Our gun culture

The late writer Andre Dubus began buying guns in the 1970s, after a loved one was raped at knifepoint. At first he took a gun with him only when he went out with a woman. No one would be raped where he was concerned.

But then he began imagining other scenarios in which a gun would be necessary. There was no end. He carried a gun more often, into more situations, until one night the time came. He found himself pointing his weapon at a stranger who threatened another man with a knife.

After the massacre at Virginia Tech, Americans parted along familiar lines. One side pleaded for more gun control, the other for less. If only students carried guns, the latter's argument went, someone could have made short work of Seung-Hui Cho, and at least reduced the death toll.

Or perhaps such an armed student, panicked, drunk one night, might have killed someone by mistake. The only difference would be in how we keep score: Towering Rage vs. Tragic Error.

Not long ago, Wall Street Journal science columnist Sharon Begley found a set of studies on how people react to violent events. The consensus was that, jolted by a new awareness of their own mortality, people cling more fervently than ever to their core beliefs.

Greater certainty, it seems, brings great comfort.

Begley wanted to know how acts of terrorism might affect voting patterns. But the studies she consulted illuminate our responses to home-grown gun violence as well.

Every new rampage ups the stakes.

Conservatives, research shows, become more conservative — more hostile toward those seen as different (in this case, The Crazies). They back more extreme solutions than before.

That would explain why the pro-gun faction, once content simply to push hard against restrictions, now wants to pass the ammunition. The more people who go armed, the happier we all shall be.

Astounded liberals note that Americans already live in a sea of guns, the sheer numbers upping the likelihood they will be used. To these Americans, stronger restrictions are such a no-brainer it practically makes their teeth hurt. Virginia Tech hit them like root canal.

Most people with this makeup shun militarism and embrace tolerance. They favor constructive engagement with problems. New Yorkers virtually locked these peace-loving values in a death grip after the World Trade Center fell. Which might explain, to bewildered Americans elsewhere, why thousands turned out not for marches to demand revenge but to protest the Iraq invasion, leaving not a soul on the Upper West Side to tend a pan of risotto.

At the same time though, flags came out. A gentle patriotism spread across Manhattan, dissolving the liberal stereotype. We may be more complex, and open to change, than the research can show.

Yet at the moment, the American predilection for gun violence seems unalterable. Mass gun slayings do occur elsewhere in the developed world but with nowhere near the same sickening regularity.

As Wesleyan English professor Richard Slotkin has noted, the prerogative of private violence is deeply imbedded in our collective psyche, partly owing to the mythology of the frontier. Guns (for men especially) are entwined with notions of equality and status. Our films, music and video games celebrate this aspect of American identity more than ever, and are not an irrelevant aside.

Today, no one on either side of the gun divide can seriously argue that our current policies are working. But few have the courage to face them down.

The Republicans have mostly dug in alongside the many opponents of firearms restrictions. The Democrats have grown hard-headed and will introduce only token reforms. They paid a political price, they believe, for supporting the assault-weapons ban and other gun-control measures in the early 1990s, and they do not intend to pay again.

An ex-Marine, Andre Dubus was as much a product of our bullet culture as anyone. He loved the heft and feel, indeed the beauty, of guns. But he underwent a change of heart about going forth armed.

He explores this change in "Giving Up the Gun," an essay more riveting than any piece on a decision has a right to be. Attempts to paraphrase his searching meditation would do it violence. But it is worth noting that Dubus made his decision after he was hit by a car, and forced to use a wheelchair for the rest of his days.

Dubus did not, in his turning-point encounter, fire on the man with the knife. (An unarmed person intervened.) But he saw how having the gun seemed to give him no choice but to use it.

We have choices. We could make it easier to detain a troubled adolescent for care; easier for parents to increase control over children's TV viewing; easier to do strict background checks on weapons buyers.

But we are curiously paralyzed — as if we believe that the unfettered flow of guns, despite evidence from other societies, is the inevitable price of freedom; as if we believe the desperately ill, the spiritually maimed, must be free to fall into the fiery pit; as if we are not free to write a new story of who we are.

I do not know what it would take to get more Americans to ford the stream that Dubus did. A million or more acts of imagination, maybe. A million or more surrenders to faith.

M.J. Andersen is a member of The Providence Journal's editorial board


  1. Doubtom

    Even police officers who, it may be argued, have a measure of discipline, as to when even to draw their weapon, have been known to lose it and commit crimes of passion. One deputy sheriff in our area is on trial for shooting his wife.

    The answer to most of your questions of ‘when’ to use a weapon can be had through the use of common sense and reasoning. Adolescents, not being fully formed in those critical areas, should not have weapons.
    To your question, “could you really take someone’s life?”, you bet your sweet bippy I could, especially if i’m convinced that the rake is aimed at my head, whereupon such contact would mean that I would no longer breathe, smile,laugh,cry,or hug my dog.
    There’s a world of difference between a rude nudge or an insult and a direct assault with a rake or any other facsimile weapon.

