When it comes to rancorous debates in which the two sides routinely talk past each other, gun control ranks up there with abortion and the death penalty. Last year Abigail A. Kohn, an anthropologist trained at the University of California at San Francisco, bravely waded into this battle with Shooters: Myths and Realities of America's Gun Cultures (Oxford University Press). A sympathetic portrait of gun enthusiasts in Northern California, the book ends with a plea for a calmer discussion of guns and crime. Reason asked Kohn to summarize her argument and invited responses from three people with an interest in this area: civil liberties lawyer Don B. Kates, journalist Wendy Kaminer, and law professor Michael I. Krauss.
Beyond Fear and Loathing
Abigail A. Kohn
When the Department of Justice issues a public statement that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own a gun, when 35 states pass nondiscretionary carry permit laws, when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof declares that "gun control is dead," you know the gun debate is over.
But somebody forgot to tell the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Pizza Hut. Fresh from championing the rights of gays and lesbians to get married, San Francisco's supervisors are trying to curb the rights of all city residents to keep handguns in their homes. Meanwhile, major American corporations such as Pizza Hut and AOL forbid employees to bring even legally owned and transported guns onto company property or to carry them on the job. Pizza Hut recently fired an employee for carrying a gun while delivering pizzas; the company learned of the violation when the employee used the gun on the job to defend himself during a robbery attempt.
Although the Justice Department has practically promised that guns are off the national agenda, state and local gun controls affect millions of Americans. While gun owners have powerful allies such as the Justice Department and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which in the 1998 case U.S. v. Emerson found that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to armed self-defense, gun control supporters maintain strongholds in the country's biggest cities. Having John Ashcroft or Alberto Gonzales on their side doesn't do supporters of gun rights much good in cities such as New York, Chicago, and the District of Columbia, where it is difficult or impossible to legally keep guns for self-defense. And such cities may be the places where owning a gun for self-defense is most important, particularly for people who live in high-crime neighborhoods.
Given that neither side of the gun debate is going to concede defeat, and given their loathing for each other, I'd like to offer several suggestions for moving the debate forward. I come to these suggestions after several years of anthropological research on gun enthusiasts in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1990s. I met shooters at ranges, gun clubs, competitions, and gun shows, where thousands of Bay Area shooters regularly brave the hostility of their local government and their neighbors to enjoy their chosen shooting sports. My research educated me not only about how gun owners think and feel about their guns but also about the assumptions that both sides of the gun debate bring to the table. Until gun control supporters and gun enthusiasts re-examine some of their assumptions, neither will get far in achieving policies that are likely to reduce violence, the stated objective of both sides.
Here's what gun control supporters must do to have any hope of being heard on the national level again:
Stop trying to destroy the gun culture. There are more than 250 million guns in public circulation in the U.S. They cannot be wished away. Even if the U.S. government banned gun ownership and stopped all gun manufacturing and importation, it would still need to confiscate all those weapons. Doing so would require wholesale violations of Fourth Amendment rights. The probability of getting rid of guns in America, therefore, is practically zero.
Then there are the people who own all those guns. The gun culture is a multilayered, multifaceted phenomenon made up of diverse, complex subcultures. Contrary to popular stereotypes, members of the gun culture are not all potential terrorists, unemployed skinheads hanging out at gun shows, or menacing warrior wannabes in camouflage gear. Not every gun owner is a member of the National Rifle Association; in fact, some gun owners dislike the NRA. Gun owners come in all colors and stripes: They are police officers, soldiers, farmers and ranchers, doctors and lawyers, hunters, sport shooters, gun collectors, feminists, gay activists, black civil rights leaders. Most of the shooters I know are normal members of their local communities. They have regular jobs; they go to neighborhood picnics and PTA meetings; they have children and grandchildren. They interact with their co-workers, bosses, employees, neighbors, friends, and families in socially positive ways.
Despite their differences in background and lifestyle, all these individuals have thoroughly integrated guns into their lives. Gun control supporters need to recognize that America's gun culture has deep roots in American history and that pro-gun ideology has deep roots in America's political culture. Even if the NRA were to magically disappear tomorrow, the gun culture would remain. The people who compose it are simply not interested in giving up their arms.
Guns and the gun culture are so intertwined with American culture that many Americans perceive guns as utterly, unremarkably normal. Most gun owners have unexciting, if not entirely banal, experiences with guns all the time. Claiming that gun owners are mentally ill or that the gun culture is a "cult" (as the historian Garry Wills has) will not change the fact that most gun owners are ordinary people.
Speaking of which...
Stop demonizing gun owners. Insulting, ridiculing, or attempting to shame gun owners leaves them even more disgusted by the idea of gun control. Gun control advocates and social critics have rarely missed an opportunity to describe gun owners as "gun nuts," "gun crazies," or even "potential terrorists." If gun control advocates are only trying to rouse the passions of people who already agree with them, they may be accomplishing their goal. But presumably there is an audience sitting on the fence, an audience that includes gun owners who are open to persuasion by a reasonable point of view. Gun control supporters underestimate the ways their rhetoric alienates this reachable group of people.
Discontinuing these tactics of public ridicule would go a long way toward establishing better faith with gun owners. What would happen if politicians who support gun control publicly acknowledged that most Americans who own guns do so legitimately, as part of a well-established tradition of American citizenship? What if they noted that gun owners share their desire to reduce violence and welcomed the opportunity to hear their suggestions for fighting illegal gun sales and making the legal gun market safer? What if they actually meant it? I realize how unlikely it is that liberal politicians would be willing to give up the rhetoric that appeals to the hard-core anti-gun constituency. But if catering to this constituency means consistently losing elections, alienating large groups of voters, or having proposed policies shot down by the courts, surely it makes sense to reach out to moderate gun owners. Toward that end...