Thursday, October 8, 2015

Two kinds of gun owners

The Second Amendment was added to the Constitution – assuring the right to bear arms to participate in a well-regulated militia – in a different time in Western history.   At the time, gun ownership outside a few cities on the Atlantic seaboard was already a fact of life.   It was reasonable to own a gun for hunting, to protect against bears and rabid dogs, and to band together against potential attacks by the British, the Indians, or – as we tend to forget – a possible slave insurrection in much of America.

Bears, rabies, and the British are no longer much of a threat.   We exterminated or extirpated the native Americans.  We (with much difficulty and resistance) freed the slaves 150 years ago.   Hunting is still a legal hobby, but it is an expensive indulgence.  The idea that feeding one’s family by hunting and butchering wild animals is cheaper than just buying a half a hog is not realistic. 

But even within the last 50 years, the rationale for gun ownership has changed.  Even fifty years ago, perhaps half of Americans chose to own guns, and in rural areas hunting and the occasional wild animal were reasons to take a gun out of the locked gun cabinet; but most gun owners didn’t define themselves by their ownership of a gun.

Even then, though, even when I was a teenager, there was an acknowledgment that the power to kill that a gun offered was, in fact, something of a rush.  Holding and shooting lethal weapons gives young men erections, and we used to acknowledge it and make jokes about it. 
Today the best estimates are that there are more guns in America than ever before – perhaps 300 million of them – but they are concentrated in fewer and fewer households; perhaps 100 million Americans own a gun.    Included in this number are tens of millions of people who still use them with the same care and on the same limited occasion as we always did.

But I think in the last 20 years, and certainly the last eight, the number of gun owners who have adopted a rationale that their gun is necessary for self-defense – against the almost non-existent threat of an armed home invasion, or against the prospect of encountering someone who looks threatening on the street or in a restaurant -- has exploded, even as fifty million “old-school” gun owners have died and been replaced in the general population by seventy million younger people who don’t see the point of inviting death into their homes.

The 240 million of us who don’t own guns don’t necessarily define ourselves by that choice.   On a daily basis, most of us are preoccupied with making a living, raising our families, and when we have time to take up a cause, with faith and hunger and poverty and civil rights and social justice or even just with coaching youth sports. 

Estimates are that 84 percent of gun purchasers/owners are men, and 74 percent of them are white men; even though white men only make up 34% of the American population.   There is a considerable overlap between gun ownership today, and supporters of the extreme wing of one dwindling political party, that gets its worldview  from a persistent drumbeat of paranoia-trading television and talk radio hosts.   And for these people, maintaining their personal arsenal is not something that occurs to them from time to time; it is the core of their post-apocalyptic worldview.

We’re not under attack, and the world is not coming to an end.    We’re not in a hot war with the Nazis or a Cold War with the Soviets, and it’s been 14 years since a tiny faction of an oppressed culture on the other side of the world inflicted any damage to us on our soil; our cars are safer than ever before, and we’ve almost eradicated numerous diseases that once struck terror into every parent’s heart.   Most forms of violent crime have been decreasing for decades, except for mass shootings and the epidemic of suicides and accidental shootings that happen dozens of times a day. 

Today’s arguments for gun ownership come predominately from people who expect to have to use them, against other human beings of the same nationality.     Their fears are not rational, but are fed by industries that profit immeasurably by feeding them.   All one has to do is to read any comment board on any news site to realize that they are motivated by fear and anger, and that their arguments consist of rhetoric, insults, and threats.    They are a small minority of Americans, but they are not a fringe.   There are perhaps fifty million of them.   They have made it impossible  for one of America’s two major political parties to nominate a Richard Lugar, a John Danforth, or even a Ronald Reagan.
Those of us who want to live without the constant threat of death from a heavily-armed civilian population need to understand the difference between these two kinds of gun owners, find common ground with the ones that are willing, and make sure the ones who are making our world a worse place are given the influence that their positions deserve.