America’s strange love affair with guns

Matthew Wolfson
May 6, 2013

The U.S. Senate’s rejection  of a measure mandating extended background checks for gun purchases two  weeks ago becomes all the more strange when the events are viewed from  the United Kingdom, which since the Dunblane school massacre in 1996 has  had on its books a law criminalising private possession of most  handguns with a caliber of .22 or above. It grows stranger when you  consider that the measure had the support of a wide majority  of Americans. This was not the case, for instance, with the Affordable  Care Act of 2010, a bill which nonetheless narrowly passed Congress.  “America’s politics,” a British friend told me understatedly, “are  weird.” That is certainly true, but weirdness does not necessarily imply  inexplicability. What happened?

On the one hand the law’s failure is the result of structural issues  that seem unlikely to be resolved soon. Chief among these is the  ineradicable influence of the National Rifle Association, which  mobilised supporters to pressure Democratic senators in  Republican-leaning states into voting against the bill. On the other  hand, there are underlying reasons that explain why gun-rights  proponents were able to mobilise support in the first place. These have  to do with cultural resentments felt by a certain number of Americans,  the symbolic place guns occupy in these Americans’ worldviews, and the  way Republican politicians played on this complex to defeat legislation.

Guns, like country music, cowboy boots, and bourbon, have for the  past forty years enjoyed a cultural cachet in America that is removed  from any practical uses to which they might be put. They have become  symbols of Southern and Western self-sufficiency and toughness, an easy  way for consumers from particular regions in a market economy to flaunt a  middle finger to authority. Buy a gun, and you are an independent man.  In the 1970s, when my dad was friends with a number of Southerners  living in the North, he remembers them often getting drunk, taking out  their rifles, going to a nearby forest and firing them into the air  while singing “Dixie”. Then they would put away the firearms, go to a  bar, and my dad would be the one who ended up arguing with the bartender  if they got overcharged. For these people guns represent a fairly  harmless method of emotional release; a way to strike a pose of  manliness in a society that was adapting (or not) to the feminist  movement; and a way to celebrate a disappearing Southern agrarian  culture that has always exercised a strong hold over the American  popular imagination.

In and of itself, this is not particularly meaningful, but when  social symbols become conflated with the way a modern state is  governed—when, in other words, culture becomes politicised—nostalgia can  have consequences. And, indeed, guns are a symbol that the modern  Republican Party has avidly turned to its rhetorical advantage as a part  of its anti-government platform: “Those Washington bureaucrats might be  able to mandate the size of light-bulbs you buy, but at least they  cannot take away your constitutional right to self-defense!” This  emotional resonance about guns appears to have only solidified  over the past ten years; as the nation is changing demographically and  weathering an economic slump, citizens feel they have less and less  control over their lives. To conjure up the spectre of gun control,  then, is to tap into a constellation of resentments which are given some  rational validity by constitutional arguments, but which extend far  deeper and broader: from anger at officious East Coast bureaucrats and  self-righteous TV personalities to fear over declining wages in the  South and Midwest to bitterness about affirmative action.

These were the sorts of emotions that were appealed to over the past  four months. It was instructive, if depressing, to witness this process  play out with leaden predictability, as the actual issues at play were  buried beneath the weight of rhetorical poses and irritations. Sometimes  the Democrats seemed to be working to ensure their own defeat. For  instance, the NRA was given the unexpected gift of New York Mayor  Michael Bloomberg, who avidly assumed  the role of leading gun control spokesperson; this predictably inflamed  people, annoyed as they were at being lectured by a billionaire whose  regulatory pretensions extend to New Yorkers’ soda intake. (“Tell your senator to listen to America’s police instead of listening to Obama and Bloomberg”, the NRA ads  urged.) Even without help, though, conservatives in Congress managed to  manipulate the issue to their own advantage. Most effective in this  regard was Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who framed  his anti-gun control argument in the dichotomous no-nonsense language  that has become idiomatic for Republican politicians over the past  twenty years: “My biggest concern with the legislation, the Democrat  legislation on the floor, is it doesn’t address the problem. It doesn’t  target violent criminals. Instead, what it does is, it targets  law-abiding citizens”.

This assertion was interesting, amounting as it did to a fundamental  misreading of the reason that Americans were talking about gun laws in  the first place: the Newtown massacre. This event showed that those  “law-abiding citizens” could turn into dangerous criminals without much  notice. The shooter in that case, Adam Lanza, was a mentally disturbed  young man from a middle class background whose psychological problems  were noticed but unreported.  A similar narrative, tellingly, could be resurrected in many similar  cases over the past fifteen years. But these facts had become obscured  beneath the familiar, culturally loaded complaints about infringing on  the rights of “law-abiding citizens,” particularly, as some of Cruz’s  colleagues revealingly emphasised, those from rural areas.

There are more basic rights to be considered than those which may or  may not protect law-abiding gun owners in rural areas from extended  background checks. These rights include those of the 27 Newtown victims,  and of the countless numbers of Americans whom more stringent checks  might have helped keep safe in the future. Since 1996, Britons have  suffered one gun rampage, while Americans have endured more than ten. At  this point, it is time for Republicans to find another, less dangerous  issue to use to channel their base’s frustrations.


All by
Matthew Wolfson