A fourth student reflection on the normative question of the role guns should play in (American) society, from my Sociology of Guns seminar, follows. The first three reflections can be found here, here, and here.
By Hayden Abene
Guns. There are few topics that incite such highly contentious debate as guns in the U.S. Indeed guns and gun rights have become a hot-button topic of sensationalism in our media and thus our culture. Often the thoughts invoked and the rhetorical strategies utilized employ sentiments of nostalgia, of American freedom, and of fear. Guns thus become a question of rights rather than one of ethics. Yet, posing the question of “what role guns should play in society” elicits intellectual exploration in the furthest reaches of hypotheticals. As such, for me to personally answer the question is to resoundingly declare the guns should play no role save to be a distant memory relegated to history as tool of violence and oppression. This is exclusively founded on my predisposition as a pacifist and a vegetarian. The most obvious counter-argument may be that not all are as inclined to such life choices or the familiar argument that there is no possible way to disarm America, thus law-abiding citizens should be able to own guns in order to defend themselves. But I retort on the basis that with such an excessively hypothetical question, I am bound to no such pragmatic reality but am afforded the greatest creative liberty to cognitively construct my own utopia—and in it, there should be no guns. But, for the sake of a more sociological relevant stance, I concede that when framed, say, on a policy level or in a public discourse, we must grapple with current realities. Yet to acknowledge these realities—our deeply embedded cultural attachment to guns, a prolific volume of firearms that likely equates the country’s total population, our dependence on military might to make right—seems to leave very little space for a realistic hypothetical of the role guns should play that comes anywhere close to aligning with my utopian view. Conscious of this, guns should at least play a deescalated role in both individual and state backed violence and should be more readily framed in our dominant cultural narratives as the lethal weapons they are and not symbols of power and allure.
I, personally, grew up infatuated by guns. My family did not own but a couple of non-functional heirlooms, which remained locked away and rarely discussed. But I loved westerns and action movies and remember how enthralled I was in reenacting such scenes with the aid of trusty cap-guns and my young friends (other boys of course due to the heteronormativity of guns being masculine). Most of all, we liked to engage in “Cowboys and Indians,” what I now look back on as an abhorring, pejorative, and racist game. And as I got older, I would spend occasional afternoons on friends’ farms shooting skeet or glass bottles or whatever else we could find. Guns were the essence of status as an adolescent. And such infatuation largely pervades a considerable deal of our country. Guns are therefore things of play, collection, and symbols of power. To be such a symbol worthy of fixation though is deeply imbedded in the history of guns—a history in which they were literal relics of power as they were (and still are in many senses) used to conquer, to colonize, and to dominant others. We have transmuted that history into our cultural fascination, ignoring the violence and oppression they have long inflicted overwhelmingly on the losing end of a hierarchical power structure. Thus, we need a cultural enlightenment of reclaiming this dark history and of better attaching it to our framed conceptualization of guns now.
To more directly answer the question of what role should guns play in society is to acknowledge the acceptable roles they already do play. For instance, hunting, preferably for subsistence, is a far less contentious and thus more acceptable a role for guns. They should not, as alluded above, be romanticize into such a prolific depiction in film, nor should they be replicated as toys for children. Doing so further separates us from the reality that guns are lethal tools and disconnects us from the catastrophic effects in which the history of guns is ensnared. I also stand for a massive demilitarization, so I do not think guns should play such an immediate role in foreign policy. Perhaps the most passionately contested question is the role of guns for self-defense. Again, I cite that I consider myself a pacifist and personally find ethical dilemmas in overly harmful and indeed lethal forms of self-defense. I concede that some do not have such a dilemma and that people have a right to protect themselves from harm. Particularly, I believe it is the right of those in marginalized groups, such as people of color, LGBTQ people, and women, to be able to defend themselves when the state does not, or worse when they are targeted by state backed violence, such as racist police brutality that is currently drawing considerable national attention. The middle ground stance I therefore take is that there should be a greater development and push for the use of non-lethal defense weapons, such as stun-guns and bean-bag shotgun rounds. This should be coupled, of course, with tighter regulations around gun ownership and more scrutinized standards for the use of lethal force, both by individual citizens as a means of self-defense and by law enforcement officers.
While the most ideal world, as I conceive it, would have no need for guns, the reality is we live in a society dominated by guns and gun culture. This does not excuse the need for a greater recognition of the lethality and oppressive nature of guns and stronger regulations around the use of such weapons, but does demand pacifists like me to take a more realistic, middle-ground approach to addressing the role guns should play in our society.