The Gun Cult-ure

Knowing that I would be writing a piece on gun control in America after recent events, I started this blog with a working title of “The Gun Culture” and my fingers slipped as I typed, a common enough occurrence.  But the typo resulted in the word “culture” being mangled, highlighting the “cult” portion of the word.  I was never intending to take a trip down the rabbit hole of the cult of guns as a path of understanding the status quo of gun culture of America, but when I saw it, I knew where I had to go.

Understanding the gun culture can be very difficult to do, particularly as Americans.  We are steeped in it, and it has always been hard for anthropologists to study their own culture.  Observation is best done from afar.  And so, perhaps, it is fitting that some of the most scathing analysis of the status quo of guns in America comes from overseas.  Just this morning, I had this comedy skit recommended to me.  It shows how Europeans tend to feel about the American love of guns.  You don’t actually have to watch the skit to know, though.  It’s common knowledge that they think we are mad, daft, or something in-between when it comes to firearms.  Some of the most vociferous of the pro-gun side, they might even think, are genuinely evil.  They are observing us from the standpoint of their own culture, a culture where gun control is not now, nor really has it ever, been controversial.

A photograph of Queen Elizabeth II
Everyone’s favorite great-aunt

I tend to talk to a lot of British people.  Beyond just sharing a common language, we share a common history and aspects of culture that make the conversations flow particularly easily. Yet, finding a pro-gun Brit seems about as likely as finding a pro-monarch American.  Obviously, this is not impossible.  After all, I dated an American Monarchist.  It made for some strange dinner conversations.  But these people are outside the norm.  Conversely, just as you can find anti-gun Americans, you have some Brits who bemoan a single family with such wealth and power seemingly in contradiction to the democratic process initially established with the Magna Carta and refined over centuries into what it is now. It does seem a bit like a vestigial tail of society, but it’s an incredibly popular and well-loved one.

Gun culture in the U.S. is similarly more of a popular and generally well-loved, though arguably less harmless, remnant of a time past, ingrained in our country’s history and foundation mythos. While most of the foundation mythology revolves around the American Revolution, the roots of our gun culture are far deeper and broader than that.  On that fateful day in 1776 when the 13 colonies united, the majority of the British Isles (save Ireland, always the outlier) were already united as one by the Stewarts, and were generally quite domesticated. The Celts were long gone. The Stewart unification itself had reduced inter-insular warfare to near zero, though that process was far from bloodless.  Even the civil wars were largely played out.  The British cities and what passed for modernity were coast-to-coast. There were no more frontiers.  The lack of those local frontiers and the perceived lack of space was part of the desire for colonization.  America was the great frontier, and with that came extreme peril.   Not only did the colonists face a host of new diseases borne by the natives (unintentional germ warfare went both ways, though the natives got the worst of it), but those natives themselves, both human and otherwise, were a significant threat with axe and tooth and claw.  While the Europeans and their descendants eventually mercilessly slaughtered and drove out those threats it is worth remembering that the natives fought back for generations, and effectively at that.  Life as a colonist was not safe.  There were legitimate threats at all times to life and limb to such a great extent that having a gun near to hand would often be the difference between life and death.  The guns being near to hand also played a key role in that War for Independence from England.  It is hard to subjugate an belicose native population when they are universally armed and unwilling to engage in pitched battles. The U.S. forgot that by the time we attempted to war with Vietnam.

Guns were so important to the survival of the colonists turned Americans and the creation of the new government that the ownership and use of guns were enshrined as a right under the Constitution, second only to speech and assembly as fundamentally vital to the preservation of the independent state they envisioned. No outside force could conquer us because every man would be a self-made militia.  The Army played on this in recruiting themes even quite recently.  Every homestead would be a fortress against invaders.  All of this was important at the time of the founding of our nation because there were such potent and legitimate threats in the form of hostile natives, dangerous environments, and even re-colonization.

