The Cost of Perpetuating Our Gun Culture
Central to the American cultural ethos is a sense of rugged individualism and dogged self-reliance in the face of oppression. This cultural mythology shapes the conception of our past in the countless dramatic representations of the archetypal hero who courageously tames the wild frontier and shoots it out with his enemies who threaten his freedom. Perhaps the principle symbol of this cultural legacy of individuality, restless action, and lethal violence is the gun. Firearms have come to be so fetishized in our culture and so important to our sense of identity that it precludes us from acknowledging the unfortunate self-destructive effect of this obsession. Any attempt to engage in a rational discussion of intelligent gun control policy meets with such fierce resistance that it seems likely that pro-gun advocates liken restrictions on gun ownership and possession as a sort of emasculation. Take away a man’s gun and you might as well take away his…You get the picture.
While America’s cultural tradition of individualism and determination are commendable attributes of our cultural identity, it is unfortunate that these traits of our national character have been usurped and skillfully employed by the gun industry to block legislation that would restrict access to guns. It would be an understatement to state that America has a gun problem. Considering how pervasive gun ownership is and how jaded we are as an audience to the daily news of gun violence and mass killings it seems to have gotten to the point that we as a society accept gun violence as a normal part of our lives. The fact is that the mass tragedies that occur with disturbing regularity, where an emotionally unstable individual decides to act out his violent fantasies and embarks on a killing spree are the inevitable result of our cultural obsession with guns.
If guns are in abundant supply and readily accessible, it only makes sense that people will use them. The use of guns and the undeniable social, economic, and physical damage that it does is without doubt to our society’s overall detriment. The very existence of our vibrant gun culture in the face of the terrible social injury caused by the proliferation of firearms shows the cultural power of the gun industry, whose highly emotionally-charged, yet irrational arguments that gun ownership is somehow intrinsic to our preservation of fundamental rights, liberties, and national character has usurped our national common sense and obfuscated the real issue.
The real questions are: Does a man need a gun to be a man? Does the proliferation of firearms and easy access to guns make America safer? Does individual gun ownership actually make our homes and our persons safer from attack, or is this just fantasy? Do we benefit from an emotionally unstable fringe element that feels that individual gun ownership or stockpiling dangerous firearms is some sort of safeguard against the tyranny of the majority? Isn’t armed uprising something we want to avoid and doesn’t it signify a complete breakdown of democratic government? Do we really want guns to solve our individual personal and emotional problems in society? Why are our politicians so afraid to take on the gun lobby and make the necessary reforms to deal with the public health problem caused by gun violence?
America certainly has a violent past. However, what distinguishes the US from other high income, democratic nations, is the level of gun violence that plagues our schools, streets, and homes. David Hemenway, a professor of Public Health at Harvard, examined the problem of gun violence from a public health perspective in his book Private Guns Public Health. Hemenway observes that our public health crisis caused by gun violence is a product of the easy access to firearms and a permissive cultural ethos where an extremely high tolerance for lethal violence is thought necessary in order to bulwark against state infringement of individual liberty. It is instructive to ask, if society is a whole is not benefitting on the aggregate from the widespread proliferation of guns, then who is benefitting from our gun culture? The answer: the gun industry, whose money funds the gun lobby, which is the puppet master that pulls the politicians’ strings and makes sure the puppets do not sign any legislation that would cut into the gun industry’s profits.
Pro-gun advocates reflexively consider any gun control measures as veiled attempts to take away their guns and use the 2ndAmendment to shoot down many state laws that would restrict access to firearms. While the 2ndAmendment states in relevant part the right of “a well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” this is typically ambiguous legislative language that does not directly say citizens have a fundamental right to own guns. The two interpretations of this are (1) that it supports the right of individual to keep and bear arms or, alternatively (2) it merely condones the right of the military and police to keep and bear arms in defense of the public. As many astute commentators have observed, it is ridiculous to assume that allowing individual citizens to stockpile weapons would in any way serve to strengthen a lawful, democratic society or protect us from tyranny. As Hemenway notes, if widespread access to guns actually promoted self-defense and security then America would be one of the safest places instead of being a place where gun violence is rampant and out of control. Discounting the random shooting rampages and mass killings that happen with increasing regularity, everyday gun violence in American cities like Chicago and Detroit is a serious social and public health issue that demands attention.
