Guns are Owned by People

Full disclosure: I’ve given money more than once to Everytown for Gun Safety, because I believe that America would be a better place with less gun violence. Just in the past two years, we’ve seen Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks, Sutherland Springs, Parkland. Before that, there was Orlando, Washington Navy Yard, Newtown. On a regular basis, we get reports of a new one.

This is on top of what could be called “normal background” gun violence. These are the drive-by shootings in a city like Chicago, Baltimore or Los Angeles, the hunting accidents, the self-inflicted gun wounds. To me, having fewer guns at hand and making them harder to obtain would, automatically, reduce the level of gun violence. It just makes sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-gun. Guns are, under the right circumstances, a useful means for getting what you want, such as a deer, and marksmanship is a fun test of skill (I once upon a time earned my Marksman First Class certificate from the NRA).

Those who advocate for tougher gun policies also feel that guns are too easy to get. “Weak gun laws in most states mean that virtually anyone can openly carry loaded weapons without any permits, training or background checks,” says one email from Everytown for Gun Safety. “Inadequate laws that fail to hold adults accountable for unintentional shootings reinforce the idea that they are merely “accidents” rather than completely preventable tragedies,” another says.

Common sense, no? Who would dispute that fewer guns, or raising the level of gun owner responsibility to that of a motor vehicle owner, would equate to fewer gun deaths? Why is there so little traction on this issue?

Because gun ownership and usage are not one unified issue but at least two distinct ones with very little overlap.

On the one hand, guns are owned and gun violence is committed by people who view the gun as a tool. The gun, and the shooting of people (or anything else), is a means to an end. Whether it is for settling disputes, defending territory, or obtaining something they want, the gun is the the hammer that drives the nail, the wrench that removes the bolt, the key to open a door.

On the other hand, there are a significant number of people (in America) for whom owning a gun is an important piece of their identity. In other words, they identify as “gun owner” just as they identify as a member of their family, a part of their culture, or with being an American. And when someone says that gun ownership should be restricted, it is these people who get anxious and defensive.

This is actually an understandable reaction. The concept of identity is complex, and goes to the very heart of who we perceive ourselves to be. What I am is a bundle of self-identifiers, and if enough of them are removed, I would find it difficult to recognize myself. And the piece of my identity that defines me the most is the one I will cling to the hardest.

This leads to some complicated social interactions, fuzzy logic, and paradoxical situations. An article published last year in the Atlantic makes the point that it is common for people to deny what’s in front of them if it means denying a firmly-held belief about themselves. “If the thing you might be wrong about is a belief that’s deeply tied to your identity or worldview…then people [do] all the mental gymnastics it takes to remain convinced that they’re right.”

Additionally, because a vital facet of identity is being able to recognize who is in your tribe, then surrendering a piece of your identity will naturally cut you off from your social support network. “Having social support…is far more important than knowing the truth about some facts that do not directly impinge on your life,” the article quotes Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist.

No one wants to live in a violent community, but no one wants to feel alone either. People will disagree on what to do about gun violence based on how they see “us” versus “them.”

Those who dispute that fewer guns would equate to fewer gun deaths seem to be those gun owners for whom such information conflicts with their identity. The current gun control debate rings false for lawful gun owners, who get more and more entrenched in their desire to defend who they perceive themselves to be.

If Everytown for Gun Safety really wants to make progress on the gun sense laws, they will need to find common ground with the lawful gun owners. That won’t happen without a change in tactics, tone, and language. Simply stating statistics accomplishes nothing, according to the Atlantic article, because to the person who holds a particular belief about themselves, such arguments are to be ignored.

The events of the 20th century show that when people’s identities are threatened–whether it’s by increased rights for women, desegregation, redistribution of wealth, immigration policies, etc.–forced change breeds antipathy and resentment. And that’s not a recipe for lasting change.

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