The frontier of the United States expanded as the country did.  The West was bought and the boundaries were pushed with threats and/or actual war against both France (Canada) and Spain (Mexico). The natives, including those whose land we had just acquired out from under them, were beaten back time and again.  By the 1830s, under Andrew Jackson, they were pushed out of the realm of reasonable threats. The frontier shrank, taking a hundred years to do so, but it never went away.  Meanwhile, Europe’s frontiers had been blunted out of existence for a hundred years or more now.  In America, the mid-west and western portions of the country were so rural that they were almost incomprehensibly depopulated to people thinking of modern life, particularly Europeans. There was no urbanization to speak of and without masses of people, you do not have mass termination events.

Buffalo grazing on the plains in front of a mountain. There are no traces of humans.
Wyoming is still a frontier state, but on the whole, the U.S. has reached population density equilibrium with Europe.

It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that Americans were sufficiently hunkered into cities enough to start thinking about guns as anything other than tools of survival. The turning point there might well be the assassination of President William McKinley. Certainly, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth is more historically known, but no one at the time worried about the gun Booth used, where he bought it and whether it should have been sold to him or not. They hung him and all of his “accomplices,” but not one editorial deemed that the easy access to guns had played any role.  No one clamored for more background checks of stage actors.  In stark contrast, the killing of McKinley by anarchist Leon Czlogosz sparked tremendous debate about how to exclude anarchists from society (and by so doing remove them from being able to harm us). These themes are an interesting precursor to the McCarthyism that followed decades later in the witch hunt for Communists.  They also show how far the public debate had changed in the 40 intervening years, away from “the perpetrator is the bad guy, so we’ll punish him,” into the more general, “the perpetrator is representative of bad guys, and we need to weed them out.”

A photograph of William McKinley
He had attack eyebrows. He also used to have a mountain.

Our greatest cultural fear is no longer a known outside threat, but a disguised internal one.  It was at that time that the debate about gun control truly began. Cultures die hard, though, and guns remain enshrined as a popular and well-loved Constitutional right here in the U.S., fiercely protected by armchair historians and those who wish for the simpler, if more dangerous times when we had frontiers in our backyards. Even in the urbanized era, gun control in the U.S. has come slowly and in fits and starts.  The rampant access to machine guns by bootleggers at the height of Prohibition-era violence was the first seed of any attempt to employ gun control.  It was successful.  Automatic weapons were, by-and-large, banned in the U.S. and this prohibition remains, even though the alcohol now flows freely.  Unsurprisingly, that first effort at gun control attempted to be complete, to essentially register and tax at a prohibitive amount any firearm.  Also unsurprisingly, it was changed while still in draft form and only certain types of weapons were actually registered and taxed, and even this was found to be constitutionally lacking in a lawsuit in 1968 (though not on Second Amendment rights, it should be noted).

The second wave of gun control efforts came in the 1960s, in response to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr and the general violence and unrest of the Civil Rights period.  As a result of all that, and the 1968 Supreme Court case previously mentioned, Congress enacted new gun control legislation in 1968 which refined and corrected the 1934 law.  Ensuring that automatic weapons, short rifles (designed for concealment), zip-guns, and silencers remained illegal.  But that is about the extent of it, by and large anything else is legal, hence our current bump-stock debate.  The 1968 version also introduced more modern concepts of gun control, such as the background check to reduce access to guns for certain individuals.

These gun control measures have been the bailiwick of Democrats.  1934’s law was passed and signed by FDR, 1968’s by Lyndon Johnson.  The most substantive revisions since were in the 1990s and signed by Bill Clinton.  Clearly, this is a long-standing issue of consistency for the Democratic party.  While it is also true that the opposite is fair, the Republicans have consistently been the party that has been more resistant to infringing gun rights through legislation, they are hardly the opposition of note.  That honor goes to the American public at large.  While large majorities are broadly in favor of the types of restrictions that ultimately were put in place in 1934 and 1968, the 1990s attempts were unpopular and unsuccessful.  They have largely sunsetted out, being written into law for only a 10-year period and not renewed.  Though there was the political will from both parties to renew them, including from President George W. Bush, they expired, not because of any Republican interference, but because of the disapproval of American citizens.