In recognizing the cultural tradition of the gun as the iconic American symbol it is of instructive to appreciate the origin of this cultural mythology. While pro-gun advocates will attest to the fact that guns were central to the historical experience in America this fact does not distinguish the US from other countries whose past is marked by violent struggle. Obviously the development of the gun is relevant in so far as a country’s military history is concerned, but how did the gun become such a dominant icon in the minds of the citizenry such that it represents freedom, autonomy, and masculinity. A lot of that image had to do with marketing. Samuel Colt is credited with being the true great innovative genius in the gun industry. Not only did he employ mass production manufacturing techniques that made guns, particularly pistols, readily affordable, he had a gift for marketing his product. His advertising posters helped to create and perpetuate the myth that a man was not a man unless he owned and could shoot a gun. Colt commissioned artist George Catlin to paint his legendary advertising posters that depicted classical images of the masculine, patriotic man and his gun. He creatively exploited the images of America’s heroic past and in the process made himself a wealthy man. He also created a cultural legacy that we have inherited to this day.
The image of the gun as a symbol of masculinity was perpetuated by Hollywood and popular culture. Archetypal heroes in Westerns and gangster movies played upon our cultural fascination with the gun and the god-like power of destruction that it bestowed upon its possessor. These fictional heroes acted out the public’s repressed fantasies of violently subduing its enemies in defense of a cowering and inept society. Even today gun violence is glorified in movies in socially irresponsible ways that perpetuate the ideology that extreme violence is an acceptable way to solve problems, resolve conflict, and assert one’s individual will.
Hemenway acknowledges that our cultural attitudes toward guns stand in the way of effectively approaching the problem of gun violence and working toward real solutions. Instead of portraying guns as cool, masculine, and courageous symbols of the archetypal American hero, it would be more responsible to show how guns are actually used and the results that follow. Instead casting the gun-toting individual as heroic, it would often be more appropriate to project the perpetrator of gun violence as cowardly and devious, often ambushing an unarmed, unaware public or shooting his adversary in the back. Most of the mass shooting tragedies in Aurora, Columbine, Tucson, and Virginia Tech have resembled the kind of senseless, systematic violence characteristic of violent video games. Our popular culture creates the image of the omnipotent gun-wielding hero, which is fueled in imagination by the violent video games and movies that flesh out this fantasy. It is the easy access to firearms that make these violent fantasies an unfortunate reality that forces the deadly cost on society as a whole.
In the debate on gun control it is unfortunate that we are locked into the paradigm where we mistakenly equate our ready access to guns with freedom, instead of acknowledging the real costs of this deadly legacy. Hemenway advocates approaching this problem from a public health perspective that seeks to minimize the injuries that result from firearms as opposed to focusing on punishing the perpetrator of gun violence and assigning blame. He argues that an intelligent policy toward gun control would not focus exclusively on the individual user but would direct efforts to more effectively regulate the manufacture and distribution of firearms and the gun culture that fosters the climate of violence. His mantra is damage control.
However, we have seen time and time again that efforts at intelligent reform and gun control are stymied by the gun lobby, which employs the 2nd Amendment and its current, amicable judicial interpretation to block these measures. The gun lobby, spear-headed by the NRA, is a very well-funded movement with considerable political influence. Pro-gun advocates are so intransigent in considering the need for tighter gun control and so emotionally charged that the current political situation regarding the issue of gun control is effectively at a stalemate. Just mentioning the issue will cause politicians to freeze up or throw out some lame cliché about more aggressive enforcement of existing gun laws. The gun manufactures that fund the gun lobby are obviously interested in protecting their bottom line and the only way to do that is to protect relaxed regulation of gun control laws. Any law that threatens the public’s access to firearms and their right to stockpile weapons poses the risk of cutting into the gun industry’s profits. And that cannot happen, as far as they are concerned. Not until social norms regarding guns are changed can this problem be effectively approached in ways that will enable us to resolve the epidemic of gun violence that plagues America.
A practical way of approaching the issue is to examine the costs and benefits associated with our current gun culture. The costs are obviously steep in human and economic terms and are often born by the public. The benefits, in real terms are negligible. How important is hunting in today’s world and how many ways are there to hunt besides using guns? Does the infatuation with handguns make society safer or does it merely create a climate of fear and insecurity? Is shooting someone an act of bravery or is it actually just cowardly and disgraceful? Obviously the gun is an important tool for the military and in the hands of the police to maintain social order but the mindset that individual stockpiling of guns is an inalienable right is too costly to sustain. The most telling question is do we want a stable society buttressed by law and order where guns are regulated and gun violence is rare or do we want a society of fantasy vigilantes, heightened insecurity, and regular eruptions of mass violence? It is about time that the current gun-industry-friendly judicial interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, where it is used as an impediment to intelligent gun policy, be retired as a relic of our violent past, so that we as a society can effectively deal with the very serious public health problem of gun violence.
This blog was written by David Kaufman a newly admitted attorney to the California State Bar. Email us and tell us your comments. If you would like us to do a blog on a particular subject, please let us know. Share experiences you may have had that could be helpful to others. Visit our educational videos on You Tube at JuvenileLawCenter.com or McGlinn & McGlinn, Attorneys at Law