About three decades ago, my husband and I met his now-best friend, a Native fella – half-Eskimo – who introduced us to Alaska’s gun culture.
To be fair, I had been on the fringes of that culture my whole life. Growing up in Alaska, guns had always been. They were like frying pans or cars … a useful tool that just were. I wasn’t afraid of them because I was taught how to shoot, first rifles and then handguns, when I was young. In those days, I still hiked into the Alaska wilderness without a gun … this was before I knew someone who was mauled by a bear after he shot bear spray into the bear’s nose and discovered that doesn’t disable bears … it mostly just pisses them off.
Ray, however, was raised in the gun culture. He owned several guns then. He owns more now. He’s never felt like shooting up a shopping center, although as a teacher in the public schools, he wishes he could carry concealed because he dislikes being helpless in the face of someone else’s murderous rampage.
But that’s really a side discussion. My reason for bringing up our friendship with Ray is that, prior to him introducing us to his collection (what some folks might call an arsenal), I always figured that anyone who owned more than a single 22 for bird hunting, a single 300 for large game and a single handgun for home protection was something of a gun nut who sort of creeped me out. I’d done some practice shooting, of course, but the idea of reloading my own bullets so I could afford to kill dozens of (paper) targets in a single afternoon had never occurred to me.
In fact, when Brad first moved to Alaska he was absolutely freaked out while working in an Alaskan village to realize that EVERYBODY there owned guns … carried them with them … left them loaded while leaning in the corner. Later, when we started dating, he realized that gun ownership and treating it like a tool was normal in Alaska. And, then we met Ray and we both changed our definition of normal.
Brad grew up in a culture where no “nice or normal” people owned guns or enjoyed doing anything with them. He never knew anyone who was “nice and normal” who had any (or at least admitted to having any) guns. Many decent people who have no interest in guns simply can’t imagine what it must be like to be someone who is passionate about something whose primary purpose is (from the perspective of the observer) to kill people. While we endless debate gun ownership and concealed carry using words, logic and fact — each taking our respective sides in the issue, the arguments constructed using these three tools of intelligence are not what brings people to their pro- or anti-gun position. For most people, that position is derived of from emotional or intuitive beliefs. Brad grew up in a city where guns were used to kill people. I grew up in a wilderness where guns were used to defend against carnivorous animals. We employed the tools of logic retroactively in defense of our personal position and so does everyone else. Most of our political views are arrived at by emotional or intuitive discovery.
And as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles. David Hume
What most anti-gun people are really feeling (rather than thinking) is that there has to be something strange about you if you like guns. They see the gun as an instrument fit only for killing people … or maybe animals (which they often feel emotional about as well). If you like this instrument of death, you are sufficiently different from an anti-gun person that you are viewed as dangerous, mentally ill or culturally inferior. You’ve become the “other”. You are now allowed to be denigrated, segregated and subjugated by having your individual rights taken from you “for your own good” and “the good of society”.
We’ve been here before with other subcultures within our society. Think blacks between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, we are discussing cultural segregation here. Anti-gun culture believes it has the high moral ground because “those gun nuts” are different from them, so therefore must be avoided and controlled, but this belief is based on ignorance. Meet an anti-gun person and you will almost always learn that they don’t know anyone on any real level who is not an anti-gunner. Like all such cultural segregation, the barriers can be broken down by getting to know those on the other side of the gap.
This, by the way, works both ways. People who favor more gun regulation are not actually motivated by taking away our liberty. They don’t see it as a liberty issue like they do smoking pot, having sex with whomever they want or the question of what to do with their Sunday mornings. Conversely, people who favor robust 2nd amendment protections do not have a higher threshold for the acceptance of violence or aggression. In fact, they probably carry because they have a LOWER tolerance for aggression and they want to protect themselves and others (maybe you) from the violence of others.
If you made some friends on the other side of the issue, you would know that those who think differently than you are not evil. They may be sincerely deceived because they’ve never actually talked to anyone on your side of the issue. And you might learn something too. Brad, especially, became much more accepting of guns from having become Ray’s friend and Ray eventually came to accept trigger guards and gun safes as a good way to keep his kids from accidentally shooting a family member.
Cultural identity differences are often erroneously attributed to political identity affiliations, but studies show it’s really the other way around. What is important to us in our culture drives the political choices we make. Not understanding this empowers political partisans who have a vested interest in maintaining power by keeping us divided. The last thing they want is for us to become committed to protecting all of our individual rights, including the ones we ourselves do not exercise.
