It’s a rare day indeed that I don’t see multiple articles decrying the “gun culture” and the horrors for which it is responsible. Consider this article title from the New York Daily News: “America’s Gun Culture Madness,” this “photo essay” from Time Magazine titled “Gun Culture U.S.A.”, or this headline from The Guardian: “Hillary Clinton says US must rein in gun culture.” On the rational side of the debate is a recent article by Rachel Lu, who teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas . . .
Her article tells the story of her journey from a traditionally gun-fearing home to that of a gun owner. It’s proof that all philosophers aren’t navel-gazing elitists. She writes:
“We just became a Second Amendment family. For the first time in my life, my home contains an object that is, by the manufacturer’s intent, a deadly weapon. [skip]
The thing is, I don’t come from a gun-happy culture. Apart from my husband, I doubt any of my near relations have experience with firearms. Mind you, I was raised by conservatives, but Mormons trend towards a communitarian, good-government brand of conservatism. They’re rarely drawn to the more suspicious and individualistic culture of the N.R.A. If my parents had any gun-owning friends when I was growing up, I wasn’t aware.”
Lu acknowledges the idea of a “gun culture”:
“Liberals hate this phrase. They’ve spilled buckets of ink trying to dismiss it. But their arguments aren’t effective, because they make the mistake of assuming that gun supporters are using the expression as a verbal weapon, flippantly shrugging off responsibility for their firearms and their vicious, destructive ‘gun culture.’”
Lu also understands reasonable responses to real threats:
“But gun culture at its best is rooted in a desire to protect, and especially to protect the people we love.”
The advocates of liberty often fail to understand that words have power, something that anti-freedom forces understand very well. In some situations, the pen can be mightier than the sword. Accordingly, they routinely strive to be the first to label people and ideas with which they disagree, knowing that if those labels stick, they’ve defined the terms of the debate, a substantial inherent advantage.
Thus do we quietly accept the idea of “gun violence,” or “assault weapons,” and argue about “common sense” gun regulation. Thus do we accept the idea of a “gun culture.” But does such a thing actually exist?
Merriam Webster defines culture as:
“cul·ture noun \ˈkəl-chər\
: the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time
: a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.”
What actually defines a culture? At one time, American culture was symbolized by e pluribus unum: “out of many, one.” People of distinct cultures from around the world did whatever was necessary to come to America and assimilate, to become, culturally, Americans. Even so, there have always been distinct and recognizable sub-cultures, usually revealed by their customs, foods, languages, and to a lesser degree, traditional modes of dress.
Residents of New York City often identify themselves with some degree of pride as “New Yorkers,” but there are distinct neighborhoods and cultures encompassing the Chinese and Italians, for example, and Harlem, which is identified as “Black” or “African American” culture.
Gun ownership, however, crosses all cultural boundaries. Usually, one of the few things people of distinct cultures have in common is gun ownership. They may own a single handgun, or an extensive collection of a variety of firearm types. And while some portion of gun owners share—more or less—a common vocabulary and jargon, this is not exclusive to gun owners, nor does using certain specific terms identify membership in a gun culture. Many people pick up firearm terminology from movies and television.
Firearms are essentially tools, and because there are a wide variety of different uses for firearms, there are a wide variety of different firearms to meet those needs. Tools are generally owned with no regard to the conventions of a broader culture, the Amish being an exception, though even they use a wide variety of tools.
One may argue that because they are weapons, firearms are not in the same category as tools, but this does not stand up to the most minimal scrutiny. A wide variety of common tools such as screwdrivers, hammers, saws and chisels, can also be employed as weapons, and have been. In the late 1800s, cowboys often used the butts of their Colt Single Action .45s in a pinch to hammer staples as they strung barbed wire.
The ownership of a single article, or even many examples of such articles, does not a culture make. Many gun owners also own a variety of knives, often more knives than guns, but no one argues they are members of an evil and destructive “knife culture.”
While I own more firearms than I need but not as many as I’d like, and doubtless share certain attitudes and interests with many others that happen to own guns, there is no question that we are culturally more different than alike. For example, I am a fencer and have studied European and Japanese fencing for many years. Am I therefore a member of a “sword culture?” Considering that most of my “swords” are sport swords and not actual live blades, I think not. My study of French and Italian fencing techniques, though reflective of long-established, unique cultures, does not make me French or Italian, nor do I have much else in common with those cultures.
Few gun owners likely consider themselves members of a monolithic, easily identified gun culture, and would be hard-pressed to explain what the gun culture to which they supposedly belong believes or how a member could be identified. For that, we must turn to those who live to destroy their own gun culture creation.
President Obama, during his first presidential campaign, committed a gaffe–he accidently told the truth–in a speech to a group of what he thought were true believers. He said:
“It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations.”
He was referring to rural Pennsylvanians but by implication, to all residents of fly-over country, that vast cultural wasteland between the east and west coasts over which the elite must occasionally travel. He soon was forced to issue one of his patented faux-apologies, but the God and gun clinger epithet stuck and became part of the gun culture slur.
Yet, even that is hardly universally accepted by gun owners. When I mentioned the place of God in a natural rights argument for self-defense in a TTAG article titled “Why It’s So Hard To Discuss Guns Rationally With Some People.” That article engendered more than 350 comments, neatly burying any idea of unanimity of thought on firearms issues between gun owners.
Even for those that so casually—though purposely–use the term, defining it precisely is difficult. It’s like Supreme Court Potter Stewart who, speaking about pornography, noted that it was hard to define, but “I know it when I see it.”
For those seeking to destroy the Second Amendment, some characteristics of the gun culture are generally agreed: membership in the NRA, ownership of guns, conservative or Republican political philosophy, belief in God, and an unreasonable and stubborn belief that the Second Amendment bestows an individual right to keep and bear arms which may not be infringed. Some also hold that gun owners have low intelligence, tend to marry close relatives, are poorly educated and have no idea of the arts, and are almost always blue collar white males that hunt, drink massive amounts of beer, drive pickup trucks, follow NASCAR, and embody virtually every other irrational, elitist stereotype one might imagine.
Gun owners are far, far more diverse, a quality many anti-freedom activists claim to prize. They are male and female, young and old, are religious, atheist, or something in between, are of every race and national origin and hold every imaginable political philosophy. They do, however, share a very few common beliefs and qualities: they tend to believe that the Second Amendment means precisely what it says and they tend to believe that everyone has an unalienable right to self-defense. Many may hold common cause with the NRA, at least on some issues, but the NRA has something more than 5 million members, and something more than half of American households own guns.
Gun culture? Hardly. The term is useful not in defining anyone or any coherent philosophy, but in slandering those that believe in individual liberty and personal responsibility. Words do matter. Perhaps it’s time to take some of them back. We begin by challenging–each and every time–the mere premise of “gun culture,” “common sense” gun regulation, “assault weapons,” and similarly weakly definable attempts to seize the rhetorical initiative.
In their place, exalt liberty, which has the very great advantage of being what is embodied in the Constitution. Let our opponents explain why they want to take away liberty and substitute their failed ideas. Put them on the defensive for a change.