America Is a Country In Love With Guns. That Makes Gun Control More Important, Not Less.
“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” I’ve been thinking about that quote, which is from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, a lot in the weeks since the Buffalo and, then, Uvalde shootings, particularly as Republican politicians, in their desire to avoid putting any blame for the shootings on the easy availability of guns, have instead tried to talk about culture as the source of the problem.
Talking about American culture when talking about this country’s propensity for mass shootings is not a mistake. But the way these politicians talk about American culture — and, even more, the “culture” they talk about — seems almost designed to miss the point. They talk about video games and social media, or a decline in churchgoing, but never about the simple fact that America has always been a culture in love with guns, a culture that almost from the start embraced the fantasy of what the historian Richard Slotkin evocatively called “regeneration through violence.”
There are, after all, other countries that, like the U.S., have a long tradition of gun ownership, with Switzerland being the most obvious example. But in Switzerland, the cultural valence of the gun is dramatically different than in the U.S. In Switzerland, gun ownership is intimately connected to membership in the military and the militia, and therefore to national defense. In the U.S., gun ownership is far more enmeshed with ideologies of individualism and self-defense, and wrapped up with fantasies of the lone hero keeping the homestead safe or bringing order to the Wild West.
American gun owners don’t grow up seeing themselves as members of a well-trained militia. They grow up seeing themselves as Hawkeye or Wyatt Earp or Shane, or nowadays as Jason Bourne or John Wick. If they have an affection for outlaws, they might imagine themselves as Billy the Kid or Stagger Lee. The point is that the American gun owner sees himself (and the archetypal gun owner is a him) as alone, isolate, surrounded by a dangerous world that makes the gun necessary. Even if they see themselves as part of a larger group of gun owners, or politically similar allies, the fundamental relationship is not between the…