America is caught on the horns of a dilemma: how do we reduce rampage violence while honoring the Second Amendment, which has been interpreted to guarantee access to firearms? I addressed one possible solution to this issue in the first entry in this series, where I advocated the idea of a comprehensive ban on semi-automatic rifles and handguns — you can read that here. I addressed another idea, that of reducing access to weapons by dangerous people, here. In this article I’ll take a third path — that of reducing rampage shootings by tackling gun culture and gun mythology.
See, here’s the thing about firearms in America… our inability to control them (and I don’t just mean legally) is not just an issue of availability, or just an issue of dangerous people getting their hands on weaponry. It’s also a direct reflection of the impact of gun culture in the country: the way we look at guns, the way we think about guns, and the way our identities are shaped around those conceptual frameworks. America is a gun-toting nation, not just in reality but also in the mind.
There are, I think, several different aspects of this phenomenon. In short, these are as follows:
- Guns are seen as underpinning our freedoms.
- Guns are seen as empowering their owners.
- Americans are programmed from an early age to believe that guns are a solution to problems.
- Guns are cool.
In the first place, there has been an extremely comprehensive and well-coordinated effort, led by the NRA (among other “gun-rights” organizations — more on the quotations in a moment) and conservative media, to conflate the ideas of gun ownership and freedom. It is now virtually impossible to have any rational debate on the subject of gun control precisely because a large portion of the American populace regards firearms ownership as an essential component of maintaining Americans’ rights. Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, just gave an absolutely fantastic illustration of this point at CPAC.
Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the real, no-kidding truth: gun ownership has absolutely no correlation with your ability to maintain your rights. We know this because there have been many, many empirical case studies around the world in the form of other countries’ gun laws. Lots of places have freedom that don’t have a rifle in every home; therefore, rifles in every home are not necessary to maintain freedom. There are a whole laundry list of other things that are necessary, but that’s a different conversation. Australia is doing just fine without guns. The UK is doing just fine without guns. Switzerland is doing just fine with lots of guns, too, but that’s not the point.
In contrast, a lot of places with extremely lax gun laws have no rights at all. Somalia for many years had no gun laws whatsoever. It was a hellhole of anarchy, but you could totally own a gun. Thus we can conclude that having guns is not a sufficient precondition for freedom, either.
It is virtually impossible to convince any hardcore gun-rights advocate of the above statements. Their worldview and narrative framework will not allow this concept to exist, and so it is rejected out of hand, typically with some cherry-picked examples of situations where lack of guns led to tyranny (and completely ignoring all the other factors that led to the emergence of a tyrant).
Unfortunately the pro-gun lobbyists have the solid backing of the gun industry, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually, as well as a national propaganda machine in the form of conservative radio talk shows, news media, YouTube channels, and NRA TV. And they don’t stop; while the rest of the world moves on from each mass shooting tragedy, these organizations keep pumping their “freedom depends on guns” message into the national consciousness.
It is a sad truth that human beings are susceptible to reinforced messaging — if you tell someone something over and over again, they start to believe you, regardless of the truth of the statement. It’s especially handy if you can tie the narrative into a national origin story, in this case the story that the colonial militias defeated Britain in the Revolutionary War. The current crowd of gun rights groups is doing both, to great effect, and it’s completely warping the debate in this countries beyond the bounds of rationality.
Moving on, these same publications and media outlets tend to portray gun ownership as an essential component of a person’s empowerment. You very rarely see a negative story about firearms ownership in the NRA’s American Rifleman publication, for example — it’s all stories about how owning a gun prevented a robbery or stopped an assault. The message is that you aren’t safe without a weapon.
This kind of makes sense, right? It sounds truthy. It meets the common sense threshold. But the statistics don’t back it up — everything we actually count seems to show that households with firearms are actually less safe (because, you know, suicides and accidents). But this is the sort of logic that doesn’t work on most people, because everyone naturally assume that they won’t screw up and accidentally shoot themselves, and they’re certainly not suicidal.
Despite these reassurances, about 4% of the population report having suicidal thoughts — and that’s just the reported number. That doesn’t sound too bad until you realize it means that if you know 25 people, at least one of them is probably feeling suicidal. Add to that the knowledge that suicidal ideation correlates with depression, and around 10% of all women and 5% of all men will report clinical depression at some point in their lifetime (and again, that’s just the reported number). And that’s not even touching the average human’s ability to screw up and forget to unload a weapon, or hand it to a toddler for safekeeping.
Additionally, there is significant evidence that shows that middle-aged white men, particularly those who are in difficult economic straits, are more likely to purchase firearms out of a feeling of personal empowerment. Perhaps this is due to the aforementioned conflation of gun ownership with freedom. Perhaps it’s due to the realization that a gun gives its owner the ability to enforce his will on the world — even if he doesn’t actually do so. This may be a powerful influence on people who feel that they lack control in their lives or are being left behind by modern culture and economics.
Ok, so now we have a culture where guns are tied to both freedom and personal empowerment. What else is going on? Well, Americans still largely hold to the mythology of the “good guy with a gun,” or “cowboy” narratives. This is, if you think about it, a natural outgrowth of the former two points. If you have a device that is essential to upholding your freedoms and is providing you with personal empowerment to secure your own safety, it makes sense to move on to the logical conclusion that more good guys with guns would be a good thing for society.