The NRA believes that devices designed to allow semi-automatic rifles to function like fully-automatic rifles should be subject to additional regulations. — Joint statement by Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox of the NRA

Why is this so difficult?  If politicians are in favor of the legislation and if lobbying agents are not against some measure of gun control, how can it be that it fails every single time?  This is the cult.  The cult has the divine right and is vociferous in protecting its sacramentals.

A diagram comparing drivers licenses to unfettered gun access.
Popular memes are always a great way of conveying a nuanced point.

A right is something that is innate, it is illegal and/or immoral to take it away from a person.
A privilege is an opportunity offered to someone with less power in a relationship, upon showing sufficient need or merit, to permit them to do something. Without that license, the action is generally prohibited by the power of the superior entity.

Thus, governments license hunting and fishing. It is illegal to just take your gun and go shoot some animals, you must be licensed and follow the appropriate guidelines for licensed hunting. The government licenses driving, as that graphic shows, and puts significant restrictions upon those who wish to drive. The government also licenses marriages, an entirely different yet still controversial debate; but it is worth noting as a fact.  Even in the face of recent Supreme Court rulings apparently giving marriage the “status” of a right, it is still not treated that way in a legal sense by the government, in part because it is such a recent change.

It is my position, as well as the position of the majority of Constitutional scholars, that the ownership of guns (ability to keep) and their use (bear) guns are enshrined as rights. You can disagree that it should not be a right and should be a privilege, subject to licensing from the superior authority of the government. It is possible to read the long preceding description of the frontier and the frontier mindset to argue that since frontier is gone our need for guns is as well.  Even some Constitutional scholars will argue that the prepositional phrase, “A well-regulated militia being vital to the security of a state…” means that gun rights are limited to military personnel.  Nothing is as simple as that, when it comes to guns in America, though. Since every man in America is viewed under our foundational mythology to be a part that apocryphal militia of ever-ready Minute Men, we are all militia, well-regulated or not.  At the end of the day, in order to succeed in enacting staunch gun control in America, the only answer lies in Constitutional change.  America may no longer be a frontier, but there are too many people with the mindset of the frontiersman left in America for that kind of action to have success.  Guns are entwined too deeply in the culture and the founding mythos to be given up.

Man stands approvingly beside sign which reads, "Guns are welcome on premises. Please keep all weapons holstered unless need arises. In such cases, judicious marksmanship is appreciated."
City men fear guns; frontiersmen live by them.

City men fear guns. Frontiersmen live by them. While we mostly live in cities these days, even those Americans who live in cities tend to remember, culturally, if not practically, that it doesn’t take much to turn the urban into a jungle again.  The prevalence of gun violence, ironically, in certain cities is a frequent reminder of the closeness of the state of nature.  The fear it engenders is also a pressure point for further enaction of gun control.  In the city, an armed person is far more dangerous to his neighbors.  Massive population densities allow for these mass termination events to occur.  Even in the absence of those isolated incidents, the constant friction of living in such close proximity to so many people causes stressors that are very different from the stressors of the frontier.  A gun in a city is far less likely to be used, and if it is used, far more likely to be used in the commission of a crime–a violation of the social contract and a return to the frontier state of nature–than the prevention of one.  But while some cities have been substantially more effective at enacting gun control than the country as a whole, those who did have had their gun control laws challenged, often successfully, in court.  While some measure of control still exists, the rights of those who wish to own guns remain largely unabridged, and that is likely to remain the case, in the city or out in the frontier of Wyoming.

