What Both Sides Don’t Get About American Gun Culture

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Amid the horrors of a mass shooting, it’s easy to forget that guns are social glue—and gun control efforts that don’t account for that will fail.

The two recent mass shootings have inflamed a gun-control debate that never seems to go away and never seems to get resolved.

In the span of less than 24 hours, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, joined a morbid parade of American cities and towns—places such as Littleton, Colorado; Virginia Beach, Virginia; San Bernardino, California; Las Vegas; and Pittsburgh—as sites of tragic, mass shootings. In the not quite eight months of 2019, there have been seven such attacks. After each one, political leaders of all stripes send their thoughts and prayers to the families of the victims, and Democrats and Republicans offer radically different responses.

Democrats decry inaction on gun regulation. They blame the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby and claim, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it Sunday morning, “The Republican Senate’s continued inaction dishonors our solemn duty to protect innocent men, women and children and end this epidemic once and for all.”

Republicans counter that gun laws aren’t the problem and that mental illnesses lead to gun violence. In the immediate aftermath of mass killings, shooters frequently are branded social misfits. Thus people who know Patrick Crusius, the alleged perpetrator of the carnage in El Paso, described him as “quiet, antisocial and a bit ‘strange.’”

“Guns,” we are told, “don’t kill people. … People kill people.”

High-mindedly, Americans see themselves as locked into a perpetual stalemate over the meaning and limits of the Constitution’s guarantee of a right to bear arms. Somewhat less high-mindedly, liberals see gun owners as captured by the NRA, and pro-gun conservatives feel anxious about the possibility of Washington bureaucrats stripping them of their capacity for self-defense.

But America’s stalemate on guns runs deeper than that. It’s also based on an important mistake that both sides make about guns themselves and their role in society.

The view of guns as neutral tools, a view shared by conservative defenders of gun rights as well as liberal advocates of gun regulation, misses a crucial fact about guns and gun ownership. It wrongly assumes that the distribution of guns and their presence in their owners’ lives are totally independent facts that don’t shape the opportunities and choices of the people who use them.

But increasingly, research into the culture and political views of gun owners is painting a very different portrait. Gun owners’ politics don’t generally fall into lockstep with the NRA—but guns themselves are woven into people’s lives in ways that go far beyond a tool. This suggests that the path to gun law reform won’t be as simple as liberals might hope or conservatives might fear.

most of gun owners refrain from pushing for greater regulation of guns because they neither trust the government nor believe that it will protect them.

One of the most authoritative and interesting surveys of the attitudes of gun owners was conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017. That survey shows the vast majority of Americans who own guns are not members of the NRA and that most favor some form of gun control. However, most refrain from pushing for greater regulation of guns because they neither trust the government nor believe that it will protect them. They often resent the disdain for their way of life of the kind expressed by President Barack Obama when he suggested they “cling to guns or religion” as a way of expressing “antipathy to people who aren’t like them … as a way to explain their frustrations.” They see themselves as on their own in a dangerous world.

The sale, manufacture, distribution, purchase and production of guns, as well as the views of their owners, are, in part, responses to the perceived weakness of the government and the perceived need for constant vigilance and a concomitant interpersonal fear. As dangerous weapons, guns offer a form of direct power in a world where trust and civic belonging are in short supply. The Pew poll reported that 67 percent of gun owners said protection is a major reason they own a gun; 38 percent cited hunting, 30 percent listed sport shooting, and 13 percent listed gun collecting as major reasons.

But culturally, guns aren’t just a reaction to anxieties. In a way gun control advocates rarely consider, but gun owners may find obvious, they’re a meaningful social asset for their owners. In a fragmented society, guns connect people at a time when making connections is ever more difficult.

In part because of their danger and allure and in part because they’re the center of a sporting culture with deep American roots, guns draw adherents together in contexts like expos, gun ranges, and online chatrooms. At the recreational level, participants can indulge in hobbyist debate and discussion; on a political and cultural level, they can also forge a shared commitment to armed citizenship.

Gun owners bond over their shared fear of diffuse and unpredictable threats of contemporary life. The Pew survey concluded: “Many, but not all, gun owners exist in a social context where gun ownership is the norm. Roughly half of all gun owners say that all or most of their friends own guns. … In stark contrast, among the non-gun owning public, only one-in-ten say all or most of their friends own guns.”

Those social connections help organize gun owners’ lives and make them meaningful. Seen in this light, as sociologist David Yamane puts it, “Guns are normal and normal people use guns.”

As we mourn the victims in El Paso and Dayton and demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice, America’s political leaders, especially those who seek more stringent regulation, must recognize that guns are, for many of those who own them, something more than mere instruments of deadly force. They express and change the way people understand their own political identities and the powers they have as citizens. Guns help make some visions of society possible while destroying others. For their owners, guns are the material embodiments of good citizenship.

Any real gun law reform is going to need to take this community and value system into account. Liberals need gun owners as allies. Today, in the wake of more mass shootings, good citizenship requires that the millions of gun owners who say they support gun regulation do more than think about their own way of life. They need to turn that support into vocal activism. In so doing, they may help bring about changes necessary to protect the communities that we all share.

In order for them to be willing to do so, gun owners need assurance that liberal gun reform advocates will not march down a slippery slope from red-flag laws, regulating semi-automatic weapons and large capacity magazines and closing the gun-show loophole to intrusive regulations that start to break down a culture that millions of people value greatly—one that enriches their lives and whose roots go back before America’s founding.

 

This article was originally published in politico

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