More Thoughts on Guns and Culture

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A reader shared a thought with me about the gun control article below which sharpened and for me clarified one of the arguments I was trying to make, one which I put under the too general rubric of ‘culture’.

One thing in your gun control article really struck me.

As someone who spent a whole career in public health working to reduce tobacco use, I’ve long thought part of the answer to the gun problem is to denormalize gun use and gun ownership. This is what happened in many ways with tobacco, probably the biggest instance being restrictions on smoking indoors, which in addition to protecting innocent bystanders from carcinogens, greatly reduced the social utility of cigarettes and changed the smoker’s image, both to himself and others. (Open carry is the gun equivalent of reversing this process).

I’d like to see some deep thinkers researching how to do that with firearms. It will be hard, given the glorification of guns in so much of society, including mass media, but then, cigarettes once were treated the same way (with the help of paid placement from cigarette makers).

Cigarettes are quite different from guns. But there are also many commonalities. The valorization of guns in our society is almost ever present. This is what makes a lot of the open carry and concealed carry stuff so pernicious, in addition to the nuttiness and immediate dangerousness of the practice. Much the same applies to the NRA rhetoric that argues that what we need is more guns, that people who might be victimized by guns are in fact themselves at fault for not having their own guns.

If you listen to open carry advocates, they’re actually quite explicit about this. You’ve seen the numerous articles we’ve published over years in which a couple guys go into a mall or a restaurant with AR-15s slung over their back. To a great extent, I think these are people who like provoking people, people who like the sense of legal menace they create by doing this. But if you listen to what they actually say – and what I think some of them actually think they’re accomplishing – it’s that they are trying to change the perception of firearms.

Many of us see a guy walking in a civilian or family space with a semi-automatic weapon as highly irregular and highly menacing. They’re saying, no. It’s not abnormal and it shouldn’t be scary. They are trying to normalize and acclimate people to the practice and behavior. They are in many ways talking to the same language, using the same reasoning as our reader – just from a very different vantage point.

It may be the case that the specific open carry ‘activist’ probably isn’t going to aim his AR-15 at the restaurant crowd and start shooting. But guns are inherently dangerous and especially so in civilian spaces. Normalizing them in this way is dangerous and part of the problem. This cultural component is as critical as the legal restrictions. But we are not collectively powerless in the face of culture. We know this from the evolution of perceptions of drunk driving, smoking, domestic violence and numerous other de-valorized activities. We reify cultural norms in laws and laws, along with the behaviors they shape in turn, changes culture.

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Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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