This is because of our intense belief in our founding mythos that the gun is both sacred and vital to our freedom coming through in both jurisprudence and citizen action.  But those myths are not necessarily true, nor built on truth. Even if every man were armed to the teeth as Stephen Paddock was, we could not stop the might of a modern military, neither ours turned against us, nor that of a foreign power.  The citizen militia as an idea has been overcome by history and technology.  And yet, as Barack Obama noted, we cling to our guns, and specifically to our religion of guns.  This is the cult that in the immediate aftermath of any tragedy involving guns, at the first whiff of any new regulation on gun control, will go out and deplete every gun store of its stock like they were bottled water and there was a hurricane barrelling down upon us.  Even if you are not interested in owning one, simply try to buy a bump-stock this week.  They are sold out.  Ammunition is frequently in short supply, even in the absence of events like this.  Whenever a Democrat is President it seems as though the manufacturers cannot make the ammunition quickly enough to meet our insatiable demand.  If you are pro-gun control, the Republicans and the NRA, in particular, may seem like the enemy, the source of the “gun problem.”  They are not.

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. — Barack Obama

NRA statement proposing compromise on regulating "bump-stocks". The "top comments" Facebook feature is full of vociferous dissent of any compromise from the rank and file.
The NRA is not “the problem,” the cult is.

I too feel the emotional pull of the gun cult strongly.  I do believe that the Second Amendment provides a right to personal firearms.  I worry about any right being abridged by government action, even when they are abused by some.  I worry about the practical failings of any gun control measure, even what will likely come from this: a ban on bump-stocks.  Can they no longer be manufactured or sold?  Will possession of one while in the commission of a crime will result in maximum penalties?  Will they attempt to confiscate the ones previously sold legally?   Even if went that far, which is highly unlikely, some would be hidden.  And the technology behind them is not complex.  More will be made by our sophisticated cultists who own or have access to metal-working shops.  Laws like this do not keep the technology out of the hands of the most dangerous; just the mildly dangerous.  Some will say that’s enough, but I question it.  When we sacrifice freedom for a partial gain, we lose more than just freedom.

I could just as easily quote Benjamin Franklin’s famous line1, but instead, I will call attention to the issue through a variant on the theme: a question I first heard posed by Scott Adams.  This starts to stray into even deeper waters of a topic worthy of a substantive blog post in itself, so perhaps I will leave the answer for another day. The question resonates back to another Founding Father’s quote, “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots.”  Thomas Jefferson was clearly envisioning a dark world where the forces of government tend to get out of hand and needed to be fought back, or overthrown, by a capable volunteer civilian militia, our rough and ready 2nd Amendment types.  But today, in the wake of yet another mass termination event enacted by a madman with a gun he had because it is our right to have guns, because our freedoms that permit it, we can see that the blood of patriots does not have to be spilled voluntarily.  Scott Adams asked, in reference to candidate Trump’s2 plan to ban Muslims, “Can you put a price on your love of religious tolerance? In other words, how many dead Americans are you willing to accept?”

Freedom is never free; the price is always paid in blood.  The price we pay for our religious tolerance and refusal to hate ‘the other’ is our dead to the occasional terrorist attacks.  The price we pay for our cult of guns is the periodic mass termination event.  These prices are high.  But we seem willing to pay them to ensure that our freedoms are purer.

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Andrew Riley
CFO and Games Blogger at Rampant Discourse
Gaming news, reviews and opinion blogger. Statistics nerd. Achievement whore. Really bad at shooters.

This article has 2 Comments

  1. Laws like this do not keep the technology out of the hands of the most dangerous; just the mildly dangerous. Some will say that’s enough, but I question it. When we sacrifice freedom for a partial gain, we lose more than just freedom.

    These statements seem the crux of a lot of people’s position who are pro gun. However I’m not sure I understand the logic here. The theory is that making a gun(or type or whatever the law does) illegal only applies to people who follow the law so then why bother. However wouldn’t that logically mean that we should have no laws? Like laws that say don’t kill people won’t be followed by killers and good people won’t kill others so why have the laws in the first place.

