Goodbye to Gun Culture


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.