Goodbye to Gun Culture

by Published on
4269090079_fbbb004d47_o

Think America isn’t blasé about gun violence?

Quick: Name the shooter in the movie theater massacre that left 12 dead and 58 wounded in Aurora, Colorado, this summer.

Stumped? It’s James Holmes, he of the orange hair and the Batman obsession.

Shooting rampages have become expected, routine, below the fold. The daily toll of gun-related suicides, homicides and accidental deaths is practically background noise. Only the almost unfathomable savagery—like the murder of 20 children in their Connecticut elementary school—can provoke genuine interest in revisiting gun control and buy the silence of the NRA. In his address at the Newtown interfaith service, President Obama asked, “Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?” That question remains to be answered. The hideousness of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary seems to have led to some sincere soul-searching. But our capacity for lamenting, and then tolerating, violence is not encouraging.

The mere suggestion that America has an unhealthy relationship with guns can whip up a storm that swamps the violent act itself. Sports commentator Bob Costas was nearly pilloried for suggesting, during hafltime of an NFL game, that easy access to guns leads to unnecessary deaths.

Quoting sportswriter Jason Whitlock on the murder-suicide of a Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, Costas said, “If Jovan Belcher didn’t possess a gun, he and [Belcher’s 22-year-old Texan girlfriend] Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”

Cue the backlash in 3 … 2 … 1. My favorite faux-outrage nugget came from Mark Davis, a Limbaugh wannabe who pens a column for The Dallas Morning News. Davis labeled Costas’ remarks “the usual reflexive scapegoating of an inanimate object, a dodge that always prevents the harder task of recognizing evil and holding people accountable in cases of gun violence.”

No matter that Jovan Belcher can’t be held criminally accountable because he’s dead, having taken his own life with a surprisingly lethal inanimate object. Davis prefers to blame the whole thing on “evil”—some immutable, ineffable force set loose in the world. Hell, he could’ve done it with a kitchen knife. What, are we going to ban Cutco now? The fact is much of the violence in this nation has two constants: men and guns. And I’m not prepared to talk about doing away with men. Yet.

Before Costas even got to his inevitable apology, we heard from another perennial contributor to the nation’s “discussion” about guns: a certain species of hand-wringing liberal, the kind who seems most concerned about inoculating liberalism from charges of being anti-gun. Their line after every mass shooting is that the “gun issue” is “settled.” The other side won (congratulations, NRA!), and there’s no reason to talk about it. Mourn the dead and move on. Thankfully, this group has been virtually silent post-Sandy Hook.

I grew up around guns. I feel comfortable around firearms. I enjoy shooting and view hunting as just a notch below fishing in the hierarchy of manly arts. What I don’t particularly care for is the dominant gun culture, by which I mean the hyper-politicized and anti-social reactionaries who interpret the Second Amendment as a license to kill. I don’t mean just people who own and use guns, but rather those whose social and political identity is centered around firearms. “Gun nuts” would be one term. These are the folks whose first impulse upon Barack Obama’s re-election was to buy more ammo.

But here’s the good news about our seemingly intractable gun problem. The gun culture, and dare I say the NRA, may not have much of a future in this increasingly urban, multiracial nation. Demographically, gun ownership in the United States is concentrated among white conservative rural males; according to a 2005 Gallup survey, one in three whites owns a gun, while only about one in six nonwhites do. Overall gun ownership is dropping too. New York University political scientist Patrick Egan persuasively argues, using long-term data, that “for all the attention given to America’s culture of guns, ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows.”

But what about those stories about Walmart running out of ammo and Smith & Wesson raking it in? Recently, CNN crunched the numbers and found that fewer Americans own guns than any point in the past 30 years, but those who do are stockpiling more.

I don’t pretend to think this apparent trend solves the problem of a young man murdering young children in a classroom. It doesn’t obviate the need for gun-control legislation. But maybe the NRA’s real problem isn’t that Obama is going to take away all the guns, but that more and more Americans will unilaterally disarm.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sam-Davis/1109907684 Sam Davis

    I fully expected to see the trolls all over this story by now. While I don’t hunt, I do target shoot and am on my third CHL now. None of the responsible gun control talk is about taking away guns people legally own; it’s about making access to new guns more difficult, cutting down on high-capacity magazines, and getting a better handle on mental illness and gun ownership.

    Those on the fringes will rant and rave as they always do. Some will threaten as they always do. The tide is turning because moderates are seeing the need for more control. It’s sad that it took something like this massacre to galvanize public opinion but isn’t that the way things usually work? Sometimes the reaction is a good one and sometimes it’s a bad one like the passing of the Patriot Act after 9/11. Let’s make this a good one and make our schools, theaters, and workplaces safer.

  • Donna Reed

    Hope no one accidently skipped over your comment that fewer American’s own guns – you are correct, but there’s a recent statistic that of a nation of 300 million, we have 270 million guns – owned by civilians. Bravo for the rest of your editorial – and I have a glimmer of hope that our morefuture more liberated, multi-cultural society (along with my 2 20-year old sons) will stop the insanity. Everyone that “just loves to shoot AR-15′s” can rent them under supervised use!