Gun Rights

Culture War Is All That's Left When Gun Policy Battles Become Pointless

Forget the debates over laws that can't make a difference; the heat and noise is really all about political tribes attempting to inconvenience each other.


Last year, I noted the growing tendency of the "dominant political tribes to effortlessly taunt each other by waving cultural flags—or putting the legal screws to lifestyle choices that aren't overtly partisan." Since then, the escalating strife between political and cultural factions has turned into economic warfare, as opponents of private ownership of guns pressure businesses to end relations with the National Rifle Association. The culture war is almost guaranteed to harden the sides rather than hand anybody victory. It's also unlikely to go away, since posturing and stigmatizing is all the combatants have as debate over actual policy slides toward irrelevance.

Ironically, predominately progressive gun opponents are adopting the conscience-driven boycott model—an exercise of free association rights—that many of them sought to deny to social conservatives who spurn the business of gays and lesbians (bake a wedding cake, anybody?). So far, Enterprise Holdings, Avis Budget Group, Chubb Limited, MetLife, Delta, United Airlines, and the First National Bank of Omaha are among the companies breaking ties with the gun-rights group, or just discontinuing discounts to its members. The end goal of this project seems to have less to do with policy changes than with flipping the bird to the five million members of the organization most closely associated with opposition to restrictions on self-defense rights.

"I think that the best way to describe the gun debate in this country is not as a policy battle but as a culture war," the conservative writer David French recently told an interviewer. "What you often see are two competing visions of a way of life, two competing visions of what it means to be a citizen in a constitutional republic, two competing visions of the kind of society and culture you want to live in."

That we're in a culture war rather than a policy debate is pretty obviously true when the targets of a boycott effort are not lawmakers, but supporters of a mass-membership organization. It's the equivalent of surveillance-state fans trying to cut off ACLU or EFF access to bank accounts and social media—a symbolic gesture and an exercise of cultural power, rather than an effort at policy victory.

But staying clear of policy specifics is probably a wise idea when experts remind us that as horrifying as mass shootings are, they continue to be rare events that resist easy solution.

"Notwithstanding the occasional multiple-fatality shooting that takes place at one of the 100,000 public schools across America, the nation's schools are safe," Northeastern University's James Alan Fox writes. He points out that such horrific incidents were more common 20 years ago.

Some gun foes want to ban so-called "assault weapons," but that's an uphill slog when most advocates of such laws have no idea what they're talking about.

"The mainstream media lobbies hard for gun control, but it is very, very bad at gun journalism," Rachel Larimore explained at Slate. "The term assault weapon itself, of disputed origin, is a thorn in the side of gun enthusiasts, who point out that the differences between 'assault weapons' and other semi-automatics are largely cosmetic and don't increase the gun's lethality."

"Because these guns are really just ordinary rifles, it is hard for legislators to effectively regulate them without banning half the handguns in the country (those that are semiautomatic and/or have detachable magazines) and many hunting rifles as well," adds UCLA law professor and gun control advocate Adam Winkler.

Tighter screening and mandatory reporting for mental health problems also make the wish list, but that has its own drawbacks.

"There's a lot of criticism about denying more people their Second Amendment rights based on mental illness," Prof. James Jacobs, Director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at the New York University School of Law and author of Can Gun Control Work?, told me several years ago. "Mental health professionals think it will deter people from seeking help and will stigmatize the mentally ill."

Universal background checks that would legally oblige gun owners to run person-to-person sales through government databases have also been floated as policy proposals, but there's no real way to enforce them. NYU's Jacobs acknowledged that it would be "very easy to get around" such restrictions. In fact, Colorado's implementation of such a law resulted in far fewer checks for transfers between private parties than anticipated.

"There's no increase in private transfers for background checks," Colorado state Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray) commented in 2014, "which means either there aren't very many private sales, or what is much more likely people are just ignoring this law."

And then there are the ongoing bureaucratic hiccups that complicate every implementation of a government database, especially when somebody's liberty is dependent on the quality of records-keeping and its proper use.

"I don't think anyone on either side of the gun debate really has come to terms with how uneven our records are—whether because of poor procedure, lack of resources, or arbitrary decision-making," the University of Arizona's Jennifer Carlson, cautioned me around the time of the publication of her Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline.

Looming over all of this are technological developments in 3D printing and CNC machines that make the home manufacture of physical objects—including those that government wishes to restrict—an easy, inexpensive, and untraceable process.

"Now I can ship gun machines that can help you crank out 1911s in your kitchen all day long, and no one has anything to say about it," Cody Wilson, who developed the original 3D-printed pistol, recently told Reason TV. Wilson now sells the Ghost Gunner, a CNC mill that's part of a class of innovations that promises to put people's activities well beyond the reach of impotent laws.

Social media at the moment is full of gun opponents celebrating efforts to isolate the NRA and its membership. It also features gun supporters flashing images of their new membership cards in that organization. NRA members now vow economic retaliation against the companies that succumbed to similar threats from anti-gun activists. The big losers are bound to be those companies who felt obliged to publicly pick a side in the new economic phase of the growing culture war.

But pick a side, they did, and many more will come under pressure to do the same in the days to come. The political tribes are restless, and they're eager to do as much damage as possible to their cultural enemies with the only tools left to them.