The GOP war on youth: Spate of innocent stranger shootings shows perils of paranoid rhetoric

Gun Rights

Andrew Lester may have presented himself as a frail, cane-clutching old man in court, but it didn’t take long before people who knew him well were painting a different image in the press. The 84-year-old white Kansas City, Missouri resident has been accused of shooting Ralph Yarl, a Black high school junior, who reportedly rang Lester’s door after mistaking it for a house where he was to pick up his siblings. While some family members have loyally claimed Lester is a kind person, others are less generous. His grandson, Klint Ludwig, told the Kansas City Star that Lester is not just “staunchly right wing,” but addicted to “a 24-hour news cycle of fear and paranoia,” including “election-denying conspiracy stuff and COVID conspiracies.” Lester’s ex-wife told the New York Times, “I was always scared of him,” because he was would go into rage fits and smash her things. 

Ludwig is getting trashed by the right on social media, but for many who have helplessly watched older relatives fall down this rabbit hole of right-wing paranoia, his story felt all too familiar.

Lester’s story also kicked off a news cycle of similarly terrifying stories about other innocent young people getting shot for no good reason. 

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On Saturday, 65-year-old Kevin Monahan allegedly killed 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis, after a car the young woman was traveling in pulled into Monahan’s driveway in Hebron, New York by mistake. In Elgin, Texas on Tuesday, 18-year-old Payton Washington was shot while wearing her uniform, after her fellow cheerleader got in the wrong car for a moment by mistake. The alleged shooter, 25-year-old Pedro Tello Rodriguez Jr., reportedly chased the girls down before firing on them. In North Carolina, 24-year-old Robert Singletary allegedly shot four people, including a 6-year-old girl, in retaliation after the child’s basketball rolled into his yard on Tuesday. 

As these recent shootings demonstrate, young people are more threatened than a threat in 21st-century America.

The shooters range in age and race, and the victims are racially mixed, as well. But in every case, we have angry, paranoid men with guns harming — or killing — innocent young people who are just trying to live their lives. 

Right now, it’s safe to say that we’re in the midst of a broad but baseless moral panic about the youth, driven by the political ambitions of the Republican Party and the profit motives of the expansive right-wing propaganda machine. The alleged threats are pervasive: “Woke mobs” of young people will “cancel” conservatives. “Antifa” and “BLM” are coming to burn down cities. Young people’s acceptance of LGBTQ identities will somehow destroy American culture. Cities are crime-ridden hellscapes controlled by teenage gangs. Tactics like book banning are increasingly embraced by Republicans as the only alleged way to restrain these out-of-control youth. 

But, as these recent shootings demonstrate, young people are more threatened than a threat in 21st-century America. They are threatened in a very literal way. The leading cause of death to people under 18 years old in America is guns. Kids are more likely to die by a bullet than to be killed in a car accident or by a disease like cancer. The Republican war on youth isn’t just an abstract one of elderly Fox News junkies whining about “cancel culture” or “Black Lives Matter.” The war has a literal death count, due to the GOP embrace of lax gun laws, toxic masculinity and paranoia. 

In every case, we have angry, paranoid men with guns harming — or killing — innocent young people who are just trying to live their lives. 

“We are moving backwards,” lamented Anand Giridharadas, author of “The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy,” on MSNBC Thursday morning. Pointing to Fox News, Giridharadas described the “millions of people, their brains now addled” on “this propagandistic feeling that you’re in danger, that everyone’s a threat.”

He added: “A lot of our fellow citizens feel like they live in a castle. There is a moat. And anyone who crosses your moat, they need to be murdered.” 


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The right stokes paranoia relentlessly, and not just about crime. Kids are painted as a sexualized threat, due to non-stop hysteria about LGBTQ identities and themes of sexual liberation in books and popular music. And they’re painted as a cultural threat in starkly racist terms, with hosts on Fox News openly hyping the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that white people are being deliberately wiped out by the increasingly diverse younger generations. 

The panacea offered for these imaginary threats isn’t just “vote Republican,” but also “buy a gun.” Or really, buy lots of guns. The handsomely funded marketing campaigns for guns get a huge assist from the GOP and gun lobbies like the NRA in pushing the message that the way for people, especially men, to assuage their fears is to arm themselves to the teeth. Afraid of not being a “real” man? Afraid of teenagers laughing on the corner? Afraid of being “canceled” by activists on Twitter? Afraid of queer people in the classroom? All these paranoias would be better addressed in therapy, but that too, is seen as emasculating. So far too many men — most white, but certainely not all — go out and buy some more guns instead. 

We’ve been reminded of the intertwining tendrils of gun violence and anti-youth resentment repeatedly over the years. Sometimes it’s just plain terrifying, as in the shooting of Ralph Yarl. In some cases, there’s a comic pathos to it, as with the 2020 viral video of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, two rich Republican lawyers, threatening gun violence against peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters who just happened to be walking by their house. 

Gun industry profits depend on insecure customers like McCloskeys. Unfortunately, as these recent shooting stories show, guns remain incredibly dangerous. Gun nuts are overcompensating for their own flaws, but the bullet tears through the flesh either way. Indeed, guns are even more dangerous in the hands of the losers that gun marketers see as their target demographic. Paranoid or jealous people who want to believe the rest of the world is out to get them tend to be trigger-happy. And a favorite target will be young people, who “threaten” them by just being free and rambunctious. The war on young people isn’t just a war of words. In a culture awash in guns, there’s all too often real bloodshed. 

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