Gun culture: what it is, what it was, & why I no longer make appeals to it


Image from Oleg Volk

(Note: Please pardon the spelling and organization. This is basically my half of a mailing list exchange from a while back, lightly edited.)

Everyone on both sides of the gun debate knows that America’s “gun culture” has changed quite a bit over the past few decades. Hunting is way down, and self defense is way up as the main reason why Americans tell pollsters they own guns.

Inside the pro-2A community, there has been a lot of talk of “Gun Culture 1.0” vs. “Gun Culture 2.0.” Here is how I personally have started to understand that shift, recently:

Back in the day

I didn’t grow up in “gun culture” any more than I grew up on “tractor culture” or “bass boat culture” or “pocket knife culture.” Actual gun culture, in the way people think of it now, is a pretty recent invention.

When I was a kid, there was a military culture that had its own guns and mode of dress and vehicles and lingo, and there was hunting culture that had its own guns and outfits and vehicles and lingo, and if somebody in the deer camp was confused and tried to get a military vibe going, then that dude was scary and to be stayed away from. You just didn’t mix the two worlds.

What has happened in the past four or so decades is the decline of hunting culture due to increases in population density – my old hunting grounds have been cleared to make way for houses and grazing land – and its replacement with tactical and self-defense culture, with the latter now going by the name “gun culture” (or even “Gun Culture 2.0”, but really it’s 1.0 in my reading).


I talked a bit about the commercial and cultural dynamics that drove the tactical turn in my WIRED piece on the AR-15, but the summary is that we can thank 9/11 for much of this.

The American public has now been on the receiving end of a ~20-year full-spectrum psyops campaign funded by the Pentagon, a campaign that has given us classics like Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, a bunch of military-centric TV shows, and the glorification of Special Forces as a real-life, modern-day GI Joe organization. Hollywood and cable news are the main vectors for this propaganda. The Hollywood studios literally take money from the Pentagon and CIA, and so on.

So the deer camp has disappeared as a site of masculine identity formation, and in its place is the gun range. The new icon for modern masculinity and patriotism is the Special Forces soldier, and the number one factor in making things this way is the post-9/11 security state and its media handmaidens in Los Angeles and New York. That’s what ultimately drives the sale of AR-15s and tactical gear.

It’s also the case that the entire tactical industry is staffed by former Special Forces guys – they design the gear and guns everyone uses, and they teach the seminars and run the range events. I’ve interviewed these guys, taken their classes, hung out with them, and so on. Note that I actually don’t have a problem with what these guys are doing, and I certainly don’t think that an SF soldier as a masculine icon compares unfavorably to the cowboys of yesteryear in any way. I’m just trying to make the broader point that, thanks to 20 years of non-stop war, there now are a ton of these guys everywhere in every nook and cranny of gun culture.

Furthermore, they have had the world’s best training in how to kill, they’re more seasoned and battle-hardened than any fighting force in a generation, and everyone wants to be like them and to “use what they use” (== the gear motto of modern gun nerds… and yeah I definitely subscribe to that motto and make zero apologies for that), in part because they are deliberately marketed as the living, breathing embodiment of patriotism and American values.

The election and “red vs blue”

As hunting has declined, the gun industry and the NRA have (belatedly and after being dragged into it kicking and screaming by the rank-and-file gun enthusiasts) embraced the “tactical” and begun taking an active hand in shaping Gun Culture 2.0 as a tribal identity, anchored firmly on the “red” side of the “red vs. blue” culture wars.

The NRA used to be more or less non-partisan, at least in terms of its public face, but it has now fully embraced the culture wars and has tied gun rights to Team Red and, more recently, to the person of Donald Trump.

Their allies in this effort to paint support for gun rights as the sole property of one side of the culture war are, ironically, the gun control groups. The effort to turn support for gun rights into a red-only thing is the one place where Bloomberg and the NRA are 100% on the same page and are working in tandem with each other.

And as of November 2016 and the later Parkland massacre, public support for gun control has gotten sucked up into the larger #TheResistance movement as a core as a way to stick it to Trump and his supporters.

None of this was inevitable or desirable, and it took a lot of work from the NRA and Everytown to make it happen. A big part of what we want to do here at OSD is unwind that set of relationships and bring gun rights back out as their own, non-partisan human rights issue.

Addendum: Why I don’t make appeals to my culture anymore when arguing for gun rights

Here’s an exchange that has happened in the past and is happening right now:

That was an argument from the civil rights era, where Alice is a white person and Bob is a person of color.

It’s also an argument that’s now repeating itself with gun rights, where Alice is a “gun culture” participant and Bob is an anti-gunner who’s in a constant state of terror over mass shootings.

You don’t want to be Alice in this exchange, because Alice does not have the moral high ground.

And apart from the tactical disadvantage of her position, she’s just wrong. Gun owners and anti-gun folks drink from the same water fountains and occupy the same public spaces; our kids go to the same schools. In other words, our threat profiles are identical. We’re all in the same, exact boat, we just have different ideas of what “safety” looks and feels like.

So turning guns into a “gun culture” thing for “us over here” vs. “you guys over there” is not only terrible from a pragmatic/tactical standpoint, but it doesn’t even really do justice to underlying issues.

After realizing this, I no longer make appeals to preserving my culture and heritage around guns when debating this issue. The closest I’ll get is talking about the preservation of a heritage of liberty and of an armed citizenry – an armed citizenry that acts as a bulwark against tyranny for everybody, whether they approve of civilian gun ownership or not.


Cars are a useful analogy: response to critics