Gun owners are just one kind of subculture. It’s a highly porous subculture made up of people of all walks of life who largely agree on this one issue. There are many others, which are topics for another blog post. The thing about judging a subculture from the outside is that we frequently can’t imagine how people can think the way they do. At the best, we feel condescending toward them. You may even feel justified in being disgusted by or terrified of members of the gun owning subculture.
Yeah, “disgust” is a very strong word that we usually don’t want to admit to feeling, but if the idea of my owning a gun hits you on a visceral level, then your reaction is probably not rational, though you may apply reason later to justify your emotional position. And, I’m going to right here acknowledge that I feel “disgust” when I think about people who want to disarm ordinary citizens and let criminals and government thugs have complete control of the culture. And that’s even knowing people like my sister-in-law who opposes guns.
Annie is a good, decent person who was raised back East and knows nobody (save her brother and sister-in-law) who owns guns. She could not imagine why anyone would need one. When we took her hiking in the Alaska wilderness, she threw a fit when I donned my sidearm, certain that it was going to leap out of the holster and shoot one of our party. I “compromised” by going behind the truck and switching the configuration of a back holster under my shirt so we were a full day into the trip before she realized I was still armed and nobody had died. She realized it when a moose stormed out of the trees and I pulled the gun when the moose didn’t swerve to avoid us. I didn’t shoot the moose, but the shot I fired over its head convinced it not to continue in our direction. We don’t know for certain what it was running from, but we found fresh bear scat and tracks in the direction it had come from … which helped Annie to understand why we brought a gun.
Prior to that experience, Annie would have said that my arguments for allowing people to be armed were wrong. “Guns are dangerous. They harm people. Nobody needs a gun.” But stop and think about this. I’ve never shot anyone. I’ve never had an accidental discharge of one of my guns (because there’s no such thing as an accidental discharge if you’re handling your guns properly). I’ve never had a kid get possession of a gun of mine and be able to do anything harmful with it (my guns have trigger guards that I barely have finger strength enough to disengage, let alone a kid, so if putting them out of reach doesn’t work, they can’t be fired by a child anyway). Ray has never had any of these things happen either. And neither have the vast majority of the millions of gun-owners who exist out there.
So, knowing that, just consider this. Ray is your friend and you must tell him to his face that “You should not be allowed to own a gun to protect your family. I would rather the mentally ill guy who lives next door to you be able to stab your entire family to death than you be able to protect your loved ones with that gun.” How would you feel delivering that message? Could you imagine yourself telling me and my family that we should stay out of the wood or accept that being mauled by a bear is one of the risks? Could you imagine yourself attending my son’s funeral and telling me that we should have simply stayed out of the woods if we didn’t want him to die that way?
No, really! Let yourself imagine what that conservation would be like. I’ve got tears on my cheeks and snot running out of my nose and we’re standing over the closed casket of my son because you were so opposed to my son owning a gun that you’d rather he be mauled by a bear than able to protect himself.
Because, if you’re going to take the disarmament stance on guns, that is actually the argument you’re making and you should have the moral courage to say it to the faces of the people you’re advocating to disarm and leave helpless in a dangerous world. To me, that makes the world more dangerous than it was when I had a gun to protect myself and my family. If you’re advocating for the government to do the disarmament for you so you can avoid the discomfort of that conversation, then you’re a moral coward who doesn’t want to own up to the implications of your own positions. And if you knew anyone in the gun culture, you might be able to put a face to the people you are segregating, denigrating and subjugating. It then becomes a whole lot easier to both imagine that conversation and imagine attending the funeral of their kid or wife who maybe would not have been stabbed to death or eaten by a bear had they been armed. In other words, you would grow some compassion and empathy for the “other” PEOPLE you are judging.
I know Ray to be a sane, kind man who would never shoot up a shopping mall. I know that because I know Ray. Because I know him, I think the rest of us are better off when people like him have a few of the guns. I’d rather have the guns in my hands or Ray’s than only in the hands of criminals or our political masters. That’s because I see people in the gun culture as people, not as opponents. If we can challenge ourselves by focusing on nurturing our human connection with our political opponents by relating to them as people, we’d see increased success in getting our opponents to see the world our way.
Collapsing the subculture barriers in our society through actual human relationships dissolves our political differences rather than simply negotiates them. By interacting with those who hold different viewpoints from us, we discover that our differences of political principle are really rationalizations of our bigotry toward those whose experiences, activities and pleasures we simply cannot imagine sharing.