'White Male Privilege' and Other Themes of Gun Culture

George Frey / 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:

Today, readers on the culture, psychology, and politics of regulating guns.

Really, pay attention to Australia—white-male privilege and all. Several previous messages have referred to Australia’s modern experience with guns. In short: After the mass-casualty “Port Arthur massacre” of 1996, a conservative government (technically, the Liberal party) changed gun policy, and since then Australia has had its share of gun violence but no remotely comparable massacres. By contrast, the five deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, and 7 of the 10 worst, have all happened since 1996.

Earlier a reader in Melbourne described the experience of living with the normal range of urban concerns but not the fear of being shot. Another reader who emigrated to Australia writes:

I read your Melbourne reader's comment with intense empathy, because it exactly describes my experience.

I lived in the USA for almost five decades. From the age of 14 to 49, I owned my own guns. There was never a period in which I did not own a gun. I even put one to good use at the age of 15, throwing my mother's boyfriend out of the house after they argued. The gun in my hands made him leave. At various times in my adult life I would carry a pistol, when I deemed it appropriate.

When I immigrated to Australia of course I had to sell off my arsenal. By that point it was down to two pistols (my assault rifle had been stolen years ago).

After my first year here, I noticed there was something different. I felt odd, as if something were missing. It took a road-rage incident to realize it was the absence of fear. No matter how mad someone got at me, no one was going to shoot me. My three decades of martial-arts training would not be trumped by a drunk with three minutes of target practice. My choice to be engaged with the people around me, even when they seemed angry, would not put my life at undue risk.

The irony is that I know almost as many people here (2) that own guns as I did in the USA (3). Hunters and sport shooters can and do have guns. It does involve a fair amount of paperwork and some expense, but not materially worse than owning a car. But the guns are different: single-shot, small caliber rifles or shotguns, not assault rifles and automatic pistols.

The reason guns cannot be regulated in the USA is because of the violence, not in spite of it. The violence is necessary to maintain the fear, and the fear is necessary to maintain white male privilege. The idea that white men can and do shoot people causes every interaction with a white man to carry a tinge of threat: If you disrespect him, or merely fail to please him enough, he just might explode. When they say that two dozen dead children are the price we pay for freedom, what they mean is that they are willing to pay that price to preserve white male privilege. As recent events demonstrate, white male privilege is the preeminent policy goal for them, outweighing even honor, truth, and democracy. That they pursue it through terrorism should not be surprising; it was ever thus. That they cannot admit their true goal, even to themselves, is a side-effect of the defeat of the Confederacy. They cannot bear to be called a "racist" because to them, that term evokes "loser." When the South lost, we tied the shame of defeat to the cause of racism, hoping to kill it. Instead, it appears we have killed shame.

The supreme irony, of course, is that Australia still has plenty of white male privilege. While it is in retreat, it can hardly said to be dead. It's just not purchased with the blood of children.

More on the international comparison, from a reader who emigrated from the old Soviet Union to the U.S. and now lives in the Pacific northwest:

Having been born in USSR, part of boys’ education in high school included handling assault rifles (the notorious AK47), which are scarily elegant in the simplicity of their design. I shot air guns in the ranges, and enjoyed playing war, as all little kids do. But possessing most weapons wasn’t legal, and even hunting guns were heavily regulated.

When I came to America, one of the first—and weirdest—experiences was me and my brother being taken to the Cascades by two gun enthusiasts to go shooting. The truck was full to the brim with guns and ammo, anything from handguns to large, impossible to lift sniper rifles. While fun, it was very strange. One of the guys even had an AR-15 with grenade-launcher attachment at home. What he expected to do with this in [his suburban Seattle community], I have no idea.

In my time in America, I’ve seen and heard so much crazy crap that it boggles my mind. This obsession with weaponry in this society so rich and brimming with opportunity and devoid of danger is for me impossible to understand. There are no more Indians to protect yourself, wild bears and boars to kill, and there never were any invaders to repel….

I am now opposed to guns in civil society on principle. Having shot handguns, assault weapons, and shotguns, I understand their appeal. But I see absolutely no reason to have one myself. I don’t mind police having, but I do not believe private citizens should be allowed anything other than licensed hunting rifle… You want guns, join the armed forces, or go to the shooting range.

More on white male insecurities, from a reader in the U.S.:

I am a fatalist on this topic although something does seem (for now) to be different after Parkland. Its heartening to see these kids (as the kids say) dunking on politicians and the NRA.

My folks live in Tucson and last week I was there on my yearly visit and, as always, tucson is emblematic of the insecure, toxic masculinity that permeates so much of 'real' america. The amount of "Punisher," Gadsen Flag, Molon Labe, NRA, etc., window decals, and bumper stickers is astonishing.

I went hiking one morning at a lovely state park north of town and after I was done hiking I went to the local Starbucks. While I sat around looking at the mountains three young men showed up in a giant lifted F-250 pickup and all three were open carrying handguns of some sort...

A table of four people who looked to be affluent, middle-aged snowbirds (this is in an rich part of town) were behind me and one of the women mentioned calling the sheriff because some kids were being rambunctious in their neighborhood. As the woman related it to the others, the sheriff told her that the kids weren’t breaking the law and there was nothing to be done. She then said, with a laugh, that her husband went and got one of his guns and went outside and brandished his gun at the kids and at that point the kids “knocked it off.” Everyone laughed.  

Well-off white people and scared, insecure, white men of all classes are going to kill us all.


We do nothing after a mass shooting because , for many of us,  available options challenge our national identity.

Our nation was founded on violent action. Our founding fathers gave us the right to own guns so militias could handle defense in lieu of a standing army. Our frontier expansion required guns to protect settlers and eliminate native resistors.

A national persona developed lauding the rugged individual, who takes matters in his/her own hands, often using violence to obtain justice.  The Colt 45, Winchester rifle, AR-15,  John Wayne, Rambo, Film-Noir private eyes, even gangster films, are icons to this persona. When this persona meets a disgruntled, mentally disturbed individual, a perfect storm can develop. A gun or multiple guns are readily available, legally or illegally. Internet connectivity has added instant-notoriety attraction to this volatile mix.

Countering this plague will require us to alter our national identity, which won’t happen. We Americans cherish this identity.

Finally, on a possible solution at the local rather than national level.

I've been very active in the gun debate, but I've been mostly hopeless. The debate was over, the NRA won. But watching these extraordinary, exemplary kids in Florida speak out so clearly and unambiguously has made me consider re-evaluating that position.

Here's why. The path forward is blocked at the federal level due to a Congress that doesn't want to act and a constitutional guarantee that provides them cover for their craven attitude, and drives endless one-sided judicial decisions.

But there's another venue. A few years ago, almost out of the blue, Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, just started handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples and daring the feds and the courts to stop him. And they did, but it moved the ball and today, amazingly, same sex marriage is the law of the land.

So I want to see states (like California and Massachusetts) just pass the strong firearms legislation that protects their citizens and forces the courts to act again and again. Eventually there will be progress, and it won't be in the form of useless or pointless 'feel good' acts like background checks and assault weapons type bans.

It will merely come as an erosion of the absolutist definition of 'infringement' in the Second Amendment. If state and local governments can pass and enforce restrictions that do not amount to blanket gun bans, then you'll end up with a patchwork of gun laws, sure, but you'll have people at least able to determine what they'll allow in their own neighborhood...