I should note that McChrystal’s successor as the head of Joint Special Operations Command, Bill McRaven, the man who oversaw the hunt of Osama bin Laden and now serves as the president of the University of Texas, is similarly bewildered—and hailed the teenage activists at Parkland pressing their politicians for change.
The second thing I noticed about post-9/11 America, and something I also noticed in the aftermath of the Parkland killings, was the degree to which the accumulation of firearms had become a tribal issue. Self-described conservatives bought firearms like they were merit badges. People began to accumulate small arms less out of devotion to hunting or other shooting sports but rather because the process of buying firearms was an important cultural signifier. At best, purchasing a firearm was a way to buy membership in “real America.” At worst, purchasing a firearm was yet another way to “own the libs.”
Witness the conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who tweeted after Parkland, referencing the NRA’s embattled spokesperson: “Going to buy new guns. They're going to be awesome and will name them for @DLoesch and @ChrisLoesch who put up with so much hell standing up for all of our rights.”
There’s a lot going on there, especially when you consider the combative videos that the NRA spokesperson regularly disseminates to the organization’s followers. I read Erickson’s tweet, and could only reflect on how weird this all was. If your identity as a participant in political discourse in America is this directly tied to your personal gun ownership, a break from either politics, or firearms, or possibly both, might be in order.
Now, there will be those who, like the New York Times columnist David Brooks, will argue that what Americans who want to see more gun regulation need to do is be more understanding of their brethren in the gun-owning community, and to the degree that describes hunters and sportsmen, I might even agree. But in weighing that advice, advocates of gun control need to be careful not to fall into the time-honored role of the moderate who is always, to quote Martin Luther King Jr., “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
For now is the time for tension. Gun owners should feel uncomfortable by the atrocities taking place in American schools. American politics should not be dominated by those Americans who play soldier by owning assault rifles or other tactical weapons, and whose insecurity about their own identity is so pronounced that they need to buy more and more small arms to compensate for that insecurity.
Changing culture is hard, and it’s harder still when organizations like the NRA and the gun manufacturers it serves have a vested interest in convincing Americans to buy more and more firearms on an annual basis. But if America wants to reduce gun deaths and preserve gun rights for future generations, it needs to reverse the cultural shifts in attitudes toward small arms that have taken root in the past 20 years.