In Defense of Gun Culture

Posted on April 11, 2012 by


A gun was used to murder my friend and classmate when I was in elementary school. That death haunted not only my childhood, but my college and adult years. In some ways, entering the criminal justice field as an adult was an attempt to resolve that powerful tragedy of my youth.

I can still picture her freckles, wild hair, and unrestrained grin. I still picture her death, her brain matter splattered across a vehicle. I was not there, but I see it in my mind because the story was told so vividly and frequently by the children who survived the attack.

But I do not count myself in the anti-gun category.

The public discourse on guns lacks nuance. At the international level, there is a dismissive attitude toward the United States. Other countries see us as dangerous nuts, twirling our handguns and quoting John Wayne as though we have failed to abandon the ways of the Old West and bring ourselves into the civilized contemporary era.

Within the US, we divide ourselves into two rough camps: A militant and macho-infused pro-gun, tough on crime, self-righteous gun lobby and an opposing camp comprised of rhetoric that equates guns with homicide, violence, and tragedy. The discourse paints a picture of gun issues that looks like it was drawn by a child. There is little sophistication, little appreciation for the complications of a diverse set of gun cultures and the myriad reasons that Americans own and use guns.

I see at least five broad categories of gun culture in this country:

  • Rural gun culture, in which guns have always been present primarily as a hunting tool, but, secondarily, available for self-defense.
  • Law enforcement gun culture, in which guns are seen as part of the job and are used to keep employees safe, convey authority to citizens, and to protect the life and property of others.
  • Casual defensive home ownership gun culture, in which middle and upper-class citizens feel that a gun is an important, if almost entirely unused, tool to safeguard the home and property.
  • Urban crime and violence gun culture, in which guns are used, regularly, to both commit crimes and protect against violence from others.
  • Political gun culture, in which gun owners see firearm ownership as a constitutional right and critical component of a political ideology that casts the federal government as a potential victimizer of the innocent citizen, whose right to bear arms is needed in defense of tyranny.

Guns mean very different things to all of these people, and even these five categories are drawn too widely. We are a nation of more than 300 million people. Surely, there is more to be said about our attitudes towards guns than pro- and anti-?

The ins and outs of the data on defensive gun use are complicated, and too much to include in this post. But it is important to note that defensive gun use does happen. Guns have both negative and positive cultural value, negative and positive crime value.

Even if, like me, you experience a horrifying loss to gun homicide, you can still enjoy honing your target practice skills. I do. I enjoy not only the occasional day at the range, but the knowledge that if I ever find a gun I know how to safely handle it, transport it, hunt with it, and use it if, heaven forbid, I have to protect myself or someone else.

I am not anti-gun. Neither do I currently own a firearm. My hope for the discourse on guns and gun culture is that the conversation can go further than the current argumentation that reduces the problem of guns to emotional and political positions in ways that obscure the complicated nature of gun ownership and use in America.

What’s your take?