Remember the NRA articles I mentioned earlier? Yeah, those were all “good guys” with guns who defeated “bad guys” with guns, right? So, if we increase the number of good guys with guns, we’ll soon run out of bad guys, right? This is a binary story, and it is reinforced over, and over, and over again in movies and on TV. I don’t even feel the need to provide links here, it’s manifestly evident. Americans are taught from the youngest age that solutions to major problems are possible through violence: guns make the bad men go away.
Here’s the catch: the world isn’t black and white. Try to remember that everyone is the hero of their own story. Almost no one wakes up in the morning and thinks to themselves “I’m going to go stick up a bank for the sheer hell of it.” No, mostly it’s people who do things for reasons that they think are justified. Even the mass shooters, particularly the school shooters, seem to be trying to use violence to re-establish control over their lives (or in some cases, make a name for themselves). In essence, they were exactly buying into the “personal empowerment” messaging — they were just taking it a step too far. The “good guy with a gun” narrative gets a little scary if you start thinking about all the things “good guys” have done throughout history.
Last but not least, we live in a materialist culture that values cool stuff. Why do people buy Dodge Chargers? Is it because they plan to go 200 mph on the highway? Of course not. It is because they get great gas mileage and function perfectly? Of course not. It’s because they’re cool. The same thing applies to firearms, in in particular the much-maligned AR-15. Here’s an experiment: go Google “AR-15 accessories” on image search and see what pops up. I’ll wait.
… Yeah, that showed a lot of Call of Duty-type mods, didn’t it? Almost like they were selling guns to sell accessories. Because that’s exactly what they’re doing. A significant element of modern gun culture rests on buying cool shit, covering it in more cool shit, then showing off your cool shit to the guys at the range and being proud of your cool shit. There’s a reward mechanism built into this, as well as a significant financial investment.
Neither of these are conducive to discussions about gun control that involve the AR-15 and weapons like it — “Why should I be punished for someone else’s crime, I’m not violent, I just like guns,” says the man with a $3,000 AR that he’s tricked out with another $1,500 worth of accessory products, who receives compliments on that same weapon every time he shows up at the rifle range. This man is not going to be happy if you take his gun away. From his perspective the gun is roughly equivalent to a nice car in terms of social status markers, and moreover one that he keeps waxed in his garage and only drives on sunny weekends. He doesn’t own the gun because it can kill thirty people in fifteen seconds, he owns it because it’s cool, and he can’t imagine why you think he might be dangerous (because, dang it, he’s a “good guy”).
So — we have a series of factors in play here that make Americans more culturally accepting of guns and less likely to support gun control. The upshot of this is that as a nation we are now virtually incapable of rationally discussing the utility of firearms, because the discussion isn’t actually about firearms anymore. It’s about freedom, empowerment, our feelings of self-determination, and our ability to own cool things.
This was, frankly, a brilliant move on the part of the gun lobby. And it’s one we have to get over as a nation, because it is tainting our ability to be rational about an important concept. With that in mind, I propose the following points:
- Seriously increase our education in civics (in school and out). Make sure that children (and adults) know that it is our legal system, education system, economic system, culture, lack of tolerance of corruption, freedom of speech, and votes that promote democracy — not firearm ownership.
- Seriously increase funding for guidance counselors, psychologists, and social workers in schools. Kids who are likely to seek empowerment through violence are slipping through the cracks now, simply because the school system has systematically de-valued the positions that make catching them possible.
- Seriously start thinking about providing guidance on other areas that lead to empowerment in peoples’ lives. Increasing local programs to provide job assistance, counseling, and re-training opportunities might help in that regard.
- Seriously start providing education about the types of firearms that provide effective self-defense options. “Assault rifle”-type weapons rarely meet the mail on this one, for a variety of reasons (not the least of which is that everyone forgets to ask what the backstop is going to be if you ripple off 30 rounds of .223 at 3200 fps in the middle of the neighborhood).
- Makes “rails” illegal. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look at the picture at the head of this article. See the rib-like indentation on the stock of the rifle? Those are rails. They make it easier to mount lots of accessories. Remove the rails, you remove part of the cool. Sure, the firearms manufacturers will immediately just hard-build the stuff onto their product, but that’s not as much fun, now is it?
- Paint all guns pink. This removes the “badass” look from the perception of weapons, and has the handy side effect of making them highly visible. Require a license and mandatory training course for any gun not painted pink.
- Treat firearms ads the same way we treat cigarette and liquor advertisements. Keep them out of newspapers and magazines, and away from children.
- De-emphasize firearms on TV. You don’t even have to do this entirely, just make more shows like MacGyver, or Batman, where firearms are not the preferred solution to problems for the protagonist.
I’ll be honest, we can’t do a lot about most of this stuff. Culture is inherently resistant to outside tampering, at least without going down the rabbit hole of authoritarian Big Brother-style tactics. The only way to defeat the modern perversion of “gun culture” is to start a different culture — one more focused on real solutions to real problems, one focused on de-emphasizing the “cool” aspect of killing machines, and one focused on providing people with real information about their world.
And for God’s sake… stop believing the NRA.