After Santa Barbara, America Should Take Another Hard Look At Its Gun Culture

Whenever there’s a demonstrably horrifying event like 9/11 or Tucson or Sandy Hook, a debate always 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 masterfully skewed the discourse away from firearms and focused the blame on, well, everything 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 firearms. 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 traditional metaphor for masculinity and power. American guns have become unmistakable displays of virility and strength — of aggression, resolve and heroism — a necessary means for conflict resolution, even though firearms are merely retail products sold for profit.

And so the gun culture was on display yet again in California this past weekend, when a disturbed young man used three handguns to resolve his personal crises.

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 along with its successor, Islamic terrorism.

Indeed, by the 1980s and on through the George W. Bush post-9/11 era, American patriotism — our basic love of country — was defined, right or wrong, by armed aggression toward 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 a succession of American wars?)

This is the American gun culture.

Despite what 2nd Amendment absolutists have suggested as a means of distracting from the real issue of the gun culture, breaking the nightmarishly escalating wave of mass homicides, as well as accidental shootings, home-spun murders and so forth, requires considerably more than just targeting video games, mental health or television violence, it’s about breaking a lopsidedly 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 or Santa Barbara and not regard these episodes as the latest in a long line of doomsdays.

To extricate the gun culture from American society, Americans ought to engage in a tenaciously ongoing effort to, 1) pass new background check laws supported by upwards of 74 percent of NRA members, and 2) disconnect the association between power, patriotism and gun ownership.

Everything else is secondary to undermining the visceral, entitled demand for firearms. If both the supply and the overly-glorified demand for guns can be limited, we can begin to roll back the culture surrounding them. The campaign against Big Tobacco, for example, has been highly successful on both fronts: cigarettes are more difficult to purchase (advertising has dissipated 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.

There isn’t any law or amendment that will solve this problem because gun violence in the United States isn’t symptomatic of one area where regulations are lax or awareness is inadequate. Besides, the NRA has proved to be a formidable match, able to overcome 90 percent support for new gun regulations in some cases, even passing relatively modest gun laws in spite of massive support appears to be a waste of time. The change has to be cultural, societal and incremental, with an eye on the longview. There can be safe gun ownership, but America can only really reach that ideal if the flag-waving cowboy swagger surrounding the use of firearms is slowly diminished to where it ought to be: a last resort tool, without all of the marble-statue, red, white & blue, pretentious trappings.

Bob Cesca is the host of the Bob Cesca Show podcast, a twice weekly political talk show. He’s also a contributor to Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.