America's made-up culture of guns
We are a nation divided, as everyone knows. And what we need to fix that problem is to reach out, express some empathy, and show our opponents that we don't hate them even if we disagree.
Or at least, that's what liberals are supposed to do.
You can hear that argument everywhere on the subject of guns: Whatever policy changes liberals might be proposing, it's important to communicate to gun owners that you respect their culture and you don't mean to wage an assault on their way of life. When someone like retired Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens writes an op-ed in The New York Times calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment, it only convinces people that you're a bunch of gun-grabbers.
I'm all for respecting other people's cultures and taking their feelings into account. But when was the last time you heard someone implore conservatives to respect the culture of coastal or urban-dwelling liberals?
We're told that if you grew up around guns, then you're right to worry that your culture could be eroded, and we need to understand and sympathize with your perspective. But here's something that might surprise you: For millions of Americans, not having guns around is an important cultural value. It's part of how we define the kind of places we'd like to live. Since most Americans don't own guns, maybe that's worthy of respect and consideration, too.
We never seem to hear that — both sides of the gun issue may have opinions, but only one side is supposed to have a "culture." But it's important to understand that "gun culture" is a relatively recent invention.
Make no mistake, in the past a greater proportion of Americans owned guns than do today. As recently as 1977, half of American households had guns, according to the General Social Survey; by 2016 that number was down to 32 percent. But back when a far greater portion of the American public lived in rural areas and small towns than do today, there wasn't really anything like today's "gun culture." If you had a hunting rifle or a shotgun your dad gave you, as millions of Americans did, you weren't participating in an encompassing "culture" in which guns defined your identity. That gun was a tool, like a broom or a shovel or a cleaver.
But the gun culture of today, with so much fetishizaton of guns and an entire political/commercial industry working hard to spread and solidify the idea that guns are not just a thing you own but who you are, is what we're now expected to show respect for. For instance, the idea that anyone should be able to own military-style rifles designed to kill as many human beings in as short a period as possible, for no real reason other than the fact that some people think they're cool, is supposed to be a part of people's culture, no matter how ludicrous it would have seemed to your grandparents.
And when you say something is part of your culture, you're placing it beyond reasoned judgment. Its status as a component of culture infuses it with value that can't be argued against. I don't tell you that your religious rituals are silly, because they have deep meaning for those within that culture. Your ethnic group's traditional music may not be pleasing to my ears, but I'm not going to argue that it sucks and you ought to start listening to real music, defined as whatever I happen to like. The food your parents taught you to make from the old country might not be to my taste, but I'll appreciate it (at least once or twice) as a window into another aspect of our rich human tapestry.
In other words, when you place something in the sphere of culture, you automatically afford it a kind of conditional immunity from criticism. And you can demand that it be respected.
Nobody understands this better than gun advocates, who have been working to change the culture around guns, and our expectations about them, for some time. With only the most minimal restrictions on who can buy guns and what kind, their focus in recent years has been on putting guns in the hands of as many people as possible in as many places as possible. State laws have been passed to allow guns in government buildings, churches, schools, restaurants, even bars. They encourage people to get concealed carry licenses and to open carry whenever possible, to inculcate everyone with the idea that we should just expect to see guns wherever we go — until their culture becomes your reality, whether you like it or not.
And if you don't? You just need to show more respect. Liberals are told that in many ways, not just about guns. If you're a consumer of mainstream media, over the last year and a half you've seen approximately a zillion articles about what folks in the "heartland" think, particularly about the president — headlines with some variation of "In Trump Country, Trump Supporters Support Trump" have become so common it has turned into a punchline. But how many articles have you read where a journalist went into a city and sat down at a diner among the diverse urban dwellers to take their temperature on the state of the country?
To repeat, I'm a fan of respecting people's culture. But the "gun culture" promoted by gun advocates today is toxic. It's paranoid, angry, hostile, and is built on the idea that even the most modest restrictions on guns represent a cataclysmic evisceration of liberty. It's constantly fed fantasies of oppression and righteous violence in order to maintain its power — which of course keeps the customers buying more and more guns.
So let's ask a different question: What kind of a society do we want to create? If accepting your culture means that I also have to accept that 30,000 Americans are going to continue to be killed by guns every year, then that's just something I can't bring myself to respect.