The Problem Is Gun Culture, Not SCOTUS

A win in the Supreme Court for the American right to threaten one another in public

Protesters outside the Texas State Capitol building in 2021
Protesters outside the Texas State Capitol building in 2021 (Sergio Flores / Getty)

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I used to think of myself as a gun-control conservative—I supported both the right to own firearms and the interest of the state to limit that right—but America’s gun culture isn’t about rights. It’s about performative insecurity.

But first, here are three great new stories from The Atlantic.

Big Iron

Back in 1959, the country singer Marty Robbins wrote a ballad about a murderous outlaw who met his well-deserved end at the hands of a handsome young Arizona Ranger who was carrying the “Big Iron on his hip.” (The song was supposedly inspired by a weapon Robbins saw in a shop, but there is some question about whether the Big Iron was a real gun.)

It’s a great song. But it wasn’t supposed to be a guide to life in modern America.

I don’t have the energy or expertise to debate whether the Supreme Court should have taken on the case of a New York State law that limited the ability to carry weapons around in public. Honestly, I just assume that many declines in the quality of American life for the foreseeable future will be announced with “In a 6–3 decision …” Elections have consequences, and with the current composition of the Court, this decision was inevitable.

The problem is not the Court’s decision. The problem is an adolescent, drama-laden gun culture, a romance with weapons that became extreme only in the past quarter century.

It didn’t use to be this way. I grew up around guns; my father had been a police officer, and we had two of them. My older half-brother, who lived a few streets away, was a police officer. Our next-door neighbor was a police officer. My hometown was a military town, and almost all of the men I knew were veterans who owned weapons and knew how to handle them. (There were some female veterans too. My mother, for one.)

What I remember about guns is that I remember almost nothing about guns. People owned them; 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. (I’ll plead one personal exemption: When I was a little boy, relatives in Greece once posed me in a Greek Evzone-soldier costume with my uncle’s hunting shotgun. I could barely lift it.)

Today, there is a neediness in the gun culture that speaks to deep insecurities among a certain kind of American citizen. The gun owners I knew—cops, veterans, hunters, sportsmen—owned guns as part of their life, sometimes as tools, sometimes for recreation. Gun ownership was not the central and defining feature of their life.

Don’t take my word for it that things have changed. Here’s Ryan Busse, a former gun-company executive who has now taken on his former industry, talking about the day someone showed up to a hunting party with an AR-15:

The unwritten rules of decency were enforced by firearm-industry leaders … I witnessed how this worked many times, including one occasion when a young writer brought his own AR-15 to a hunting event I was hosting in 2004. The senior figures there responded immediately. “That’s not the kind of thing we want to be promoting,” they said. The newcomer was shamed into locking the gun up for the rest of the event.

This kind of affirmation of cultural norms can be a lot more powerful than any law, and I suspect that the gun-culture extremists know it. They head off expressions of this kind of social disapproval by being aggressive and performative, daring anyone to criticize them for feeling the need to be armed while getting milk and eggs at the supermarket.

I have always trusted my fellow citizens with weapons. Now the most vocal advocates for unfettered gun ownership are 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.

The Supreme Court has now affirmed that all these guys can be the handsome ranger with the Big Iron on their hip. You can be angry with the Court for furthering and enabling this weirdness, but it’s not the Court’s fault. It is, as usual, our fault, as voters and citizens, for tolerating a culture that is endangering our fellow Americans instead of insisting that all of us exercise our constitutional rights like responsible adults.


Today’s News

  1. The Supreme Court handed down four decisions today, including one on a North Carolina voter-ID law, a ruling in favor of a death-row inmate seeking to die by firing squad, and the widest expansion of gun rights in a decade.
  2. Germany activated the second phase of its three-stage gas-emergency program as a result of Russia slashing supply through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
  3. European leaders granted Ukraine candidate status for European Union membership today, a process that typically takes years.


Evening Read

Lauren and Cameron cut the cake during their wedding on Season 1 of "Love Is Blind"

How Reality Dating Shows Stoke Racial Tensions

Story by Hannah Giorgis

In the first season of Netflix’s hit reality show Love Is Blind, Lauren Speed visits the Atlanta home of her new fiancé, Cameron Hamilton. The house is airy and bright, and Lauren and Cameron, fingers laced, wander the rooms imagining the life they might have there together. But behind the scenes, that day was less dreamy than it looked.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Buzz Lightyear taking off in a spaceship in "Lightyear"
Disney / Pixar

Read. The World as We Knew It shows how Greek mythology can help us make sense of the climate crisis.

Or try another recommendation from our reading list of books that reveal our anxieties about a warming planet.

Watch. You could catch Lightyear, the “perfectly functional sci-fi tale” and Toy Story origin story, in theaters. But maybe you should rewatch Minority Report instead—Steven Spielberg’s prescient 2002 thriller is as chilling as ever (and widely available on streaming services).

Listen. The sensual new album Ugly Season marks a career watershed for the ambitious singer Perfume Genius.

Play our daily crossword.

The past is the future: The song “Big Iron” was a hit in early 1960, but it became an internet meme thanks to Fallout New Vegas, the 2010 entry in one of the greatest science-fiction-video-game franchises of all time, the Fallout series. If you’re inclined to play video games, New Vegas is a kitschy, retro-sci-fi experience featuring some great old music and—I am not kidding—a cast that includes Wayne Newton. Apparently, a TV series is in the works—so get started!

— Tom

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.