The battle over guns has proven to be one of the most dangerous in United States’s culture wars, and with the murder of 59 people in Las Vegas on October 1, the debate over how to regulate them has begun again.
“It’s not about the guns. The guns are a symbol,” said David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.
Gun symbolism, social scientists say, was shaped by the nation’s history. It has associations with the frontier and wars, with power and manhood. In modern political debates, it’s associated with the idea of liberty from a “government [that] does too much to protect us and tramples on our personal rights,” Ropeik said.
When a gun carries that kind of cultural significance, it’s “a powerful image to fight against,” if you’re a gun control advocate, said John Donohue, a Stanford University law professor and gun policy expert, “and one that is largely immune from rational discussion.”
Gun culture isn’t just about “personal identity,” said Adam Lankford, author of the 2015 study “Mass Shooters, Firearms, and Social Strains: A Global Analysis of an Exceptionally American Problem.” The University of Alabama criminal justice professor said it’s also about “shared identity, ‘Do I fit in with my friends and family, according to the way we view the world and our values?”
“For one side, guns represent aggression, violence, and a somewhat paranoid and anachronistic perspective that you have to protect yourself from external threats,” Lankford said. “For the other side, guns represent safety, security, and self-sufficiency - and wrapped up in some of that is often a form of traditional masculinity whereby the man of the house must be able to physically protect his family.”
Justin Sollie, 27, is a libertarian-leaning Republican. He grew up hunting, just like his father, and his grandfather before him. Sollie, a high school Math teacher, owns guns for hunting and personal protection, but says he supports tighter restrictions on guns, including a ban on high capacity semi-automatic weapons. Sollie knows many people in his community would not.
“It’s the idea of guns and gun culture that matters more than the gun itself,” he said. To many Southerners, guns are “freedom.”
The trouble with tribalism
The debate is notably partisan or as Ropeik calls it, “tribal.”
National polls show a clear split. According to a 2017 survey from the Pew Research Centre, 91% of Republicans say owning a gun is essential to their freedom and 43% of Democrats.
“We are social animals and pressure to be loyal to party or tribe is strong,” experts say.
“We aren’t 325 million individuals who make up our individual opinions based on the facts,” Lankford said.
Frustrated by lack of action after a student killed nine people at an Oregon college in 2015, president Barack Obama said gun violence is “something we should politicise.”
On the other side, gun rights groups gave $5.8 million to members of Congress in 2016, 98% of which went to Republicans, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics. The non-partisan group that tracks campaign spending also reported that in just the 2016 presidential race, the National Rifle Association spent $10.6 million to support Donald Trump and $19.7 million to oppose Hillary Clinton.
It seems as though the divide is impossibly stark, but experts say Americans share more in common than their Twitter feeds would suggest.
Large majorities in both parties support preventing the mentally ill and people on no-fly lists from buying guns, as well as background checks, according to a Pew Research Centre survey conducted in March and April of 2017.
“Everyone for the most part is for safety and against senseless terror and death,” said Jonathan Metzl, director of the Centre for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University. “There’s a sense of commonality. I think the problem is that it’s very hard to find rhetoric that’s not polarising, considering that this debate is so beholden to so many different interests on all sides.”
The desire for safety is basic and universal. The disagreement is over whether guns actually make one safer.
[This is an excerpt of a USA Today article]