Guns and Culture

Mass shootings should be a time of coming together. Instead they are tearing us apart.

There is an episode of the TV series Arrow where a mass shooting takes place in the fictional Star City. In the season 5 episode “Spectre of the Gun,” Mayor Oliver Queen (who is also the comic book hero, the Green Arrow), is faced with the task of how to best respond. Within his team of superheroes, there is a debate between those who support the second amendment and those who don’t. The episode ends with Mayor Queen working a compromise with a pro-gun city councilperson to make such shootings less frequent.

The episode was kind of one of those “a very special episode” of decades past, but with a bit of a twist; instead of trying to hammer home a message, it was showing how people of differing viewpoints can come together to solve a problem.

I’m sharing this story because as we debate gun regulation in the wake of the horrific Parkland, Florida shootings, we are again having this argument about the role of guns in American society. And again, we see the same arguments on social media back and forth. In a fictional universe, good people on both sides of an issue come together to solve a problem. But in that universe, guns were not a cultural issue. But here in America, guns are not a policy issue. If it was, we would have solved this issue long ago. No, guns are a cultural issue, it is a talisman that tells you what a person believes about society.

Before I go any further, I should show my cards. Since I lean libertarian, I tend to support gun ownership and the second amendment. It doesn’t mean that I don’t support some restrictions on guns, I do. But I do think that people should be able to have guns.

What has been interesting over the last few years is how this debate has grown more ideological, partisan and tribal. In some ways, we are no longer talking about a problem of policy. The Gun Control Act of 1968 was an example of guns as a policy issue. It was passed in the wake of the assasinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. That law passed in the House by a vote of 305–118 with near equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans voting in favor. It passed the Senate 70–17, again with almost equal numbers from both parties supporting it.

There is no way we could ever have such numbers these days voting for some kind measure on guns or school shootings, because this issue has become one of culture, where the other side is viewed as crazy and scary.

It’s even interesting how we look at Parkland. Different tribes focus on different things. Liberals focus almost exclusively on guns. Conservatives focus on everything but guns. We live in two separate worlds in how we view this tragedy and its solutions.

Writing in the National Review, David French is worried that the current gun control “debate” is tearing the fabric of American society. The problem is tha we have no empathy for the other side. French describes his take on the CNN Townhall on February 21 and the response by some conservatives:

During a CNN town hall on gun control, a furious crowd of Americans jeered at two conservatives, Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch, who stood in defense of the Second Amendment. They mocked the notion that rape victims might want to arm themselves for protection. There were calls of “murderer.” Rubio was compared to a mass killer. There were wild cheers for the idea of banning every single semiautomatic rifle in America. The discourse was vicious.

It was also slanderous. There were millions of Americans who watched all or part of the town hall and came away with a clear message: These people aren’t just angry at what happened in their town, to their friends and family members; they hate me. They really believe I’m the kind of person who doesn’t care if kids die, and they want to deprive me of the ability to defend myself.

The CNN town hall might in other circumstances have been easy to write off as an outlier, a result of the still-raw grief and pain left in the wake of the Parkland shooting. But it was no less vitriolic than the “discourse” online, where progressives who hadn’t lost anyone in the attack were using many of the same words as the angry crowd that confronted Rubio and Loesch. The NRA has blood on its hands, they said. It’s a terrorist organization. Gun-rights supporters — especially those who oppose an assault-weapons ban — are lunatics at best, evil at worst.

He then shares this video that the NRA put out following the town hall:

French goes on to tell us that what’s going is a Kulturkampf, or a clash of cultures.Here’s French again:

…some progressives believe that firearms are little more than “an atavistic enthusiasm for rural primitives and right-wing militia nuts, a hobby that must be tolerated — if only barely — because of some vestigial 18th-century political compromise.” They simply do not grasp — or care to grasp — how “gun culture” is truly lived in red America.

This loathing isn’t one-sided. It’s simply false to believe that the haters are clustered on the left side of the spectrum, and the Right is plaintively seeking greater understanding. Increasingly, conservatives don’t just hate their liberal counterparts; they despise the perceived culture of blue America. They’re repulsed by the notion that personal security should depend almost completely on the government. The sense of dependence is at odds with their view of a free citizenry, and — to put it bluntly — they perceive their progressive peers as soft and unmanly.

This divide won’t go away, and it has the potential to break us as a nation.

