As a native Missourian, I have been around gun culture most of my life. We never had guns in my home, but I still took the hunter education gun safety course and learned to shoot. That seemed to be the bare minimum, and many of my friends and family hunted, shot for sport, had a rifle rack in their pickup truck, or carried a pistol in the glove compartment of their car. Eventually, both concealed and open carry became increasingly popular and common. You probably know the stats: in the 2018 Small Arms Survey, the US outpaced the world in the “estimated number of firearms per 100 residents,” with 120.5 civilian-owned guns for every 100 people. For comparison, Yemen had 52.8 and Canada 34.7 guns per 100 people. (“America's gun culture - in seven charts”)
But from 1997 to 2010, I moved around a lot: from northern California to rural Missouri to Cambodia, with short-term jobs in Russia, Indonesia, the UK, and Guatemala peppered throughout those years. In most of those places, people lived with memories of violence, often of recent violence. Yet though state-sanctioned violence remained, I can’t remember a single friend who wanted a gun, unless you count Vladislav, who was a member of the militsia and more the exception that proved the rule. These were people with clear memories of violence that could inspire the type of self-defense, gun-obsessed rhetoric that fills so much of American culture. But, for the most part, it did not.
Unfathomable Statistics, Lingering Questions
I wanted to test my personal experience by comparing it to available statistics. Data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington allowed me to compare the age-standardized mortality rate due to gun violence per 100,000 people in the nations I worked in over the years. The UK and Indonesia had lower rates, at .3 and .4 gun deaths per 100,000 people. Cambodia was at 1.5, followed by Russia at 2.6. We then jump to the USA at 10.6. Tragically, Guatemala has followed its region’s trend toward the worst gun violence in the world, with 32.3 gun deaths per 100,000. (“Global Mortality From Firearms, 1990-2016”) In fact, the study showed half of the world’s gun deaths in 2016 occurred in just six nations in the Americas: Brazil (43,200), the USA (37,200), Mexico (15,400), Colombia (13,300), Venezuela (12,800) and Guatemala (5,090).
None of this is new, which is another layer of the tragedy. Why do the news stories about gun violence keep returning, week after week? Why do we have to keep having this discussion? Many people I know have even become somewhat resigned, accustomed to watching the gun deaths pile up, year after year, matched only by the increased enthusiasm to continue to own or even stockpile weapons designed for no other purpose than to take human life. Other friends have bought their own guns, especially those who belong to marginalized communities, in resistance to the injustices and lack of safety we experience. But in whatever way we relate to the unfathomable number of gun deaths each year - with boredom, resignation, outrage, grief, determination, or something else, we still face the common question: why?
“The Deeper Structure”
When a society continues to embrace an ideology or action that undermines its overall wellbeing, especially when it resists change that would make things healthier and better, it’s often a good idea to try to get underneath that ideology. What is driving us to behave in ways that make things worse? The challenge is that, when it comes to guns, there is not a simple answer. Guns are woven into our culture in so many ways, it is difficult to untangle all those strands. Not long ago, Henry Giroux made an impassioned and important plea for us “to change the deeper structure of life in the US” in order “to end mass shootings.” He described “a culture awash in guns and violence, a society that nourishes and rewards the gun industries, and values the accumulation of profits over human needs,” connecting that economic interest with the priorities of neoliberal economics. And it is no joke; the largest 100 weapons and miliary service companies in the world recorded $531 billion dollars in sales in 2020. Giroux makes the case that:
“Even as specific policies are debated, what is ignored is a neoliberal economic system that feeds on self-interest, inequality, cruelty, punishment, precarity and loneliness. Neoliberal society fuels a criminogenic system that celebrates violence both as a source of pleasure and as an organizing principle of governance.” (“To End Mass Shootings, We Need to Change the Deeper Structure of Life in the US”)
This deep structure of neoliberal violence has other consequences, not least of which is preventing meaningful action on climate change while profiting off the destruction of the very planet that is a home to us all. But the economic interest alone doesn’t account for why it is so difficult to transform this nation’s violence and its morbid and deadly fascination with guns. As Giroux pointed out, neoliberalism “feeds on self-interest, inequality, cruelty, punishment, precarity and loneliness,” which, in turn, it helps to perpetuate and uses to protect its interests. But neoliberalism also inherited these qualities, and it relies on pre-existing injustices. Untangling all the threads isn’t something to be completed quickly, if ever. But some of the threads are more like ropes or chains, and chief among them is the role of white supremacy and racism in the development of the United States’ gun culture.
Beautiful, Addictive Objects
Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz knows this both as an historian and as someone who grew up immersed in gun culture in rural Oklahoma. For a time, she belonged to “an armed radical-left group that amassed a huge arsenal” of weapons: “A firearm slung over your shoulder or a 9 mm Browning tucked under your belt creates a sense of amplified power, without which you feel naked and vulnerable,” she said. “Guns are awesome. They are also beautiful objects that are addictive.” (“Taking Aim at the Cult of the Gun”) Her honesty about that power is an important aspect of an oft-hidden side of gun ownership: the relationship of communities excluded from access to power and justice to guns.
