To be honest it generally feels a little futile to write about guns in the US. Every now and then I try to write articles or prose that in some way connects to tragic events in the world. I think it’s important to do so. All art should, in part at least, lend itself to trying to make sense or translate the traumas which surround us. Not to offer solutions, or heal any particular sorrow or fear, but to contribute another medium for understanding them, another point to push people to think about them rather than just accepting them as the ever-present wallpaper of life.
Given the ubiquity of shootings in the states though it’s fairly easy to just give up trying. Certainly I couldn’t put something even vaguely worthwhile out every time something happens but even allowing for that the angles from which I, personally, can approach such events are finite. I run up against my own abundant emotional and intellectual ignorance, my supply of whatever perspectives I can comprehend well enough to write dried up. Still though, things happen and I, like most people, can’t escape thinking about them, trying to make sense of them and looking for a way around them.
The Parkland shootings are the latest in a long line and, as per usual, the same arguments have been kicked up in the wake of events. The pro and anti-gun control voices have trodden, yet again, the familiar ground of what is ultimately an American culture clash more than anything. The details of the discussion have changed a bit this time, all for the better I reckon, with the outcry from the kids who were actually victims of the attack. Beyond them though the front is as static as ever. Given the state of things in the US it looks likely to stay that way too.
The highest hope most seem to have at the moment is that AR-15s and similar weapons will be banned, a demand pushed by public outrage that seems more amplified than ever before. Hopefully they’re right, it’d certainly be no bad thing, but at the same time it’s a fairly paltry dream to have.
The US is saturated with guns of all sorts, swamped with them and every one is capable of killing. Some more quickly or efficiently than others, but a bullet from any one of them will kill a person. That’s an absolute and unfortunate fact about the situation. Worse than that, it’s almost impossible to see any legislation being brought in which could change that. Even a Quaker level pacifist government, or a draconian, authoritarian crackdown – if either ever existed – would find it almost impossible to take those guns out of the society. On a practical level if nothing else it’d take door to door searches; arrests, a genuine civil conflict to make a real change.
Even if that fantasy scenario played out (which some pro-gun types seem to desperately wish it would) it’d still do nothing to tackle what seems to me to be the more serious issue here. Even if guns were removed from US society the cultural landscape itself would still be one built on identities, myths and notions of ‘right’ that enshrine individualistic violence as a near patriotic national trait. A sizeable proportion of Americans, whatever the law, are reinforced daily with the notion that their security and their safety is a matter predominantly protected and defined by them as individuals, no one else. It’s not a community effort, it’s not a part of the social contract with the state, it’s not a collaborative human priority, it’s their job, their right to protect themselves by whatever means necessary. Even without the firearms that spirit wouldn’t necessarily fade.
It’s that problem of cultural sensibilities which seems too big for anyone to really comprehend. Even ardent anti-gun lobbyists, both for reasons of practicality and personal comprehension, can only really confront the issue as a physical, legal one. To take it in as the reflection of an almost universal cultural attitude is nigh on impossible. In fact even those who are pro gun-control, even those who are deeply moral people are still part of the overarching culture that rarifies violence from a societal ill into a cultural identity. There’s no way not to be given it’s insidious nature.
Hollywood (not a particularly moral place) has always churned out proofs of the individual right to force, literature, music and games do the same. Often in ways which seem almost innocuous even from a distance, turning into a fantasy what is, at its source, a real impulse in the mindset of many. By saying that I’m not going down the route of cultural condemnation, I don’t think there’s much use in walking the path of censorship or moral outrage at cultural output. If only because that cultural output is, at it’s best, an absolutely necessary part of processing the environment it comes from. You can’t alter the daily situation by just pretending it doesn’t exist and seeking never to represent it in any mass medium. Not that that’s an absolution to the culture industry – a lot of its output is terrible, or to be generous at least completely unaffected by any sense of responsibility. When it’s so absolutely driven by commercialism though I’m wary of marking it as the prime instigator rather than the lazy, unimaginative result of its creative environment.
I think there’s a greater issue in social and political history. Culture might reinforce the deeply unhealthy attitudes of some but it doesn’t come out of nowhere.
The US was founded by violence, more so than any other wealthy nation which can currently frame it’s own history as a ‘modern’ development. Through Slavery, the racial conflict that follows it to this day, the Civil War, the genocide of Native Americans, the ‘Nativist’ movements, attempts as workers unionisation, the ghettoisation of minority and immigrant communities – the functional necessity of violence has been constant and directly present. Not that that presents any kind of moral argument for gun ownership – the people with the majority of the guns in almost all of those situations have been the ones in the wrong – but it has created a top down and nodding acceptance of that individualistic duty to self defence, for some at least. A nodding acceptance which provokes the oppressed as much as the oppressor to embrace the idea that only by being individually (or collectively) armed is there any hope of security.