In days past, people seemed to understand that people live in different circumstances which might allow of guns to be used and places where there are limits on purchasing guns. But now things have hardened. Where those on the left used to see the use of guns might make sense in rural areas, they now think these same people have a some kind of gun fetish. In the days following the shooting, I saw one person on Twitter referring to guns as some kind of phallic symbol substituting the word “penis” wherever the word that is normally used is “gun.”

On the other side, the right might have understood the need for gun restrictions in urban areas, they now see these same people who are soft on crime and too trusting of government. On this side the Second Amendment is sacrosanct, and there seems to nothing that can be done when it comes to guns…other than arming more people with guns.

Each side has a view of the perfect society and it seems to not include the other side. In fact, the feeling I get during this latest gun debate is that both sides are playing for keeps. It’s about winning and winning totally, with no space for those who disagree. We seem to believe that one side wins, then the other side will go quietly off into the sunset never to bother America again.

In an effort to build bridges, New York Times columnist David Brooks suggested that Blue America listen to those in Red America when it comes to guns. He believes that for any meaningful change to take place, Red America has to be part of the solution. It was a plea for both sides to listen to each other, to respect each other as they try to talk about gun control. His closing paragraph summed up what American life is like in 2018 and his hope was for us as a nation to try something different:

We don’t really have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority. But just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off. Then and only then can we go back to normal politics and take reasonable measures to keep our children safe.

The result of the article was blowback from Blue America. instead of seeking to understand those who have guns, the tribe that thinks guns are bad full stop denounced Brooks. New York Magazine slammed Brooks with an article called: “No, Smug Liberals Aren’t the Reason We Lack Sane Gun Laws.” Media Matters says “David Brooks Needs to Shut Up.” Jeremy Binckes, writing in Salon, ridicules Brooks and suggests that gun owners care more about their guns than they do children getting shot:

The battle over the gun debate is really simple. Some people want to keep their guns, even at the price of an epidemic level of mass shootings. Some people are more worried about their children being shot.

Is the gun debate really that simple? Are gun owners really that callous?

All of the responses to Brooks column create their own reality, not bothering to listen because of course, they know what is the truth.

On the other side, there are some who think that the Second Amendment means you can’t do anything regarding guns. A recent essay in the Federalist seems to look at even regulation of guns as an infringement of rights. John Daniel Davidson argues:

The right to bear arms stems from the right of revolution, which is asserted in the Declaration of Independence and forms the basis of America’s social compact. Our republic was forged in revolution, and the American people have always retained the right to overthrow their government if it becomes tyrannical. That doesn’t mean that private militias should have tanks and missile launchers, but it does mean that revolution — the right of first principles — undergirds our entire political system.

That might sound academic or outlandish next to the real-life horror of a school shooting, but the fact remains that we can’t simply wave off the Second Amendment any more than we can wave off the First, or the Fourth, or any of them. They are constitutive elements of the American idea, without which the entire constitutional system would eventually collapse.

In this, America is unlike the European nations that gun control advocates like to compare it with. Germany can restrict the right to bear arms as easily as it can — and does — restrict free speech. Not so in America. If we want to change that, it will involve a substantial diminishment of our constitutional rights as we have known them up until now. After last week’s school shooting, some Americans are okay with that, especially those families who are grieving. But I suspect most Americans are not willing to make that trade-off, and might never be — unless they suffer the same of kind personal loss.

There is something bothersome about this. I respect the Second Amendment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything when it comes to mass shootings. It doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and say “oh well.” Maybe we can’t do anything that will reduce mass shootings to zero, but we might be able to make them happen less. But what we can’t do is say that liberty always trumps security. The two have to be balanced.

While I long for a focus more on policy and less on cultural-tribal issues, it is important to lift up one thing. When the Gun Control Act of 1968 passed, our nation was far more monocultural. White men ruled in both political parties. LGBT persons were in far in the closet. It was far easier to make policy when everyone looked the same. This isn’t an excuse to not try to get us to a more coheasive culture that minimizes persons of color and other oppressed communities. As an African American, I don’t want to be in the background. We can’t go back to 1968, but we have to find something that can unify us as Americans. It means living up to the words, e pluribus unum, out of many, one.

I began this essay with description of a cheesy episode of the TV series “Arrow.” While some might be upset that it didn’t pick a side, I kind of long for the fictional Star City’s solution to the gun debate. Because it was a lot more respectful and humane than the real world where we seem to think hating a chunk of America will get us anywhere.

Maybe the aftermath of the Parkland shooting will come up with meaningful solutions. I just hope it doesn’t come at the expense of breaking our nation apart.

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism. https://www.dennislsanders.net/

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