Gun Culture

Whatever the Second Amendment means, the problem for our society is that we have internalized the notion not only that we have the right to own guns, but we all should actually own one.  The NRA’s political and legal successes have led to a state of affairs in which even pacifist, urban nerds who rarely shed their loafers, let alone don hunting camo, feel compelled to buy firearms.  The legal right, though still subject to regulation, has become all but unimpeachable, and has generated a cultural norm.  What is the evidence for this?  First, notwithstanding the highly contested nature of the claim that gun ownership makes us safer, gun sales shot up in Colorado and throughout the country in the days following the killings in Aurora.  Second, and not quantitatively, I have recently learned that relatives and neighbors, who more or less fit the urban-nerd description above, own guns, even though they confess to being utterly unprepared to use them.

Dan Kahan has persuasively argued that cultural norms and identity drive perceptions about the gun control policy debate.  But the political tide in recent years seems to have eclipsed that useful insight.  The NRA’s lobbying might (backed by a seemingly endless stream of money from gun manufacturers and distributors) has made discussions about gun control toxic for republicans and a loser for democrats, so legislative reform is typically dead on arrival, particularly in election years.  (Sandy Levinson, among others, has pointed out the lame nature of Romney and Obama’s initial reactions to the Aurora shootings.)  In other words, the gun control policy debate is largely over, and one set of cultural norms (those that associate gun ownership with tradition, freedom, and liberty) not only prevailed over the policy, but now threaten to swamp the rest of the culture too.

With the legal right to own guns entrenched, and the policy forum all but captured by the NRA, might there now be room to fight back on the norm?  What if we started to make statements like the following:  “There may be a legal right to be free from certain kinds of gun regulation, and for some individuals and communities, gun use may be appropriate, but that does not mean that every man and woman should actually own a gun.”

It seems at least worth a try.  While empirical evidence supporting gun control laws may be equivocal, there is less evidence to support the proposition that universal gun ownership makes us safe.  The Aurora shooting provides some indication of why the evidence is lacking.  Those intent on mass murder rarely act in circumstances that allow their victims to respond with care and deliberation.  In Aurora, the shooter released smoke throughout an already dark theater before spraying the crowd with rapid-fire rounds from his semi-automatic.  In addition, many gun owners who did not grow up around guns learned to shoot only in the structured environment of a firing range.  They are not prepared, mentally or physically, to shoot to kill.  And that may be to the good, because the ultimate argument is not empirical.  It is about what our country would look and feel like if we decided to make it “safe” by arming every man and woman and expecting them to shoot their way to a secure civil society.   We would live in a world where we all stand armed, ready to kill one another in order to be safe.  That does not sound like freedom to me.

In the wake of Aurora, there have been some hopeful signs that the way we talk about guns may be shifting.  Perhaps the NRA’s near-hegemony on gun rights will, ironically, open space to talk about the wrongs of gun ownership, legal or not.  There are lots of voices that could join in this chorus, irrespective of their views about the law.  And there are plenty of analogies to draw from.  Legal prohibition of alcohol proved to be a flop, but the fact that every adult can buy booze does not translate into a norm that everyone should drink.  Cigarettes are not (yet?) per se illegal, but norms about smoking have come to an about-face from the Madmen days.  The list could go on.  The point is that the NRA succeeded in tying culture to gun rights in order to win political and legal battles.  It is time to decouple the legal right from the cultural norm, and put guns back in their limited place.

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2 Responses to Gun Culture

  1. I walked into Boulder Gunsport the other day to buy a new holster belt, and I saw exactly what you were describing: A liberal urban-nerd couple shopping for a handgun. The arguably well intentioned male was clearly ignoring the store-owner’s gaze and offers to help, as he explained to his female companion the difference between a double and single action semi-automatic. “The single action is safer because you have to activate the safety before you pull the trigger.” She seemed struck by his loafer-ed knowledge of all things. He proceeded to choose for her a ludicrously ill-fitted antique Colt Officer’s Model 1911 .45 caliber handgun that barely fit in her hand, as “the added bulk will absorb most of the recoil.” The store-owner and I exchanged hopeless glances as I paid for my belt and left the store, leery of ever meeting the two of these individuals on the streets of Boulder on a dark night.
    Two huge problems with this: the first is obvious, you have a man shopping for a woman, clearly with no idea as to what would properly “suit” her other than what he may have read on the internet or “done heard somewheres.” The novel thought of asking her “what do you think you would like?” apparently never occurred to him, as I saw him steer her right past the glass case of snubnosed .38 specials she was eyeing on to the “man candy” heavy duty semi-auto case. Whenever I’ve been asked by a female friend to help them choose a gun, I usually recommend a modern double-action revolver with a transfer bar safety for a few reasons. They are the most fool-proof personal defense firearm available, you don’t need to clean them, there is no way for them to go off by themselves unless you apply the 9 pounds of trigger pull, they require minimal training to use effectively in comparison to semi-automatics, and, perhaps most importantly, they can be safely and effectively carried, and fired, in a purse or clutch. However, rather than simply recommending a one-size-fits-all approach, the first step is usually taking said female out to a firing range so she can try out a number of different types of guns so she can see the advantages or disadvantages of each one. I’ve never been so fool-hardy as to buy a dress or piece of lingerie for a female companion without first asking them to try it on, as the perils of guessing an incorrect fit or size are far to great when weighed against the rewards. This is certainly no different in my opinion.
    The second main problem with this approach, was that the guy had the “know-it-read-it-all” mentality of most urban nerds with a cable modem. Never mind the fact that the folks at Gunsport are some of the most professional people I’ve ever interacted with, they’ve always answered my questions without judgment of my ignorance, and have been helpful and eager to educate myself and other patrons on anything, with the type of detail and explanation that comes from direct experience, not second hand knowledge of internet gun blogs. What are the odds that this guy and gal pair will ever learn how to safely and properly use their new purchase? Slim to nil in my eyes, and that scares me more frankly than any crazed mass shooter. When it comes down to it, the number of mass shooters will be limited by the number of disturbed individuals. The number of idiots is increasing on an geometric scale with the release of each new Twilight or 50 Shades movie.
    Not that forcing people to take classes as a prerequisite for gun ownership is the answer, either. I’ve taken a few, just to see what I could learn that my pappy and friendly neighborhood gunstore owner couldn’t teach me. The answer is, not much. In fact, I think the classes, if taught by the wrong instructor, can actually be more dangerous. The one I had to take to get my CHL was a joke, taught by a wanna-be Steven Seagal. He was completely wrong on the self defense laws in the state, and I thought the knowledge he imparted would do more harm than good in most cases. It’s a scary world out there, after all, and I’m not sure what the right answer is here. Especially when it seems that no amount of laws would have prevented the Aurora shooting. For now, I’ll just keep my loafers and .44 magnum shiny and at the ready (hint, the loafers are better for self defense if used quickly, as fleeing is generally the smart armed man’s approach to any hairy situation).

    • Sarah Krakoff says:

      Well said in all respects. And I appreciate the insight about the gun classes. Spread the word it does not make you cool, or safe, to own a gun if you are not cool or safe (with guns) to begin with!

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