  2. April-May

    The Genie is out of the bottle.

    What part of “you can’t ban guns from criminals” do you not get? You can’t ban nukes from criminal states.

    Not entirely logical, certainly not “rational” and absolutely not optimal, but them’s the facts.

    The single common factor in US school shootings is that the campuses were “gun free” — until some criminal decided to bring a gun onto campus.

    Gun owners with carry permits don’t “get drunk at parties and lose control.” The record for concealed carry permit holders is pristine, no tragic accidents, no criminal violations.

    I don’t buy the argument that had someone on the Virginia Tech campus been armed maybe they would have been able to stop Cho.

    What I buy is that had the Virginia Tech campus allowed concealed carry as afforded by state law, perhaps a whacko like Cho would not have viewed the campus as a defenseless target.

    John R. Lott, U. of Chicago in More Guns, Less Crime notes the “shirtail effect” of allowing citizens to lawfully carry firearms for defense. Lott notes that incarcarated criminals readily agree that in states which allow concealed carry, criminals begin to view “potential victim” as a possibly armed citizen capable of lethal defense.

    Guns serve as defense.

    But guns also serve as deterrent. Just like nukes.

    NRA Distinguished Life Member

  3. Elmo

    I wish that those who are in favor of unrestrained firearm ownership would

    • Acknowledge that the nutcases who every so often go on a killing spree are one of the costs of maintaining that freedom
    • Apply the same logic to nuclear weapons — Mutually Assured Destruction is the way to prevent nuclear war
  4. Paolo

    Elmo makes two interesting points. First, he says that nut cases having guns is a cost of gun freedom. I think it is more accurate to say that prohibiting private gun ownership leaves good citizens at the mercy of nut cases, both the individual, “lone wolf” nut case (V-Tech), or the megalomaniac nut case, commonly known as a “political leader.” These nut cases are far more destructive than the individual lone wolf nut case. Observe that political leader nut cases go to great ends to make sure EVERYONE is denied the means of self defense, on the grounds that this will somehow prevent the lone wolf nut case. The lone wolf nut case takes advantage of the megalomaniac’s anti-self-defense campaign, but generally doesn’t call for such laws himself.

    The megalomaniacal nut case, historically, can be responsible for ten to twenty million murders (see Mao Tse-Tung, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, etc.). The lone wolf nut case might manage twenty or thirty homicides of disarmed victims before he finally gets bored waiting for our heroic cops to respond, and kills himself (which is what happened at Columbine and at V-Tech, where the police heroically “secured the perimeter” as innocent, disarmed victims were methodically shot to death).

    If you allow and encourage private gun ownership, you tend to get neither “lone wolf” nut cases, nor megalomaniac nut cases: see the history of tiny Switzerland, which neither Napoleon nor Hitler dared invade, and which has one of the world’s lowest crime rates, in a country where almost all households own military-style weapons, including machine guns.

    Elmo talks about ownership of nuclear weapons. I agree: GOVERNMENTS should definitely not be allowed to have them. When they do, megalomaniac political leaders find it hard to resist roasting a hundred thousand or so human beings, all the while claiming to be supporting “freedom.” It helps, of course, if the enemy can be caricatured as a funny-looking subspecies ready to die for the fatherland (for evidence, check out anti-Japanese, racist propaganda put out by the US government in WWII; it’s truly nauseating).

    Any weapon of mass, indiscriminate destruction should be forbidden, both to private individuals, and especially to governments, who have infinitely the worse record at being willing to use them on any flimsy pretext. (Truman, in announcing the Hiroshima mass murder, identified Hiroshima as “a military base.” In other words, he lied).

    Private individuals have the right (not, “should be allowed”) to keep and bear arms of military usefulness, up to and including fully automatic rifles. Though such weapons can prevent repeats of Columbine and V-Tech, they can also prevent mass exterminations at the hands of political megalomaniacs. Governments are far more destructive than mere criminals.


  5. Sandy Price

    If we live in dangerous neighborhoods we may have to be armed either with guns or big trained dogs. It is our choice. We also can stay out of dangerous places and hope for the best. Our government gives us the choice to be armed or not.

    For those who are anti-guns should live in gated communities where guns are forbidden. Good advertising folks, tell the criminals where you live.

    It’s going to get worse with our open borders and even the low-paying jobs becoming scarce. Men have to feed their children and they will do it! That is human nature.

  6. Bat

    We teach our children to be kind and nice to each other, and many moms discourage, if not outright forbid their children to play with toy guns.

    Then they join the Army, are taught to kill in many different ways, one more gruesome than the next; some are taught and encouraged to bully and torture.

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    Some also want to forbid abortion of a tiny fetus, yet, upon maturity of an individual, they see nothing wrong in sending them off to kill others.

    What’s wrong with that picture?

    Sometimes I simply don’t understand how people think.
    Or fail to.

