Unpacking a Gun Culture
The subject of gun rights is easily seen as just a right-vs-left political debate. As a cultural issue, however, it originated far from the political stage.
When the topic of guns comes up in an article like this one, it’s easy to jump to conclusions about where the discussion might be going. This is particularly true when, as a reader, we fear that our deeply held ideologies are about to be poked. Just the suggestion of an idea that seems contrary to our beliefs can be enough to awaken our fight-flight-freeze reflex.
But let’s bite the bullet and take a step back from political and ideological arguments about guns to unpack how we got here. In other words, let’s explore the psychology behind present-day civilian gun culture. Psychology is simply the study of human thinking and behavior. Looking at why we think and behave as we do is a great first step toward asking whether there are better ways to think and behave.
The first thing to acknowledge is that there are many more than two ways of thinking about guns and gun ownership, which isn’t always obvious from the way it’s discussed in political arenas. What comes to mind for you when you think of guns may be entirely different from what comes to mind for your friends and neighbors. Do your thoughts go to hunting season? Hollywood westerns, whose gun-toting heroes “tamed the west”? Action movies and video games? Or is it to the darker side—news reports of real-life tragedies involving gun violence; for instance, shootings at American schools or fast-food chains?
If your mind goes to the latter, it’s understandable given that these violent events receive broad international media coverage. Of course, not all gun deaths are mass shootings, and gun violence isn’t restricted to America.
But no country is an ideological island: the influence of movies and news media isn’t constrained by oceans or national borders. Even people living in countries where mass civilian shootings are rare can experience subtle psychological effects through repeated media exposure to faraway events.
“Though relatively few people will witness or survive mass shootings, many more will experience them through news reports and social media.”
Likewise, the influence of popular fictional movies and media crosses national borders, although the full effects on international gun cultures are difficult to measure.
Justin A. Joyce, a research director at the New School University in New York, says it’s impossible to ignore the influence of Hollywood on present-day gun culture. Drawing on his doctorate in literature and an interest in law, he’s written extensively on gun culture in the western film genre and its influence on American identity and legal traditions, such as how the judicial system defines justifiable homicide. His 2018 book, Gunslinging Justice, doesn’t suggest that merely watching violent scenes in westerns begets violence in life. Instead he points out that gun violence in westerns is represented on screen within a story; and that story, rather than the violent scenes themselves, influences how gun culture develops in real life. This includes how we come to justify violence to exact revenge or in how we define self-defense, or even how we view masculinity.
“Since at least the 1860s,” Joyce writes, “Westerns have portrayed Anglo masculinity by emphasizing bravery, a sense of honor, skill with guns, and above all a man’s willingness to stand his ground and kill.” This, he notes, is a clear departure from the requirement handed down from English common law, which held that it was a citizen’s duty to retreat “to the wall” before resorting to killing in self-defense. Dating from at least as far back as the 13th century, the duty to retreat affirmed that it was the state’s responsibility to resolve disputes and decide whether taking a life was justified. An exception to “retreat to the wall,” often called “the castle doctrine,” allowed for self-defense inside one’s home.
Through a series of court cases, American self-defense doctrine gradually moved ever farther from the wall and out through the castle doors. While the courts grappled with how far to take it, the western genre took it off the ranch grounds and out into the middle of main street. The effect in real life, Joyce argues, is that legal paradigms of self-defense began to stretch—to the point that in August 2020 a 17-year-old took a military-style semi-automatic weapon to a protest on the streets of a town 20 miles from his home and, acting as a self-appointed lawman, killed two people and injured a third. A year later he was acquitted of all charges on a finding of self-defense.
Can it be argued that legal definitions of self-defense would have transformed this far even if guns weren’t so readily available to individual citizens? Why wouldn’t knives or any other weapon have led down the same path? One consideration is that a proliferation of private guns would make retreating to the wall impractical at the very least. With a gun, it hardly matters if you’re standing at the wall or in the doorway; it’s likely to have little effect on the outcome if someone is packing a weapon that can kill from a distance.
Examining several judicial decisions, Joyce argues that guns and the uniquely American constitutional guarantee of individual gun ownership have been at the heart of how we define (or redefine) justifiable homicide. He also points out the “defender” imagery that’s deeply embedded in American masculine identity: the visual of colonists, armed with muskets, banding together to fight off an oppressor; the rugged frontiersmen, similarly armed, portrayed as defending “their land” against “savage Indians.” Even overseas military interventions have the aura of being carried out in defense of people oppressed by tyrannical governments. “What unifies all of these models of American power,” writes Joyce, “is the notion of a morally upright citizen or citizen-soldier defending basic rights through gun violence.” This imagery is played out over and over in western storylines. It would be naive to believe it has had no effect on cultural values.
“Over the course of US history, since the right to rebel against an oppressive monarch required the defense of fundamental rights both at home and abroad, guns have shaped how Americans conceive of justified violence.”
