Sunday, December 23, 2012

Traditional vs. current gun culture

Both Joseph and I come from parts of the world (Northern Ontario and the lower Ozarks, respectively) where guns played a large part in the culture. Hunting and fishing was big. This was mainly for sport, though there were families that significantly supplemented their diet with game and most of the rest of us had family members who remembered living off the land.

We also have a different take on guns for defense. When a call to the police won't bring help within forty-five minutes (often more than that where Joseph grew up), a shotgun under the bed starts sounding much more sensible.

Guns have never been a big part of my life, but I'm comfortable with them. I know what it's like to use a rifle, a shotgun and a revolver. I don't get any special emotional thrill from firing a gun but I do appreciate the satisfaction of knocking a can off of a post.

I think this perspective is important in the debate for a couple of reasons: first, because many discussions on the left often get conflated with impressions and prejudices about rural America and the South and second, (and I think this is the bigger issue) because these traditional ideas are becoming increasingly marginalized in the gun rights movement.

Gun culture has changed radically since the Eighties, as this TPM reader explains
Most of the men and children (of both sexes) I met were interested in hunting, too. Almost exclusively, they used traditional hunting rifles: bolt-actions, mostly, but also a smattering of pump-action, lever-action, and (thanks primarily to Browning) semi-automatic hunting rifles. They talked about gun ownership primarily as a function of hunting; the idea of “self-defense,” while always an operative concern, never seemed to be of paramount importance. It was a factor in gun ownership - and for some sizeable minority of gun owners, it was of outsized (or of decisive) importance - but it wasn’t the factor. The folks I interacted with as a pre-adolescent and - less so - as a teen owned guns because their fathers had owned guns before them; because they’d grown up hunting and shooting; and because - for most of them - it was an experience (and a connection) that they wanted to pass on to their sons and daughters.

And that’s my point: I can’t remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting range until the mid-1980’s. Even through the early-1990’s, I don’t remember the idea of “personal defense” being a decisive factor in gun ownership. The reverse is true today: I have college-educated friends - all of whom, interestingly, came to guns in their adult lives - for whom gun ownership is unquestionably (and irreducibly) an issue of personal defense. For whom the semi-automatic rifle or pistol - with its matte-black finish, laser site, flashlight mount, and other “tactical” accoutrements - effectively circumscribe what’s meant by the word “gun.” At least one of these friends has what some folks - e.g., my fiancee, along with most of my non-gun-owning friends - might regard as an obsessive fixation on guns; a kind of paraphilia that (in its appetite for all things tactical) seems not a little bit creepy. Not “creepy” in the sense that he’s a ticking time bomb; “creepy” in the sense of…alternate reality. Let’s call it “tactical reality.”

The “tactical” turn is what I want to flag here. It has what I take to be a very specific use-case, but it’s used - liberally - by gun owners outside of the military, outside of law enforcement, outside (if you’ll indulge me) of any conceivable reality-based community: these folks talk in terms of “tactical” weapons, “tactical” scenarios, “tactical applications,” and so on. It’s the lingua franca of gun shops, gun ranges, gun forums, and gun-oriented Youtube videos. (My god, you should see what’s out there on You Tube!) Which begs my question: in precisely which “tactical” scenarios do all of these lunatics imagine that they’re going to use their matte-black, suppressor-fitted, flashlight-ready tactical weapons? They tend to speak of the “tactical” as if it were a fait accompli; as a kind of apodeictic fact: as something that everyone - their customers, interlocutors, fellow forum members, or YouTube viewers - experiences on a regular basis, in everyday life. They tend to speak of the tactical as reality.
There's one distinction I want to add here. There are reasonable scenarios where a pump action shotgun or a reliable revolver might get a rural homeowner, a clerk at a convenience store or a business traveler who can't always avoid risky itineraries out of trouble.

But when we talk about "tactical" weapons, we're no longer talking reasonable scenarios for civilians. Regular people don't need thirty round magazines and laser sights to defend themselves. They need these things to live out fantasies, scenes they saw in movies. We're talking about different guns with an entirely different culture.

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