Guns are the Problem, but the Answer lies elsewhere

  It’s guns, people, it’s guns. This statement gets defensive, hostile responses every time I post something like it on social media.  Positive responses outnumber the negative ones so it’s hard to understand how deadly shooting after deadly shooting hasn’t wounded the Second Amendment crowd in any way. I hear cable news talking heads arguing that we just need to pepper the hostile naysayers with more facts, but facts don’t touch them. There’s something deeply emotional to their consistent reactions.

Since the 1980s there’s been a constant media drumbeat celebrating the mythical cowboy mentality, conjuring fear of imminent, violent criminal attacks, the virtue of violent revenge as justice, and the essential untrustworthiness of others.  The NRA gets a lot of the blame.  Movies, t.v. shows, and video games should get more.  Some state legislatures have added their own fuel through stand your ground laws that legalize, encourage, and suggest justification for shooting first and asking questions later.  It has added up to an effective marketing program promoting gun ownership as a necessity for survival.

The rise of far right anti-democratic politics has contributed to a mindset that distrusts republican government, federalism, elections, and anything that can be labeled liberal making democracy itself an enemy. There is real anxiety among too many that only the well armed in every way will be able to defend themselves and survive the imaginary, self destructive and improbable apocalypse bound to occur.  Then there is the sheer romance of owning weapons; even more romantic if they’re of military grade.  Part juvenile fantasy, part true appreciation for a well made thing, and part for some sense of power and superiority one can feel when carrying a gun.

It adds up to a deeply rooted emotion that fears almost any form of regulation, fears exacerbated by propaganda about “them” coming to take away your guns.

Is that true of all the roughly 180 million Americans who own a gun?  No.  Certainly not.  I’ve owned guns in the past.  Every farmer, rancher or hunter I know owns guns.  Like many my age, I grew up when owning a gun was taken for granted, no one paid any special attention. Guns were simply tools needed for work or sport, like tractors or golf clubs.  Emotional pride in owning them was a function of workmanship or sporting marksmanship. Teaching gun safety was the only  role of the NRA.  That same attitude prevails among many gun owners today.  But not all.

There are somewhere around 390 million people living in The U.S, including infants, children, and the elderly.  Current estimates from the Washington Post are that there are around 490 million weapons in civilian hands.  Give that some thought.  Less than half of the population owns almost half a billion weapons.  Don’t take any of these numbers as hard fact.  They’re only roughly right if one is generous about what roughly means.  But the perspective is spot on.  A significant number of people are heavily armed.  Each new media explosion of news about a  threatening domestic or international event is met with a surge in gun sales, not so much to new gun owners, but to existing gun owners convinced the need for ever more protections.  Protections against what?

My guess is it’s a tangled mess of emotionally charged motives tied to core social values that have been sold as critical to the continued existence of a civilized America.  It isn’t hard to conjure up such threats as looming catastrophes.  Remember Maslow’s 1954 hierarchy of needs: first physical needs such as shelter, clothing, food, water, etc. Then the need to feel safe, secure in one’s daily life followed by a need to belong and to have an adequate degree of self esteem.  Maslow said that once a basic need was satisfied, one would work to achieve the next level, but if what they had achieved was threatened, or taken away, they would revert quickly to defense of lower levels of satisfaction with increasing determination to protect it..

In a troubled world where big decisions affecting ordinary people appear to be entirely in the hands of a powerful elite, it’s easy to convince a large portion of the population that their self esteem has been taken from them, perhaps even given to someone else.  It’s easy for them to be convinced that they no longer belong to a class of respected people, and that others who used to be thought inferior are now superior.  It’s easy to convince them that their safety is at risk at every corner, in every dark shadow, even in their own homes.  It’s easy to convince them that unless they are willing to fight, they will lose it all. Every successful dictator, king, emperor, strong man, and gang boss knows how to play the game.  There are a hundred variations of the old movie line, “It’s nice life you have here, shame if anything would happen to it.”

It’s a big part of the reason that arming up has become an obsession. I’m guessing the same dynamic helps explain why more people think its OK to shoot first and ask questions later, or shoot to avenge a minor traffic or property infraction.  It may also help explain why too many younger people think there is little wrong with resolving disputes with drive by shootings. Authoritarian provocateurs  increase the pressure by asserting “they” are going to take away your guns, that teachers need to be armed, police stationed at every school entrance, and the like, and that any move to regulate guns is a threat to fundamental rights.

Pelting the public with facts isn’t going to change a thing.  The answer has to be in the form of a persuasive argument that core physical needs and social values will be strengthened, expanded, and made more secure when guns are properly regulated.  It can’t be an argument to make people feel regulation will make life safer and more fee, it has to be the real, tactile thing. It’s a tricky process. Propaganda, advertising and marketing gurus have fine tuned the art of convincing the public of benefits or threats having little substance.  It’s the old advertising platitude, sell the sizzle not the steak. Using the same skills to sell a truth filled message without deception is not something normally done. Equally difficult is overcoming the powerful win/lose, transactional zero sum ethos promoted by the myth of rugged individualism. It’s an ethos that can’t conceive how the good things in life can be shared more equitably without “them that has” losing to undeserving others.  The gun lobby and gun manufacturers have to be taken head on as the agents of death and civil disorder they are: agents that truly threaten the very values they claim to defend.

Difficult as it may be, it’s the only way to create a significant shift in the public arena to force legislators into action.  Will it change hard core gun advocates? No.  But it has the best chance to change enough minds to make a difference, and enough is enough.

3 thoughts on “Guns are the Problem, but the Answer lies elsewhere”

  1. Good essay, Steve. I do think your estimate of gun ownership (180 million of us) is too high; according to a 2021 Pew poll, only 30% of us own guns (an addional 11% live in households where someone else is a gun owner, so that equates to 160 million, not 180 million; the largest plurality of owners live in rural areas. While the gun lobby uses fear of the Other (i.e. Black and Brown people), nearly 50% of gun owners are White (“We have met the enemy and it is us,” says Pogo from days of yore); and nearly 50% of Southerners are gun owners. Interestingly, less than 30% of urban dwellers own guns; the Whiter suburbs have guns in 40% of homes; and rural areas (this makes sense to me, as rural residents are more likely to hunt or desire a gun to chase varmints), report 52% as gun owners or living with a gun owner. It seems to me the message of the gun lobby is targeted to Whites, playing on our fear of people of color and the threat that someone is going to take our stuff (the same we took the stuff of others). While the lobby is strong and the GOP especially is resistant to the will of the people, more than 80% of Americans favor more gun regulation. I just think we ought to require gun owners to participate in that well-ordered militia the 2nd amendment states as the rationale for gun ownership. I just understand why that argument hasn’t been made to our “originalist” SCOTUS. Sigh.

  2. Nice article Steve. You might find this story interesting:
    It also seems to be the case that convincing gun fanatics to change their minds is not really necessary, since they are nowhere near a majority of citizens; the actual problem is the anti-democratic current state of American government, especially at state levels. They have to be not convinced but de-leveraged.

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