Is Gun Culture The Problem?

Promoting light over heat on the issue of guns gets harder every day. The release of the United States Supreme Court decision in NYSRPA v. Bruen last week fanned the flames as some of those opposed to the decision told us how they really feel.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s comment about “the insanity of the gun culture” uses language I hear more and more.

Similarly, Atlantic contributing writer Tom Nichols pointed a finger at gun culture in an increasingly familiar “Grumpy Old Man” kind of way. Those readers of a certain age may remember the great Dana Carvey character who angrily declared, “I like things the way they used to be.”

There’s much I could say about this short essay, but let me focus on what I think are the two biggest problems:

First, Nichols demonstrates whichever cognitive bias is characterized by having your attention drawn to the most extreme and exceptional examples (apologies to Daniel Kahneman).

Nichols writes, “The problem is not the Court’s decision. The problem is an adolescent, drama-laden gun culture.” What does he mean by this? I think the answer is evident in the picture accompanying his essay that shows a protester open carrying a rifle outside the Texas State Capitol Building.

There’s no question that this captures an aspect of the reality of contemporary gun culture. But based on my 10 years of wandering through contemporary gun culture, I find this characterizes only a small minority of gun owners and their practices. The problem with how Nichols represents gun culture — not his problem alone, to be very sure — comes from only understanding gun culture at second hand, mediated through the most extreme and exceptional forms.

The contemporary self-defense-oriented Gun Culture 2.0 that was reflected in the Bruen decision speaks to the ability to get a permit to carry a concealed gun in public, not to armed protest, virtue signaling with guns, tactical cosplay, or anything Nichols might think of as “adolescent, drama-laden.”

Second, consider Nichols’ argument that back in his day, “People owned [guns]; they didn’t talk about them. They didn’t cover their cars in bumper stickers about them, they didn’t fly flags about them, they didn’t pose for dumb pictures with them.”

Here again, he is generalizing from the most visible to everyone else. He is also generalizing from what he can remember to what actually was. And he ignores the effect of technology on changing culture generally, not just gun culture.

Back in his day and before it, some people both owned guns and talked about them. “Gun cranks” have been around a long time and found their expression in gun magazines, on gun ranges, and in coffee shops. Perhaps Young Tom Nichols was just not invited to those conversations?

As bumper stickers in general become more popular, gun bumper stickers become more popular. Amazon and Etsy and print-on-demand technology make bumper stickers and flags easier to procure and display. ALL kinds of bumper stickers and flags, not just gun-related ones.

On the other side, what I remember about guns from my contemporary studies is that some people still own guns and don’t talk about them (because they feel Tom Nichols’ disdain), don’t cover their cars in bumper stickers (in fact, caution strongly against this), and don’t fly flags about them (because they also think they are often stupid).

Of course, today everything is more widely distributed and in your face thanks to social media. Nichols embodying Grumpy Old Man says, “Back in my day people didn’t take pictures of themselves with their guns.” (Factually incorrect, but anyway….) Well, Grumpy, before digital photography, people didn’t take as many pictures in general. Before social media, people didn’t take pictures expressly for the purpose of public consumption – which drives the need for attention Nichols laments in gun culture. Furthermore, people weren’t interviewed by journalists about their guns and weren’t asked by photojournalists to pose with their guns.

Some time ago I was called by a freelance writer who was writing “about the relationship between guns, masculinity, and White Claw hard seltzer. Basically: there’s a cohort of Men Online who have taken to shooting hard seltzer cans (usually White Claw) with their guns, then chugging the remaining liquid from the twisted aluminum remnants.”

I declined to speak with him because I thought it was a waste of time but provided him with the following statement:

There are over 60 million gun owners in the United States. The large majority of them are men. Among them are a small minority who do very stupid things with their guns — some intentionally, others unintentionally. Among that small minority are an even smaller minority who record their stupidity and post it to social media for attention, laughs, virtue or identity signaling, or all of the above.

He subsequently published his article under the title, “How White Claw Became a Meme for Militant Gun Rights Shitposters.”

And now we have a significant figure writing in a significant magazine conflating gun culture with “men sitting in their cars in sunglasses and baseball caps, recording themselves as they dump unhinged rants into their phones about their rights and conspiracies and socialism.” Paging Dr. Kahneman, paging Dr. Kahneman.

If I had written this article, the title would be “The Explanation is Both Gun Culture and SCOTUS.”

The explanation is gun culture in that the SCOTUS decision in NYSRPA v. Bruen reflects the shift to Gun Culture 2.0, which is not reducible to some adolescent, drama-laden need for attention.

But the explanation is also SCOTUS, which clearly contributes to that culture, notably in Heller and McDonald decisions which privilege an individual right to keep and bear arms for purposes of self-defense.

The symbiotic relationship between gun culture and SCOTUS is my light in response to Nichols’ heat.

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  1. Okay so I grew up in NYC but spent summers at my Grandmothers place in the Catskills. So people in the Catskills had guns and we shot at cans and varmints and the like. At home in NYC guns were not common but no big deal. I remember traveling on the subways with a cased rifle as I was going to meet friends for a hunting trip upstate. People on the subway did not even blink. (1960’s). Pretty much every college and a bunch of High Schools in NYC had a smallbore rifle team and a range in the basement of one of the buildings.
    There weren’t any mass shootings that weren’t gang related and no shooting at schools.
    That all changed to now it is all about that DEMON GUN. What happened? How did we go from guns were normal to guns are possessed and influence the person holding them to do evil things.
    For some reason people are no longer held as responsible for their actions and so the gun is to blame.
    When you talk to gun owners many are quiet about their ownership in states like NJ or NY because of the demonization that they face. Actually I have read that up to one third of the population owns a gun, that is more like 100 million people. But even 60 million is about 20% of the population and very likely you actually know someone that owns a gun but you may not/probably are not even aware of it.
    The gun culture in places has decided that it is no longer going to hide and act ashamed. Basically, they are tired of accepting the disdain for having a legal hobby and being a lawful responsible citizen, not someone who is shooting anyone.
    Everything that the “left” wants will not solve the problem of shootings, especially when the majority are gang related and they are already breaking the law.

    The other part of the problem from the gun culture perspective is that there is no end to what the “left” wants. The recent gun legislation most likely will not solve any of the problems but various antigun proponents say it is a good start. A good start to what? We know what – take our guns away. That is a place too far.


  2. “Those readers of a certain age may remember the great Dana Carvey character”

    In my day we didn’t let black people or poor white trash carry guns. That was just for the people important enough to have bodyguards. And that’s the way it was and we LIKED it!

    “People owned [guns]; they didn’t talk about them. They didn’t cover their cars in bumper stickers about them, they didn’t fly flags about them, they didn’t pose for dumb pictures with them.”

    In my day we had the queers but they didn’t talk about it. They didn’t put queer bumper stickers on their cars and didn’t fly no rainbow flags. And they certainly didn’t have marches. They stayed in the closet and we ignored them and we LIKED it!

    I’m sensing a pattern.

    Liked by 1 person

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