Washington DC, United States: When two students walked into Columbine High School, killing 13 and injuring 21, I had just turned seven. When I was in middle school, we could only carry clear backpacks in response to a nearby shooting at another school. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where students were given excused absences for the beginning of the hunting season. A classmate of mine said his family home had bullet holes in it because some hunters didn’t mind or see the signs indicating private property. Throughout school, we ran drills for intruders; though I don’t remember anyone saying the words active shooter drill, they were clearly meant as such. We had to turn off the lights, lock the doors, and hide where you couldn’t see us. Ducking beneath windows to the outside, out of sight from windows on the doors, the hope was to be invisible. You can’t target what you don’t see. Gun culture and gun violence have almost always been present in my life. Gun culture in the US is ideological and ubiquitous thanks to a concerted PR push by special interest groups and its appeal to deeper aspects of the American culture, and that is what those advocating for gun control are fighting against.
Modern gun culture in the US is more than a policy position, it’s an identity. Gun owners are proud of their guns along with the beliefs and culture that accompany them. This isn’t just a Pepsi vs Coke debate; guns have become a signifier of larger values, virtue signaling, so to speak. An analysis of voter behavior done by Survey Monkey shows that had only gun owners voted in the 2016 election, Donald Trump would have won 49 of the 50 states. In their survey, they found the divide between gun owners and non-gun owners starker than that between white and nonwhite voters. Gun ownership is a better indication of conservative, Republican-voting behavior than class or race.
— Jon Cohen (@jcpolls) October 2, 2017
Tough to imagine now, the NRA once advocated for strict gun regulations — those days are gone. The NRA had not always been a political organization, but throughout the past 80 years, its publications have been creating a clear identity for gun owners. They draw from mythos that already existed in the American imagination, the rugged individual, the man who conquered his destiny, and the like. Not only are these myths very powerful, but they also create a culture that leans conservative and relies heavily on narratives that already exist in the mind of Americans.
So, what does the Second Amendment say?
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
It was written during a time in American history before we fully understood what Federalism would look like. The State mentioned in the amendment is not the federal state or the democratic process, but the governments of the now 50 states. In a federal system, power is divided between the federal and state levels. After the War for Independence, founders like Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, weary of a federal army, quickly moved to disband the Continental Army. This made irregular state militias the sole ground army. We no longer need such militias.
While it’s true that both men and women own guns, men are statistically more likely to be gun owners, and I find it useful to view it through a lens of masculinity. Traditional gender roles require men to be strong, unemotional, protectors, rugged individuals, warriors, and caretakers. Gun advertising and advocacy groups appeal to that. Protect your family, they say, be a man. This is a problem because it’s effective though not necessarily true. On a philosophical level, there is no right way to be a man, and a soft, caring man is just as valid and masculine as his aggressive brothers. On the other hand, owning a gun increases one’s likelihood of death and there is less to fear than one might think. We often forget it, but suicide is also a gun violence issue. Owning a gun makes suicide, homicide, and accidental death all more likely. Guns are also used in domestic abuse situations. Furthermore, many like to imagine themselves as action heroes, saving the day and their loved ones with their singular action. That’s never a good idea. Even professionals with years of practice don’t try to do it, in part because in active shooter situations, a “good guy with a gun” could be seen by law enforcement as an accomplice to the violence, and then shot. Despite these statistics, which gun advocates either ignore or refute, the narrative of being able to protect oneself is too appealing. That’s because it also appeals to our fear.
If you see the world as a dangerous place, full of those who want to do you harm, take advantage of you at every turn, the gun narrative effectively speaks to you. Our fear makes us think we need guns, lots of them, and increasingly powerful ones, to keep the bad guys at bay. That’s not the case. Homicide in the US has been steadily declining, though still higher than that of similar countries with gun restrictions, and we still see far too many mass shootings. Fearmongering ads paint a starkly different picture. Americans are a frightened people.
In the fight for gun reform, we need to address these powerful narratives with alternatives. Instead of fear, the need to protect ourselves from each other, together, by regulating and limiting access to firearms. We need to realize that the rights of the many, to be safe from violence, is more important than the profits of gun manufacturers. While gun advocacy groups on the face seem to advocate for the rights of gun owners, but make no mistake, the gun lobby cares primarily about the profits of manufacturers. When they pushed the myth that the Obama administration would take away people’s guns, sales skyrocketed. Fear pushes sales and creates rabid supporters. While I don’t see any reason to want to own a gun, I realize it’s not politically feasible to ban firearms. What I do resent is that any move towards compromise (between what we have now which hasn’t been working and a country without personally-owned firearms) is decried as a step too far. That’s no way to find a solution to the problem of mass murder.
I’m lucky enough to live in DC during an era that saw two of the largest political rallies in history, one being the recent March for Our Lives. Reports now say that over 800,000 people attended, and that feels right given how many people were there. The stage was set up on Pennsylvania and 3rd, and when I first arrived, I was in a dense crowd slowly pushing towards the corner of 12th and Pennsylvania – nine city blocks away. Crammed together, thousands of people strained to hear or see from the jumbotrons sprinkled across Pennsylvania Ave. The crowd was mostly teenagers; groups of them chatted excitedly or cut through the crowd holding hands as to not get lost in the big city. That’s not to say there weren’t also adults; I had to awkwardly explain to an older couple that I wasn’t photographing them but taking a selfie when I held my phone up.
Related Post: How to Fight Activist Burnout
Since we couldn’t hear, we retreated from the crowd to get as close to the stage as possible. We close enough to see its corners, just in time to hear Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez speak. She wields power with such ease. Most notably, she stood in silence for six minutes and twenty seconds to represent how long it took the shooter to kill 17 students in her high school. Hundreds of thousands of people stood silently, in a reflective trance. Being there, almost overwhelmed by the movement and noise a moment before, was surreal. During the moment of silence, a few rogue cheers broke out, as Emma stood, head raised up, with tears or sweat or both streaming down her cheeks. A few near the stage chanted “vote her in,” a hopeful alternative to the day’s mantra of “vote them out.”
Unfortunately, these children are now subject to an attack campaign from the right, which seeks to undermine their movement. A photoshopped version of Gonzalez tearing the constitution was circulated among right-wing groups online, the latest in a stream of fake news. Pundits have mocked Hogg’s rejection from four colleges. In an interview, Gonzalez said she and the other organizers of the March for our Lives meet in secret in fear of violence. It’s disturbing how readily ad hominem attacks were slung at teens whose solutions for gun violence are far from extreme. Nevertheless, these brave high schoolers have continued the fight, and we can all learn how to advocate for social and environmental issues with resilience and grace from them.
The March for Our Lives rallies may be over, but you don’t need to wait for the next one to push for gun reform. We list some methods of activism here if you may wish to keep the momentum going.
Title image of March For Our Lives in Grand Rapids, USA courtesy of Joanna Nix.