While the defender imagery has survived in the American psyche, two things have changed, argues Joyce: “the conception of what an individual with a gun is defending and the attitudes of the citizenry toward gun ownership.” English tradition had long held that national defense was the civic duty of able-bodied citizens. They had a duty to own a weapon so they could be prepared to join in a collective effort to defend the nation. As the American self-defense doctrine changed, says Joyce, “the collective duty to act in the common defense was replaced by a right to protect one’s person and private property.”
In film and television’s western genre, this eventually evolved into familiar storylines that vested one man with the right to engage in extralegal violence to deliver “justice” to an entire town. This antihero is often a societal misfit who must therefore ride off into the sunset alone at the end, having acted as sole arbiter of good and evil and using his gun to dispatch the evil as he sees fit.
Protected by God and Guns
While churches, preachers and believers are common features in many classic westerns prior to the mid-’60s, the central problem in the story was rarely solved without the help of a man with a gun. So perhaps it isn’t surprising to see memes and signage in modern American culture with such proclamations as “Protected by God and Guns. If you trespass here, you might meet them both.” If something strikes you as odd about such a sentiment, it might be because you’ve run across a Bible passage identifying vengeance as God’s right and privilege alone. One does wonder at the seeming hypocrisy of Christian adherents who don’t flinch at the prospect of sending a fellow human “to meet his maker,” as the saying goes.
And yet, says retired Presbyterian pastor (and self-described avid deer hunter) James E. Atwood, such people make up a growing tribe in America. His 2017 book is titled Gundamentalism and Where It Is Taking America, playing off the link between gun-rights activism and religious fundamentalism.
Following are unofficial, tongue-in-cheek definitions of gundamentalism and gundamentalist, adapted by James E. Atwood from the Urban Dictionary (as Atwood notes, “the terms are not included in any authorized English dictionaries”):
Gundamentalism is “‘the worship of guns: a modern religion based on buying, owning, carrying and shooting large numbers of firearms in situations where they are not really necessary.’
“A gundamentalist is defined by these parts: A) A person who goes beyond the language of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution and takes his or her ‘unrestricted right to bear arms’ as a tenet of religious or quasi-religious faith. B) A haughty gun owner who believes his understanding of the Second Amendment gives him additional rights to harass, slander, defame, and stalk those who disagree with him. C) A gun owner who is willfully ignorant and unwilling to accept differing views of the Second Amendment that come through scientific gun studies and/or court rulings but do not fit his narrative.”
Tracing gundamentalism to the fact that the color of America is changing, and that this is making a lot of people nervous, Atwood describes the growing tribe of adherents as “predominantly white,” but with members “from every race, ethnic background, age, and social class. . . . What unites these people is a passionate belief that guns are the answer to their fears and central to their identity and well-being. It is believed that guns will protect them in dangerous situations and from nefarious people and are essential tools for living in peace.”
While Atwood says this is still a minority of gun owners, he calls it a powerful group, “who, inch by inch, bit by bit, and law by law, are promoting ‘The divine right of guns in America’ and are responsible for much of their misuse and bloodshed that is now so commonplace on our city streets.” Atwood suggests that these believers are so vocal and passionate that responsible gun owners, legislators and even clergy aren’t audible over the rhetoric, and that the potential result is an America that could lose all hope “of ever living in ‘domestic tranquility’ with the right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness in a safe community free of gun violence.”
Within America, it’s almost impossible to discuss domestic gun culture without provoking an argument over the meaning of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. Outside America, there’s a good deal of confusion about this topic—confusion that many Americans would admit to sharing. Atwood calls it “America’s most effective red-herring,” because when pro-gun politicians try to galvanize a following or derail a conversation about any level of gun control, all they have to do is assert a pro–Second Amendment position. What makes it a red herring? “In truth,” says Atwood, “I don’t know anyone who is trying to repeal the Second Amendment. I myself have used its provisions to own guns for over fifty years.” However, he says, “it is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
Atwood acknowledges and addresses some of the group’s tenets. To the idea that stockpiling guns is necessary for resistance against a tyrannical government, he points out that even if one accepts this as an accurate reading of the Second Amendment’s intent, defending a populace against a tyrannical government would be much more complicated than simply handing everyone a weapon. To the idea that “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” he points out that “criminals or terrorists do not always obey stop signs or speed limits either,” but that doesn’t make traffic laws useless.
“I believe a gunshot in the woods during hunting season is appropriate; a gunshot in one’s home or classroom, on a playground, in a house of worship, a shopping mall, a theatre, or a nightclub is inappropriate, unacceptable and obscene.”
Atwood calls his position one of “gun safety,” not “gun control.” And he isn’t the only gun owner and self-described Christian who feels trodden over by a religious minority that suggests God needs a stockpile of weapons to protect His people.