    We all have limits placed on our freedom. We aren’t free to just do whatever. So the scary sentiment of “losing freedom” rings hollow to me in the face of all the other laws and regulations we are subject to all the time.

  2. Unfortunately, that is not really the crux of the argument. It is the outcome of the argument. The crux is in the decision we each make in compromising. We all do, more or less.

    A somewhat apt comparison might be a law against murder broadly, rather than the specific types of prohibition we are talking about here. The argument a compromiser makes is, we have a law against murder; it doesn’t stop all murder but it stops some. Therefore, analogously, should we just not have a law against murder, since we can’t stop it? Obviously not, therefore the argument for being against gun control because it is insufficient is similarly invalid.

    This actually misses the point. A law against murder stops very little murder, most likely. Most murders are committed as acts of passion against a known person, or even family member. The fact that the act is illegal has no impact on the muderer’s decision at the time of the murder. Why a murder is against the law is because it is a violent act that is intrinsically detrimental to the rights of another. Such acts cannot be allowed to go unpunished in the social contract. These laws exist so that we can punish AFTER the fact. The fact that they occasionally discourage law-breaking and uphold a general set of societal behavioral models is rather a nice coincidence.

    What Paddock did was unequivocally against the law and outside the behavioral norms. The law being there was no deterrence to him, but what separates him from the run of the mill murderer is the dispassion of his actions. Because he is different, we must treat him differently in our discussion. Now the compromiser argues that we ought to, e.g., ban bump-stocks because they provide more harm than benefit. See the obvious harm, and question where there is any benefit. The law against murder is not enough because we cannot punish Paddock further for what he did; he is already dead.

    Now we review the thousands of other gun owners who own bump-stocks who are not Paddock and have not committed a crime. We are punishing them for his actions as a proxy. That is a very different application of the social contract. It’s not inappropriate, particularly in a situation like this. As you note, we limit freedom, even our most robust freedoms, to promote safety and social harmony. But when you do so, it does cause friction. Those being punished when they have done nothing wrong have every reason to grouse.

    Therefore, when we do limit freedoms, it is important that we make the decision in a calculated fashion. What are we giving up. What are we hoping to gain. And then to review: did we actually gain what we hoped?

    If we ban bump-stocks, what is the goal? To prevent a murderer from easy access to an automatic weapon, or a weapon that simulates an automatic weapon. A reasonable goal, and one likely to have broad support. What are we giving up? Access to bump stocks. Not much; but not nothing. What is the likely outcome? Not much. There are too many of the devices in existence already and as I noted, the mechanics of them are simple enough that a determined lunatic like Paddock can do this all over again regardless of our laws. The absence of it happening in the next 5-10 years is not going to be indicative of any success of a bump-stock ban.

    In other words, for our compromise, I see our gain as nothing, or next to nothing. When the other side of the equation is also nothing or next to nothing, as it is here, that’s OK. I’m personally marginally against banning bump-stocks, but I’m not going to demonstrate in the streets over it. When Congress bans them (and it should be Congress not the ATF, despite what the NRA is requesting), I won’t be particularly sad or upset. Others are promoting more serious incursions into the freedoms of guns. E.g., over on a Facebook discussion of this article, I had a gentleman suggest a broad ban on semi-automatic rifles and long guns. Not only would that not pass Constitution muster (IMO) that would also be a much more serious thing to give up as a compromise, while still actually gaining essentially the same “very little.” If that were to occur we would lose not just the element of freedom, but it would likely be the death knell for the last vestiges of the “frontiersman” mindset I talked about in this article. Some would be happy to have that go away, but that is a link to our culture that exists still and is important to people. When we shift our culture, there will be unintended consequences.

    Regardless of our actions, people are going to die to situations like this. The question is how many and how often. How many are we willing to accept, and what limitations are we willing to accept and impose in order to lower the number of people who do die. That’s the other blog piece, though.

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