The Cultural Roots of a Gun-Massacre Society

Kevork Djansezian / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Previously in this series:

Here are some readers with extra elements on this discussion—political, cultural, international. First, an American reader on the interaction of current concepts of masculinity and the nearly all-male population of mass gun murderers:

There are obviously many components to the gun and mental illness issues but one thread that never seems to be acknowledged: America is going through a crisis of masculinity brought on by structural changes in our economy.

Jobs, if men possess them, no longer provide routes to self-esteem for working class men and so, with the help of the NRA, guns have become a talisman for a potency and meaning that has evaporated in the marketplace.

Take a moment to look at the gun magazines at your local WalMart and register the themes that are hammered home. Constant references not to hunting but to warfare, and the trappings of masculinity, the humorless insistence on the tacticality of every day objects, including, I kid you not, a spork with a hidden knife. These industries are preying on the needs of men to feel like they have a job, bigger than themselves, a protector of the fatherland, the constitution.

When I look at [the Las Vegas mass murderer] I see a man who gave himself a job. He worked out all the details as though he were a character in his own mission impossible. He moved from stage to stage with the precision of an engineer. He embraced this culture of death that is fed to men as a surrogate for that which was available for all too short a time in this culture: the ability to take care of a family on one salary.

There has been no counterweight to this culture of death. No one seems to be able to answer the question: What are men good for? What are the qualities that make a good man … good? Instead this enormous vacuum is filled by people with products to sell. Men are warriors with tactical sporks. What else could they be if they can’t be providers?

Caregivers? I read that most of the jobs in the near future will be in the Healthcare field. Don’t we owe it to these men who have been displaced by the loss of manufacturing and other blue collar work to, at the very least, acknowledge that this will require a different sort of mindset than hammering or shoveling? It will require a different sort of definition of what men are and what they might be.

Mental illness in this context means the inability to adapt to new circumstances but shouldn’t we at least admit the difficulty of what we are asking of men? I fear by not posing the question we are opening the door to a fascist mentality whose answers we cannot tolerate.

And a shorter version of a similar point:

I think the Californian reader [who previously argued that American culture has decayed] is onto something.Indeed, his tone of resentment against big and centralized government captures a lot of the anger common to shooters and the cultures in which they grew up.

The world has changed, they haven’t.  And we see what can happen when we add a gun to that equation.

All these are well-argued points. For now I’ll simply add that working-class men around the world are subject to similar pressures. Only in one country are they routinely vented through mass gun slayings.

Another reader on a different cultural underpinning of America’s gun culture:

One of the pieces that you wrote on Japan that stayed with me was the article on Japanese rice policy. [JF: It’s no longer available online, but was included in my book More Like Us.] The gist of the piece being that Japan goes to great lengths to ensure that the country will always be able to grow enough rice to feed itself.

The result of that policy being that the Japanese pay a much higher price for rice than they would if they just imported it from Thailand or any other South Asian country for that matter.  The premium put on self-sufficiency contributed to the extreme density of Tokyo, the relatively small number of large cities in the country as a whole and the comparably small housing that the growing Japanese middle class accepted.  All these sacrifices made in order to preserve as much arable land as needed to provide for a rice harvest large enough to feed all of the island.The reason for the practice, you noted, is rooted in a famine the country suffered in the 1700s which nearly denuded the country.

That observation stayed with me and it has informed my opinion about many practices common in other countries whose origins and sustaining motive is lost on non-natives.In fact, I think you can see prominent practices in many countries that have these kind of atavistic roots, rituals and traditions where the cost far outweighs any current benefit.  The maintenance of the British Royal pageantry, the extraordinary efforts of the French in defense of their language, bullfighting in Spain which has no parallel in the developed world.

I think that the one feature all of these practices have in common is that they reference something that the citizens of that country see as a symbol of their particular grit.  The “thing” that has been responsible for their culture’s ability to survive in its worst moments. The character feature that modern citizens fear would result in their ruin if extinguished. (There is more than a bit of this in the movie Dunkirk which I took as a long homage to the English will to carry on, despite all.)

I’m afraid ours is guns.


After Sandy Hook I wrote a few things supporting gun control on FB that put me in touch with a few people who were eager to defend their adamant pro-unrestricted gun rights views.  We were able, surprisingly to me, to have some extended and civil exchanges.

What I learned from those conversations is that guns and, more specifically, the ability to get and use a gun(s) at any time is, for one’s defense is for many the core of being American.  Against all reason, all available evidence that unlimited access to guns causes more harm than good, the likelihood that you—if you do own a gun—will ever use it in your own or anyone else’s defense, or any of the other thousands of myths about owning weapons, pro-gun advocates will not waver in that core belief. If belief is the best word for it. It is probably more accurately termed a faith.

The gun horror we now endure is a result of the imprinted experience of the 19th-century Indian wars, the vast destruction and death toll of the Civil War in the South and the general distrust and fear of African Americans, still strangers here after more than 400 years.  If you look at regions of the country where these themes are dominant you see the strongest, the most adamant defenders of gun ownership and the sanctity of the 2nd amendment.

If this were an issue for the Northeast and the West Coast, gun regulation would hardly be contested. In the southern, western plains and mountain states, it has and never will have any chance of being adopted.  And, thanks to the 2nd amendment, we cannot, as we are currently doing with marijuana, conduct real time experiments on a local basis.  We can’t even test the truth our assertions….

I am resigned to the reality of living with this gory theater to the end of my days unless something extraordinary comes along to change the landscape.  I still believe that the U.S. is far more malleable than any of the countries cited above.   But, apparently, the grizzly death of 20 small children in New England, masses of people in Las Vegas and 17 high schoolers in Florida just doesn’t seem to have moved the needle.  I’m not sure I want to live to see the tragedy that finally does.

Finally for now on American exceptionalism, a note from a reader in Melbourne, Australia. (Readers in Europe, Canada, and Australia have not held back on the “What is wrong with you people??” messages.)

Although I’ve no doubt that at this tragic and fractured time you and your fellow citizens do not need a sermon from the far-off beaches of Australia, I must say this:

I walk the streets without fear. My wife walks the streets without fear. My child plays at the park and the library and everywhere else and I hold no fear for him. No fear, that is, that any of us will ever be the victims of a gun.

Sure, I’m terrified of a traffic accident taking away those I love. I’m constantly vigilant for the everyday dangers of a big city. But I do not - ever - fear that a bullet will be the cause of unexpected, terrible grief.

And that is the outcome of gun control. There are bad guys here with guns, sure. But not many, because there aren’t many guns. It’s very, very simple.

I was 16 when Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people in Port Arthur, not far from where I grew up in Tasmania. I went to the memorial service a week or two later, felt the raw pain. And felt the commitment to never allow it to happen again.

I can’t begin to imagine what the parents of Parkland are going through. Or the families of those who were in Las Vegas so recently. Or the mothers and fathers in every city and town of your country, every single day of the year, who open the door to a police officer saying “ma’am, sir, I’m sorry to tell you that....”

But I can imagine what it’s like to not fear that awful reality. Because I live it.

Gun control works.

More to come, including from readers making a conceptual anti-gun-control case.