Getting to the Heart
Shane Claiborne grew up hunting with his grandfather in Tennessee. Today he’s codirector of Red Letter Christians, a nonpartisan group that came together on the conviction that “Western Christianity had lost its focus on Jesus.” He wrote Beating Guns: Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence in partnership with Michael Martin, a Mennonite minister and blacksmith. Martin is behind an organization known as RAWtools (raw being the reverse of war), conceived in the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That tragedy inspired a friend of Martin’s to donate his AK-47 for repurposing. Martin and his father took on the challenge and, after learning how to go about it, have been transforming guns into garden tools ever since.
This isn’t a new idea, they realize. Artists have been depicting the same for decades. And many people may be familiar with the biblical quote from Isaiah: “God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war” (Isaiah 2:4, Common English Bible).
“The dominant culture often tells us that we can’t escape the violence, so we should therefore join the violence,” write Claiborne and Martin. “Instead, this counter-story of turning swords into plows insists that violence is the problem, not the solution.” Rather than encouraging a culture of meeting violence with violence, they argue, we can work on encouraging undervalued skills such as de-escalation.
Their book isn’t about demonizing gun owners. Some of their best allies in the discussion about reducing gun violence have been hunters who have a gun for bringing home dinner or keeping animal predators off the farm. “In fact, an overwhelming majority of gun owners are concerned about gun violence,” Claiborne and Martin point out. “They aren’t necessarily the loudest voices in the NRA [National Rifle Association], but they are by far the majority.”
Claiborne and Martin believe that changing swords to plows is about “transforming hearts as much as it is about transforming metal.” They ask similar questions to Atwood’s about how to define freedom. “Is true freedom having a right to own a gun?” they ask. “Or is true freedom the ability to live unarmed and fearless, refusing to fight violence on its own terms?” For Christians, he suggests, maybe freedom is “the powerful realization that our faith does not rest in ‘chariots and horses,’ or in handguns or assault rifles.”
“There are those who say, ‘We do not have a gun problem, we have a heart problem.’ We would make a slight change: we have a gun problem and a heart problem. . . . People kill people. And people with guns kill a lot of people.”
Cultural concepts of freedom and gun ownership certainly didn’t develop independently. America’s early armed militias, note Claiborne and Martin, were more concerned with squashing rebellion than worrying about whether the government was becoming tyrannical. “For many decades,” they write, “that is what ‘policing’ looked like in America—armed slave patrols. We still have a long way to go to heal those wounds of history. . . . Guns were used to take land from Natives and to keep enslaved Africans subjugated.”
These historical underpinnings remain visible in American culture. For instance, a disproportionate number of guns are in the hands of white men versus minorities or women. The historical roots can also be seen in the actions and rhetoric of the more extremist board members of the NRA, the country’s most powerful gun-rights advocacy group.
Claiborne and Martin add an important qualification: “90 percent of gun owners are not members of the NRA.” As statistics bear out, most Americans (including a significant number of NRA members) support gun restrictions in some form. But it’s far too easy to stir up factions using emotional rhetoric and soundbites when protecting something so deeply embedded in national culture—a culture whose money is emblazoned with “In God We Trust” while its entertainment proclaims “In Guns We Trust.”
Claiborne and Martin ask whether guns have taken the place of God in America’s religious identity. “Think of all the promises a gun pledges to its owner,” they write, “—power, control, safety, protection, deliverance, self-confidence, self-determination, ridding the world of evil. If a gun were actually able to keep all its promises, then we would be like God.” Death, they suggest, has been sold to us as a small price to pay for godlike knowledge.
It’s interesting that in America, a discussion about gun reform doesn’t come down to atheists versus the religious, which is how many Christian Americans view moral issues. Rather, it comes down to a spectrum between two camps of religious adherents: those who look at the example of Jesus when He told His disciple Peter to put his sword away and conclude, as Tertullian did, that Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier; and those who, like the self-appointed judge of good and evil meting out justice on a main street in the American Wild West, hold sacred the right to be like God and take out the bad guys. “The greatest seduction,” write Claiborne and Martin, “is sometimes not the ‘anti-God,’ but the ‘almost-God.’”
The “almost-God” is alive and well in America, where guns kill more people than in most other countries because more people have guns. And more people have guns because some hold this as a divine right. Guns can give mere humans the power of God—to mete out justice, punishment and retribution as we see fit. And it’s these attributes that the hearts of some covet over the other facets of a compassionate God.
As Claiborne, Martin, Atwood and Joyce have all pointed out, America’s gun problem is also a heart problem—one that is deeply embedded in a national culture. But the rest of the world isn’t immune. Wherever violence is met with violence and people justify the right to take retribution into their own hands, we see that same heart problem. “We are addicted to violence,” write Claiborne and Martin. “We are infected by it like a disease.” They are not wrong—and the infection is global.