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Breaking the American Gun Culture Once and For All

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Whenever there's a demonstrably horrifying event like 9/11 or Tucson or Sandy Hook, a debate begins in earnest over who or what we should blame and what needs to happen next. And one of the central speed-bumps on the road to further gun control legislation is the fact that gun defenders have all-too-often skewed the discourse away from firearms and focused the blame on, well, anything else. It doesn't matter what, just anything that's not the American gun culture.


What specifically do I mean by "gun culture?"

There's an almost historical, genetic aspect of Americanism that's synonymous with guns. Somehow, perhaps because of our revolutionary founding or the glorification of war or the romance of Wild West or all of the above, guns have become embedded in our national DNA, perhaps more so than any other industrialized nation. Due to effective marketing and lobbying, gun ownership has evolved from being a frontier necessity to a creepy, penile, Freudian symbol of masculinity and power. American guns have become unmistakable displays of virility and strength -- of aggression, resolve and heroism. Hell, even the up-and-coming congressional Republicans like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor have been nicknamed "The Young Guns." (Ugh.)

It was the latter half of the 20th Century, spanning the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers, when gun ownership became almost inextricably entrenched in our culture. I hasten to note that I'm not saying every American raised in those generations is individually to blame, but we shouldn't overlook the national history of the post-World War II years when, for the first time, we kept a standing army and developed the infamous military-industrial complex, with its lifeblood drawn from the pervasive notion that more firearms (in this context, weapons of war including nuclear warheads) were necessary for national security against the Soviet Union and its successor, Islamic terrorists. Indeed, by the 1980s and on through the George W. Bush post-9/11 era, American patriotism -- our basic love of country -- was defined by our aggression towards our enemies and our arsenal of weaponry defiantly engaged against them. Meanwhile, our national history is often timestamped based on what war was occurring at that time. (When was the last time you watched a documentary about the 20th Century that wasn't based on our succession of wars?)

This is the American gun culture.

Despite what pro-gun operatives have been suggesting as a means of distracting from the real issue of the gun culture, breaking the nightmarishly escalating wave of mass murders requires considerably more than just targeting video games or television violence, it's about breaking this dominant cultural attitude that aggression and weaponry are the only bulwarks standing between us and doomsday, even though it's difficult to observe tragedies like Sandy Hook and not regard them as the latest in a long line of doomsdays.

To extricate the gun culture from American society, we have to engage in a tenaciously ongoing effort to, 1) pass serious and unprecedented gun control regulations, and 2) disconnect the association between masculinity/virility/power/patriotism with gun ownership.

Everything else is secondary to regulating the guns and undermining the visceral, hormonal desire to use them. If we can limit both the supply and the fetishistic demand for guns, we can begin to roll back the gun culture. The campaign against Big Tobacco, for example, has been highly successful on both fronts: cigarettes are more difficult to purchase (advertising has disappeared and prices have skyrocketed, though not enough), and the very act of smoking has become increasingly stigmatized, with smokers banished outside to huddle like societal pariahs under awnings and in bus shelters. It's absolutely possible to accomplish the same goals with firearms.

While we can't allow the debate to be distracted by a tangent into this area, perhaps the campaign might also involve making it more difficult for children (and irresponsible parents of children) to purchase realistically violent video games and movies. Though I would strongly oppose the censorship of any art form, it's not censorship to simply prevent children from becoming inspired and desensitized by gun violence in media. That said, Max Fisher, a foreign policy writer for The Washington Post, noted that Germany, Japan, Australia, the UK, France, South Korea and the Netherlands all spend more per capita on video games than the U.S., but the rate of gun violence is significantly lower in those nations. Jaw-droppingly lower.

By the way, it's more than a little frustrating to watch as television news analysts blame video game violence for these mass murders when, in fact, for many decades the news media itself has been complicit in marketing both fear, which breeds knee-jerk defensiveness and aggression, and the universal rule "if it bleeds, it leads." Television and print journalism, and its profit-motive, is dependent upon running sensationalized news: it thrives on real life violence and death, often involving firearms, on every front page and leading every newscast. Unlike video games or other works of fiction, this is real death, aired for the gawking masses and sold to advertisers.

Ultimately, though, video games, television and so forth are only reflections of American culture and consumer demand. If we break the culture, if we disrupt the firearm marketplace, consumer demand and the media marketplace will begin to adjust accordingly. Part of this monumental effort will involve reversing the prioritization of military strength over social justice -- to seriously adopt a war-as-last-resort attitude once and for all, and to expand our healthcare system to successfully diagnose and treat mental illness, among other things. Part of the effort will have to involve the marginalization of Americans who sanctify gun ownership as a symbol of masculinity (Ted Nugent and others of his ilk). But none of it will work if we don't make it extremely difficult to attain firearms, especially the ones that are manufactured for hunting people -- namely semi-automatic handguns and assault rifles. Gun owners and the guns themselves should be regulated at least as thoroughly as cars and drivers.

It's not going to be easy. But we can't allow the necessary changes to be derailed by the usual suspects. Their time has ended. Emerging from the heart-wrenching sorrow, the legacy of Sandy Hook has to be the beginning of the end for the American gun culture.

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