been unfairly targeted by police. For decades in the South these same forces were the “thin white line” promulgating a form of apartheid against the black majority. The difference now is that 21st century technology allows witnesses to capture and disseminate proof of this worldwide. The power of images to expose racial violence is unquestionable. The campaigner Mamie Till, mother of Emmett, knew this when she published photos of her son's mutilated corpse in 1955. As did George Holliday when he filmed Rodney King's beating in 1991.

There is a kind of despair when it comes to trying to find solutions to America's devastating gun and racial problems. Unfortunately neither presidential candidate seems to offer much hope of significant change. One is perceived as being in thrall to big business (of which the gun lobby represents a significant part) and the other, well, it is not hard to imagine Trump's glee at further proof of how “broken” and disorderly the country is under the Democrats. Both of their reactions to this latest incident have been muted. If either of them care at all about fixing this problem they need to take action and it needs to be drastic. The late comedian Robin Williams once quipped that in Britain the police shout: “Stop! Or I'll shout Stop again”. In America that first “stop” is all too often followed by a much louder sound.

The problem is that whenever a “taskforce” is created to fix the problem – such as Obama's 21st century policing initiative – its recommendations are always non-binding. On top of this is the fact that there are nearly 20,000 distinct police departments in the US representing a myriad of vested interests and demographic differences, and all adhering to slightly different codes of conduct. American police need to revert from a militarised occupying force to a pacific consensual one, perhaps by sending officers out unarmed. Unfortunately the likelihood of this happening with either a Trump, or even Clinton, presidency is sadly close to none. 

Alexis Self is a writer based in New York City.