The million-dollar question

Gun culture is a uniquely American phenomenon. Is there a way to pass legislation despite it?

USA Flag formed out of bullets / 3d illustration / 3d rendering

For Jonathan Obert, it all hit a bit differently this time. Born and raised in Boulder,

Obert was at Horizon High School in Broomfield right before the Columbine shooting. His parents now live within blocks of the movie theater in Aurora where 12 people were killed in 2012. He worked at the King Soopers on Arapahoe after college. His best friend is the manager at another King Soopers in the metro area. Now the shooting at the Table Mesa location on March 22, adding 10 victims to the growing list of mass shooting casualties in America.

“I’ve lived a very peaceful life, but there’s a way in which this connects immediately to my experience,” he says. “So, I’ve been thinking a lot about that: How even though I’m not really much of a gun person myself, the effects of gun culture sort of do penetrate everywhere.”

Now, Obert is an assistant professor of political science at Amherst College, who researches and writes about gun rights and violence in American culture. (His current book project is entitled Arming the Body Politic: The Economic Origins of American Gun Rights.) He defines gun culture specifically as “people really seeing something of their own identity in the possession and use of guns,” at least from the white perspective. (Obert acknowledges plenty of other communities have a very different relationship to and cultural significance associated with guns. But for the purposes of this article, we are talking about it in terms of the white experience.)

And it’s this cultural aspect of the conversation that is often missing, or unaccounted for, in the national debate over guns. But without it, Obert says, any sort of regulations will fail.

Support for tougher gun laws is rising nationally. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey reveals 60% of Americans say regulations should be stricter, up from 52% in 2017. There’s been widespread reporting on how even gun owners are in favor of more regulations like background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Other policy proposals draw partisan lines. According to Pew, while nearly nine-in-10 Democrats favor banning large-capacity magazines and assault-style weapons, only half of Republicans do. Half is more than enough, theoretically, to move such legislation forward, and yet we’re still stuck in a stalemate while gun deaths continue to rise nationwide.

In the wake of another run of mass shootings, both gun-control and gun-rights advocates are entrenched as ever in their opposing viewpoints. On the one hand, there is a push for stricter gun regulations on the state and national level to prevent both mass shootings, as well as an onslaught of daily gun violence. Others maintain a fundamental right to bear arms of any sort, some going as far as advocating for more guns and gun-free zones so citizens can protect themselves.

“Firearms are dangerous. Let’s just talk like it is. They’re meant to be dangerous,” says Taylor Rhodes, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the state’s largest gun lobby, based in Loveland. “It’s not that gun violence isn’t a problem, it’s how we propose solving it [that differs].”

As state and federal legislators consider policy proposals in the weeks to come, we’ll take a closer at the efficacy of such regulations and the debates around them, but this discussion is about gun culture.

For Rhodes, gun culture is about getting to shoot with friends and meet new people.

“It’s no different than going and being active in your gym or being active at a country club or being active at a church or anything of that nature. It’s a community,” he says. “I think there is that stigma of: ‘Oh, these crazy people with guns.’ Well, that’s not necessarily the case.”

Gun culture is about a person’s desire “to take personal responsibility for one’s own safety,” says Alan Rice, spokesperson for Gun Owners of America. “Gun owners don’t own guns, carry guns, in an offensive way. It’s a defense, it’s reactionary.”

There’s a certain individualism, an identity, to gun ownership that makes it difficult to come to any sort of comprise, “because you don’t compromise over your identity,” as Obert says.

And, in a lot of ways, this is a uniquely American phenomenon.

“One thing that has made the United States distinctive traditionally, is that from a very early period, guns were sold and marketed toward private individuals,” Obert says.

While it may be legal for individuals to own firearms in other countries, historically it was a privilege afforded to the elite in places like England and Germany for the aristocratic pursuit of hunting. Here, the federal government relied on private gun manufacturers for military weaponry, but as it turned out, “the federal government was not always a great reliable buyer of those guns. And so, they had to sort of find other ways to sell them,” Obert says.

Of course, the Second Amendment also plays into America’s unique gun culture. What started as a conversation about who controlled violence in the new country (the states or the federal government), Obert says, came to have larger cultural significance as guns also represented control of the “frontier” communities (whether that was New England in the early days of the colonies and country or out West) from indigenous people or controlling slaves in the antebellum South.

In Obert’s research, the idea of shooting guns as a civic activity really begins to emerge in the post-Civil War era, as reform groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) in its nascent form began promoting the idea that being able to shoot a gun is something every American should be able to do. But it wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s that the political case for guns solidified in America’s conscious.

“When people start to think of guns not just as something you can buy as a tool, but also as something that has a political significance that something like American gun culture really starts to emerge,” Obert says.

It’s at this point that “this thing that we connect to our citizenship starts to transform into something that needs to be used for self-defense,” he says. As society starts grappling with the concept of civil rights, the NRA begins to shift from its focus on shooting guns as a sport to the right to bear arms as a constitutional right.

“The NRA was able to promote this idea of it’s not just that [gun control advocates] are wanting safety or that they’re against your guns. It’s that they’re against you as a person,” Obert says, referring to Barnard College professor Matthew LaCombe’s book Firepower: How the NRA Turned Gun Owners into a Political Force.