It is this experience, however, that gives Dunbar-Ortiz such a powerful perspective on gun culture and violence in the USA. And she rightly insists that we “cannot make sense of gun hoarding and the cult of the gun if we don’t deal with white nationalism … . And we can’t deal with white nationalism without dealing with United States history.” Guns were there from the beginning, then codified in the young nation through the Second Amendment. The context of that amendment’s “well-regulated militia” was simple: it enshrined into law the right of white settlers to violently displace Indigenous peoples and to violently maintain race-based slavery, such as through slave patrols. Dunbar-Ortiz explains that this “long, intergenerational, violent struggle to take the land is why descendants of those mostly Anglo and Scots-Irish settlers today believe they are the authentic lords of the United States and should govern — a kind of blood right”. (“Taking Aim at the Cult of the Gun”)
This history may be unknown to many people, but it is no secret. Long form essays and entire books have been written on it, from Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz’s recent Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment to Clayton Cramer’s "The Racist Roots of Gun Control", Cottrol and Diamond’s "The Second Amendment: Toward an Afro-Americanist Reconsideration", and Richard Slotkin’s trilogy on the evolution of gun culture: Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation. Slotkin’s work on the historical mythology is especially helpful, charting out how the “glorification of social,” historical, and political violence was individualized. In the historical context of racism and white supremacy, such as the Jim Crow era, almost any kind of violence could be enacted by a white person towards a black person. A white man could shoot a black man, for instance, who refused to share the sidewalk, without fear of consequences, “because no jury will convict.” In a real world example, Slotkin described how a successful Black farmer refused to sell a crop in South Carolina, and was ultimately lynched for it. “So,” Slotkin observed, “we granted to private citizens the right to police the racial boundary and the social boundary.” (“Richard Slotkin on Guns and Violence”)
Those rights were both symbolic and literal. Early gun laws focused on outlawing Black people, free or enslaved, from possessing or carrying guns. An 1825 law in Florida gave white people the right to enter any and “all Negro houses” and seize weapons and ammunition they found there. The infamous, overtly racist decision in the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford case, included the argument that Black people could not be granted citizenship in any circumstance, because that would also give them the right to own guns. In the post-Civil War, Jim Crow south, Black Codes commonly made it illegal for Black people to have guns. The spirit and enforcement of these laws persisted, even as times changed; officials denied a concealed carry permit to Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, even after the family home was firebombed. This history continues to impact the present day. As Adam Winkler wrote in the Harvard Law Review:
“For example, some scholars have argued that modern laws that deny the right to keep and bear arms to people with felony convictions are constitutional in part because the Founding generation had laws disarming people thought to be unusually dangerous or unvirtuous, such as Black people, Native Americans, and enslaved persons. Although clear that legislatures no longer have the power to adopt racially discriminatory gun laws, these scholars argue that the racist gun laws nonetheless reflect a legitimate and constitutional power by legislatures to disarm people who are deemed either dangerous or lacking in virtue. … the legislation of the past is hardly neutral; the racism embedded in so many gun laws reminds us that such legislation was enacted not out of a solemn attempt to police the boundaries of the Second Amendment but in an effort to abuse the law to protect racial privilege and hierarchy.” (“Racist Gun Laws and the Second Amendment”)
Cultural and Psychological Dynamics
But the observations by Dunbar-Ortiz, Slotkin, and others point to another reality of this deep structure, underneath the legal aspects. Culturally and psychologically, the association of guns with racial privilege and hierarchy is alive and well. Understanding this helps us understand why opposition to sensible gun laws can be so aggressive and often illogical. It also helps us distinguish between the experiences of people who have historically and currently benefitted from access to guns, such as white people, and marginalized communities whose access to guns has been most controlled even while suffering the most violence.
In 2013, Kerry O’Brien, Walter Forrest, Dermot Lynott, and Michael Daly published a study on “Racism, Gun Ownership and Gun Control: Biased Attitudes in US Whites May Influence Policy Decisions” that gives us a glimpse into how this deep structure lives inside of us, especially for white people in the context of anti-black bias. The whole study is worth your time, but the heart of the findings is this:
“After adjusting for all explanatory variables in the model, symbolic racism was significantly related to having a gun in the home. Specifically, for each 1 point increase in symbolic racism, there was a 50% greater odds of having a gun in the home, and there was a 28% increase in the odds of supporting permits to carry concealed handguns.” (“Racism, Gun Ownership and Gun Control”)
To put it another way, there are plenty of gun owners who are not necessarily racist, but the more racist a person is, the more likely it is that they will own a gun and oppose life-saving laws. The researchers noted that, if we were simply operating according to logic, it should be reasonably easy to convince US citizens to take action to address gun violence, because it would benefit their and the nation’s wellbeing.
