The Cultural Significance of Gun Ownership

“The hammer locks in place, so it’s safe to drop, but you don’t have to cock it before you shoot,” explained the gun vendor as he held out the handgun for me to hold. I nodded along as if I understood what he was saying, though I’ve never actually held a gun before in my life.

Cartoon by Ben Murphy

The man was one of dozens of vendors at the second of 11 gun shows scheduled in Colorado Springs this year. The show, held in a spacious, warehouse-like building, attracted hundreds of gun enthusiasts over the course of the weekend. Other attendees assured me it was small compared to most gun shows; some are even held in the Broadmoor World Arena.

Guns are a fundamental, cultural touchstone for millions of people in the United States. However, many on the left—myself included—tend to ignore this when we talk about gun control and gun violence. Gun violence is a huge problem in this country and action is necessary. Nonetheless, trying to further restrict people’s access to guns is politically impractical, morally wrong, and not the most effective way to limit gun violence.

The Second Amendment is extremely ambiguous, regardless of how you feel about guns and their role in society. It reads: “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.” Whether or not the right to bear arms is intended to be reserved only for members of well-regulated militias is unclear. In today’s English, the sentence isn’t even grammatically correct. But in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own guns, and that decision is not likely to be overturned anytime soon.

Getting guns off of the streets in the U.S. would require a recall of unprecedented scale.  The number of guns currently outnumbers the number of people in the U.S. by about 1.07 guns for every one person. As for the federal government seizing people’s guns on a large scale, this is every gun rights activist’s waking nightmare. Tellingly, every time gun control becomes a hot political topic, gun sales rise sharply.

Since the number of guns in circulation in the U.S. is incredibly high and unlikely to decrease in the near future, we have to come up with other ways to deal with gun violence. We need to focus on what causes people to commit acts of violence with guns, rather than the guns themselves.

The leading cause of gun deaths in the U.S. is suicide, by a significant margin. Between 2012 and 2014, over 62 percent of the 100,797 gun deaths in the United States were suicides.  It follows, then, that ensuring all Americans have access to affordable mental health care and destigmatizing depression and anxiety would significantly reduce the number of gun deaths per year in the United States.

Poverty is a leading factor in gun homicides. In 2015, America’s poorest neighborhoods were home to only 1.5 percent of the population but 26 percent of gun homicides. While poverty is a broad label and the specific causes of these murders are complex, some basic steps such as increasing funding and teacher training in inner city schools, expanding public housing and limiting evictions, increasing support for released prisoners, and encouraging community policing would all go a long way to reducing murder in violence-plagued neighborhoods.

Domestic violence is another major cause of gun homicides in the U.S. In 2011, 53 percent of women killed with guns were killed by intimate partners or other family members.  Many of these victims may have not been shot if federal and state governments enacted stricter laws on domestic abuse, educated students about relationship violence, and began providing resources to empower victims and enable them to leave abusive relationships.

Mass shootings are scary, random, and garner a lot of media attention. As a result, much of the recent push for gun control has been around the threat of an active shooter with measures such as banning assault rifles and high capacity magazines and increasing background checks.  In reality, they make up less than one percent of all gun homicides, and only a fraction of one percent of all gun deaths. So-called “common sense” gun control, as it is talked about today, would not have much of an impact on overall gun deaths.

Democrats should, for the time being, give up on passing meaningful gun control legislation. They should instead use gun rights as a bargaining chip—compromising their goals on gun control in exchange for things that will meaningfully lower the gun death rate, such as providing universal access to mental health care or increasing funding for inner city schools.

Rather than disdain gun enthusiasts as ignorant and apathetic to problems of gun violence in this country, campuses such as our own should attempt to understand the cultural significance of guns in so many parts of this country, including Colorado Springs. In fact, there is another gun show this weekend in the Springs. Maybe we should check it out.

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