Despite its waning influence in recent years amid scandal, bankruptcy and threats from regulators, the NRA has been instrumental in shaping this narrative, as this aspect of gun culture has gone into “hyperdrive” over the last 20 years, according to Rachel Friend, Boulder City Councilperson, who has been involved with gun violence prevention activism for years. For her, it’s this purposeful emphasis on guns as a right and part of a person’s identity that focuses on the individual over the collective that helps create the policy impasse.

“Some people are focused on the greater good and some people are focused on the individual good, and often those two don’t match up on guns or masks or many other things,” she says. “And when I think of what that culture produces, it’s an unwillingness to pass laws or legislation that limit [this cultural perspective] in any way.”

The other side of the conversation, Friend adds, is the culture created by prolific gun violence and mass shootings, where active shooter drills are normalized and it is expected a public place could, at any moment, turn into “a war zone.”

“I think we owe it to our kids to change the culture because it’s not a fair culture that they’re growing up in,” she says.

It’s not just this concept of individual or collective, or even all the talk about the rural-urban divide, regulations threatening the rural lifestyle under the guise of protecting people living in cities. For Rhodes, it’s deeper than that.

“There’s a divide, not only rural versus urban, but between people who believe that the government will protect them and people who believe they’re responsible for their own personal safety and their own protection,” he says.

He says it’s akin to using seatbelts, wearing helmets on bicycles and motorcycles, even voluntarily, and smoke detectors. In this case, “The gun just happens to be the safety rescue tool,” he says.

“Guns are not violent and they’re not peaceful. They are inanimate objects. They’re metal, plastic, wood, in some cases,” Rice continues. “That’s why we don’t blame the gun. We blame the person who’s abusing the gun.”

In his estimation, after 30 years as a firearms instructor, the majority of gun owners purchase guns to protect themselves, not trusting the government to do so. It’s why there have been widespread gun shortages as both the COVID-19 pandemic and national protests for racial justice last summer caused an unforeseen spike in gun sales across the country, he says.

It’s part of the gun rights movement’s narrative — more guns will make everyone safer.

“If more guns made us safer, we’d be the safest country on Earth, but they don’t,” says Dawn Reinfeld, Boulderite and executive director of Blue Rising Together, an advocacy organization that got its start in gun violence prevention. And much has been written about the more than 30 peer-reviewed studies that show guns are linked to increased risk of violence and crime in communities, not less.

“Unfortunately, we’ve gotten used to, in our country and in our state, a certain level of gun violence,” Reinfeld says, “That we are somehow — I don’t feel this way, but I think other people feel this way — willing to tolerate a certain amount of death and massacres of all different sizes to appease people that want to carry guns and who want more guns everywhere.”

So how do we get past this standoff that leaves most Americans with the impression that any sort of regulation or reform is impossible?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Obert says.

First of all, everyone needs to start having the same conversations, as the language used by those with opposing viewpoints differs widely. On the one hand, there’s talk of public health and security; on the other, it’s about identity and rights.

“When you talk about rights versus security, those things don’t work together,” Obert says. “We’ve had the same debates over [rights versus security] since 9/11… They’re just not compatible.”

Then, it could be that policymakers with credibility on both sides are needed to craft proposals with similar language. But those efforts haven’t always been successful, he says. Creating trust and finding positive incentives to achieve compromise could also work. But that’s proven difficult as well, as concessions made by individuals on both sides have often led to public shaming — even punishment — by more radical factions of their own community. Plus, compromise can be a difficult pill to swallow, Obert admits.

“What makes compromise really hard though, is when you start to see yourself as: my community is now opposed to your community, and if my community or my culture of normal people who are traumatized is now opposed to what you’re up to, then it’s just warfare, right? It’s polarization,” he says. “But I think on the other hand sometimes surprising things happen in politics. It’s hard to predict when an issue might get realigned along a different terrain.”

The other option is for one side to get enraged enough to essentially ostracize or alienate the other — often using rhetorically violent and brutal tactics — to build enough momentum to push their policies through without compromise. That may be what it takes for gun control legislation, Obert says.

“A lot of times we do think about politics as compromised as opposed to confrontation,” he says, “but a lot of times it really just is confrontation.”

And in reality, compromise doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind.

“It seems that every time they come up with one more outlandish proposal than the next it involves restricting the right to bear arms,” Rice says. “All of these meeting-in-the-middle proposals involve gun owners giving up something. And we’re not willing to give up anything.”

For him, it is personal. Gun regulations that would require him to give up even some of his guns will turn him into a “criminal” overnight.

“How is it that a person can own a legal product one day, then the government changes the law, the person did nothing wrong, they harm nobody, and now they’re a criminal?” he says. “That’s not the American way.”

For Reinfeld, gun rights and gun safety don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive conversations. And both she and Friend, the self-proclaimed eternal optimist, do see a path forward, even if it’s hard to make out in this political climate.

At the same time, they are, like many gun violence prevention advocates, resolute in the push for legislation.

“It would be wonderful to come up with more bipartisan solutions where we can agree on a common vision for how we want our lives to be and that we want less death and violence in our lives,” Reinfeld says. “But I do believe 1) we’re on the right side of history. And 2) when you work on an issue out of love and fierceness about what kind of a world we want to leave our children, I think that’s an unbeatable force.”


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