“Yet, US whites oppose strong gun reform more than all other racial groups, despite a much greater likelihood that whites will kill themselves with their guns (suicide), than be killed by someone else. Black-on-black homicide rates would benefit most from gun reform, and, quite logically, blacks support these reforms even if whites do not. Symbolic racism appears to play a role in explaining gun ownership and paradoxical attitudes to gun control in US whites. In other words, despite certain policy changes potentially benefitting whites, anti-black prejudice leads people to oppose their implementation. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that symbolic racism is associated with opposition to US policies that may benefit blacks, and support for policies that disadvantage blacks, and critically, goes beyond what is explained by other important confounders.” (ibid)
“Dying for a Cause”
This is consistent with the studies of Dr. Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist and sociologist at Vanderbilt University, who has documented both the history and the symbolic meanings of guns. In particular, he investigated how publicly carrying a gun was entwined with and “coded as white privilege.” Today, “Advertisers have literally used words like ‘restoring your manly privilege’ as a way of selling assault weapons to white men.” Drawing on that history of expanding borders (violent displacement of Indigenous people) and exploiting labor (violent enslavement of Black people), Metzl pointed out that:
“John Brown’s raid was about weapons. Scholars have written about how the Ku Klux Klan was aimed at disarming African Americans. When African Americans started to carry guns in public – think about Malcolm X during the civil rights era – all of a sudden, the second amendment didn’t apply in many white Americans’ minds. When Huey Newton and the Black Panthers tried to arm themselves, everyone suddenly said, ‘We need gun control.’ … Who gets to carry a gun in public? Who is coded as a patriot? Who is coded as a threat, or a terrorist or a gangster? What it means to carry a gun or own a gun or buy a gun – those questions are not neutral. We have 200 years of history, or more, defining that in very racial terms” (“'Dying of whiteness': why racism is at the heart of America's gun inaction”)
This is making a diagnostic point, rather than a prescriptive one. Metzl even acknowledges that he came to respect some “gun ownership traditions,” and that many gun owners are deeply committed to gun safety and heartbroken about gun deaths and mass shootings. But those gun owners are not the whole story, and they can’t be used as an excuse to avoid healing a terrible history that continues to spill into the present, killing tens of thousands of people each year in the USA alone. That is, understanding why it is so difficult to make progress on gun violence includes understanding the racial tensions underlying the gun debate. The deeply polarized opinions about gun politics have emerged in the context of race, and guns came to symbolize those deep wounds. This is why Metzl insists that, “When we’re talking about guns, we’re also talking about race.” (“‘Dying of whiteness’”)
Gun Violence, Public Health, and Personal Responsibility
It also means that, if we want to make progress on preventing gun violence, we will likely have to do it without waiting for public opinion about guns to align with our society’s needs. We’ve done this before, on issues like tobacco and seatbelts, but those issues were not as deeply rooted in our history and psychology, or infused with such violence. But those successes can still give us some hope that, over time, changing policies can help us change attitudes and behaviors.
One of the most promising directions for this is the movement toward addressing gun violence as a public health issue, moving the conversation into a different context and giving us a chance to look at these questions with fresh eyes and a commitment to our shared social wellbeing. For anyone interested in this, an easy starting point for learning more can be found at the Johns Hopkins’ Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Far from the panicked fear that many gun owners have expressed about the government “coming for your guns,” the policy recommendations are oriented around safety. Based on the successes of reducing car accident related fatalities, they advocate for increased funding for gun violence research, firearm registration and renewable licenses, and more rigorous safety standards and accountability for manufacturers.
While we are working toward these policy changes, we can also be doing our part personally and relationally. First, because guns are inherently dangerous, literally designed to kill, if you do own a gun, prioritize gun safety. Appropriate, locked storage, regular maintenance, and continued training must be the standard, while encouraging others to do the same. And if you need any further motivation, please take seriously the fact that, in the USA in 2020, 54% of all gun deaths were suicides, and over half of suicides in the USA involved a gun.
Second, center and support marginalized communities and others who are most vulnerable to suffering from gun violence. Listen to them, learn from them, and support them in solidarity with their efforts to create communities where they are safe. Ultimately, we are all only as safe as our must vulnerable members. This especially includes our attention and commitment to antiracism. For fellow white people in particular, we need to be intentional about rooting out our internalized dominance and encouraging other white folks to do the same.
The world is witness that gun violence does not have to be the norm. But until the United States is willing to reckon with the deep structure and enduring legacy of our gun culture, we will not escape it. Gratefully, for all of us who long for healing, and the peace that comes from belonging to a place without the constant threat of violence and death, we have a way forward. Let’s go there, together.