In recent decades that’s started to be challenged a bit. The steady stream of atrocities, mixed in with a generation that, in part at least, seems to be breaking off from historical paranoia is pushing the dialogue in part towards saner standards. The kids talking out in the aftermath of Parkland are the vanguard of that progress, not to say that there aren’t plenty of ardent and incredibly hard working gun control advocates out there, but those students aren’t, or weren’t, activists. I’ve no idea what, if any, political or moral views they had on gun ownership before they became victims of the issue but it’s probably a safe bet that they weren’t majorly involved with it. Which makes their speaking out all the better really, they’re not committed advocates (who are always a minority), they’re normal kids whose natural reaction to violence is repulsion and a desire for solutions. A society where that’s the majority norm is one which, in time, can get things done perhaps.
That’s the hopeful part at least. The less hopeful part is that the NRA has about 15 million self declared members (although only 5 million official ones). Beyond that it’s probably a safe bet that those millions have friends and families who, at the very least, are accepting of gun culture and who might be openly supportive of it – or simply being raised to accept it.
Not all of those people are going to feel that their guns are a necessary aspect of their self defence. Some are going to be recreational shooters, hunters, collectors, hobbyists etc. Maybe completely sincerely so. They still fall in behind the vocal totem of the NRA though, a group which in it’s opportunistic way does play up the the innate paranoia of a historically armed society. A sensibility which remains the socially and culturally dominant force for a lot of people. Shifting them from their beliefs, or rather their daily reality as they see it, is what it’ll take to alter the American attitude towards firearms. Again though, that requires a massive shift in the culture and identity of a nation.
How can that happen? As plenty of people are increasingly showing there is a vocal faction who already want change but as mentioned earlier their goals, by necessity, are immediate ones of restraint and progressive, incremental shifts. It’s no easy ask for them to drag historical or popular identities and myths into the spotlight, in fact if they even try they fall into what’s likely to be a trap that’ll see the rhetoric of cultural war ramped up even higher. After all it was only recently that attempts to remove Confederate statues was being held up as a liberal attack on a glorious heritage. Trying to encourage a real debate on America’s past and present self-perceptions is liable to meet with similar, Alt-Right style temper tantrums. Or at least an uncomfortable reluctance amongst the majority of broadly decent people who aren’t willing to see their foundations, no matter how dubious, being focused on.
It’s also a struggle to see impetus to real change coming from the ‘top’ of society. Trump himself is a reflection of how badly the assumption that top down progressiveness can equal absolute change can play out. Not just in the backlash he represents against a certain class of Democrats but also in the reaction he represents to his own Republican Party. Cultural identity can be exploited, no doubt, but not the GOP, or Fox, or anyone else can mediate or control it – not when the roots of what they’re looking to exploit tap into represent something so much larger than their fleeting attempts at right wing populism. Both organisations could disavow gun rights completely, you could even throw the NRA in on top but it’s still hard to imagine that the culture which they feed off of would fade away rather than just find new manifestations.
Looking for some optimism to offer is hard. Cultural evolution, at its quickest, takes centuries. Here in Europe a century has passed since the height of Empire and still our societies are too often framed by the hangover effects, both unspoken and overt, of that. In fact, for added despondency, you can trace the foundations of much of our culture far further back through Reformations, Revolutions and all the way to the fall of Rome. Through it all an ever more tangled line of identities, self-mythologising, guilt, pride and delusion lead up to the present and only rarely has there been enough of a move towards introspection to untangle any of it. Something that’s reflected in the almost nostalgic rise of the Far Right in parts of Europe, or the levels of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric which, at times, nears the point of losing itself completely and becoming calls for arms against the Caliphate or Ottoman Empire. Holding a similar measure up to the US it’s hard to have all that much hope of change coming any time soon.
I think, perhaps, the hope that there is doesn’t come from gun control efforts themselves. They might be the banner line issue as far as the media is concerned (for today at least) but the move towards an analysis of American history, culture and identity comes on a lot of fronts. Black Lives Matter, as a catch all for a lot of people, movements for gender and sexual equality, a small (but notable) resurgence of Democratic Socialist ideals – all of them are challenging what were consciously ignored or blindly accepted norms in the US. A process which involves digging through a lot of dirt and attempting to face what’s found. Again, much of their work is based on immediate necessities and realities – as it has to be – but they’re promoting something wider too, genuine reflection. And every step they take is one which, hopefully, will lead to the same willingness/determination to discuss gun culture, where it comes from and what place it really should have in US society.