    (I’m not religious, but there are ethics which tell us the difference between right and wrong, aren’t there?)

    What part of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” don’t they understand?

  7. Paolo

    The point gun-grabbers always ignore is that the worst massacres ALWAYS occur in places where there is strict gun control. Conversely, massacres are very rare in places that encourage private gun ownership.

    A few examples:

    1) Virginia Tech: a more perfect example of total gun control could hardly be imagined. All students and faculty were completely disarmed. The lone nut case knew this. He was able to kill 33 people over the course of two hours, slowly, methodically, with no one to challenge him, while our brave cops dashed about outside heroically “securing the perimeter,” looking very dynamic for the TV cameras.

    2) Columbine. Again, perfect gun control. By the way, examples DO exist of schools that keep arms on campus: in Israel, this is mandatory. Funny–no Palestinian attacks on Jewish schools. Oh, yes–and New York City schools as recently as the 1960’s had target shooting clubs after school. Students routinely carried their weapons ON THE SUBWAY, to school, and checked them in upon arrival at the office.

    3) Colin Ferguson and the New York subway shootings. Again, perfect gun control. Many of the subway riders commented that, if someone had just had a weapon, they could easily have taken down this creep while he slowly and methodically reloaded his weapon.

    4) Nazi Germany: perfect gun control! By the way, why don’t we demand that Israelis disarm and leave them to the tender mercies of the Arabs? I mean, if gun control works, let’s go all the way…

    5) Soviet Russia. No one had the ability to resist when Checka, NKVD, GPU, or other torturers came to take away innocent people. Literally millions died in concentration camps. Perfect, one hundred percent gun control, with only government officials (who, we know, are always virtuous) having weapons.

    6) On the other side of the coin, consider the previously-mentioned Israeli example. A Palestinian might be able to sneak into an Israeli school, and might even be able to gun down one or two students. He would then immediately face a hail of gunfire; all Israeli schools carry a supply of weapons, and the staff knows how to use them.

    7) Or, consider Switzerland, where virtually all households carry an array of weapons, including fully automatic machine guns. Funny, there’s almost no crime there. I wonder why? Also, Hitler never dared to attack little Switzerland. Ever wonder why? He attacked the Soviet Union, with a hundred times the population. But Switzerland scared him. Something about determined militias willing to fight for the homeland, I suppose.

    8) Or, consider the contrast in crime rates in rural America, where gun ownership is very common, to crime rates in New York City or Washington, which both have near 100 percent gun control.


  8. Dayahka

    When I go hiking in the woods, I don’t count on being able to talk a grizzly out of attacking me–I carry bear spray (and maybe a gun). Walking the streets, I need some protection against dangerous dogs. I’d rather not have to carry a gun or other protection, but given the situation I have to.

    The situation in the US would work if we could guarantee that no one had a gun, a dangerous dog, or was likely to meet up with a dangerous animal. But we cannot guarantee any of this. We can’t rely on other people (e.g., police). The best solution is to make gun ownership mandatory and universal. Students (and teachers) with guns in Virginia or Columbine would have quickly ended the carnage. Gun violence exists wherever only a few people (usually the criminals) have guns and the rest are defenseless.

  9. eric

    The best solution is to make gun ownership mandatory and universal.

    And when I refuse to own a gun, will I be shot or merely thrown in prison?

  10. geyser

    For arguement sake, everybody has a gun, everybody carries it where ever they go. Just when do you take it out? Somebody bumbs into you, does not apologize, is that the time? Abig guy is beating on a little guy, do you take it out then? You’re walking with your wife, a guy insults her, is now a good time?
    Now, you’re having an arguement with your neighbor, he has a Rake in his hands, his gun is not on him. He threatens you with the Rake, what do you do? Take out your gun a shoot him? Run away? Get your Rake? When is the need to pull out your gun? The next question, could you pull the Trigger? Do you shoot to kill? Can you kill?
    Could you really take someone’s life, he will never Breathe again, smile, laugh, cry, hug his wife, how do you know you have what it takes to shoot another human being?

    Taking One Day at a Time

  11. April-May

    Concealed Carry classes cover these sorts of situations — hypothetical situations — and discuss the legal ramifications.

    That’s why the concealed carry programs are so damned successful; because the permit holders are educated about the legal consequences and responsibilities of firearms use.

    Maybe you should sign up for one, insofar as you’re clueless about this subject.

    NRA Distinguished Life Member

  12. Doubtom

    the real reason we need to have guns is because the government has them.
    The founders didn’t accidentally include that clause. The provision that we should have guns follows from the same distrust of government that shaped the Constitution into a set of constraints against the government, not the people.
    The only thing tyrants fear more than an informed citizenry is one that is armed.


  13. SEAL

    Perhaps some have forgotten the reason for the 2nd amendment: “A well regulated milita being necessary to the security of a free state.”

    Doesn’t that mean that government could never deny the ability of the citzenry to defend themselves by taking away their weapons?