America's Gun-Culture Problem

Since the September 11 attacks, attitudes around weaponry have transformed into something unhealthy.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

In the weeks since the deadly school shooting that killed 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Florida, it really has seemed as if American voters might finally start punishing their elected officials for inaction on legislation that might make such incidents less likely or less frequent.

Those same elected officials, of course, such as Florida’s own Senator Marco Rubio, have been quick to point out defensively that there is no one legislative fix that could both respect the Constitution’s Second Amendment protections and also keep firearms out of the hands of the people who might use them to murder their fellow citizens.

These elected officials are as correct as they are ridiculous: Countless others have already pointed out that on no other policy issue would Americans accept such excuses for inaction. There’s no single fail-safe legislative fix for terrorism, for example, that respects constitutional rights, yet an elected official would be laughed out of office for suggesting the kind of policy fatalism that infects the political debate on firearms. The same goes for health care, or climate change, or any other issue that demands a series of legislative changes before the needle begins moving in a new direction.

At the same time, though, there is something about the problem Americans face on guns that will be more difficult to address, and which does defy legislation, and that’s the cultural side to this. Watching reactions to the Parkland shootings, I am more confident than ever that America has a bigger problem with gun culture than it has with guns themselves.

Now, this is the unfortunate point in the argument where I have to make the disclaimer you often see in op-eds and articles, which is that I myself am the owner of multiple firearms, grew up thinking it not at all unusual that my father’s house had several loaded rifles propped up in the corner of the living room, and first learned to shoot on a single-shot Winchester rifle when I was around eight years of age. When my eldest son was born, in fact, a package arrived (via the U.S. Postal Service) three days later: Enclosed was the same Winchester rifle with which I will someday educate my own sons about the proper handling of and respect for firearms.

But after the September 11 attacks, I spent several years at war and then lived abroad as a civilian for another several years. And when I finally returned to the United States in late 2008, I noticed something different about the gun culture in the country to which I was so eager to return. For one, driving with my mother from our home in East Tennessee to Nashville, I noticed how many billboards on the side of the highway advertised guns. And not just any guns—these were not .30-06 hunting rifles or shotguns, but rather, the kind of tactical firearms, including assault rifles, that I had carried in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why in the world, I thought then, would anyone have a need for such weapons?

At the time, I wrote a lot of what I saw off to canny gun manufacturers preying on the irrational fears among my fellow white Tennesseans of the liberal black president America had just elected. And I’m sure that does explain a lot of it. But as my friend C.J. Chivers and others have pointed out, a bigger shift is in play: The 2004 expiration of the 1994 ban on assault weapons and the post-9/11 infatuation with so-called “tactical” weaponry have combined to drive sales in the kinds of weapons that would have appeared frankly insane for the individual gun owner just a few years earlier.

Many other returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have, in fact, found such weaponry insane. Yes, the military itself arms teenagers with such weapons—but only after careful selection and intensive training. Former Marine Corps infantry instructor Paul Szoldra noted that the military makes young recruits spend weeks training with their new weapons before they are fully trusted to handle firearms properly. That’s a huge contrast to the position of organizations like the National Rifle Association, which believes that any American citizen should have access to any kind of small arms without any screening or training whatsoever. Retired Army General Stan McChrystal, the patron saint of American special operations, and a man who knows something about small arms, lamented in The New York Times a year ago that “some of our politicians and the people who back them seem to promote a culture of gun ownership that does not conform with what I learned in the military.”

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.