Gun Culture

Gun Culture and Anthropology on Culture

Posted by / Culture

This post from July 2012 became the first in a series of linked blog-posts about the need for anthropology to directly address gun control and gun violence. The series includes:

In July 2012, Charles M. Blow’s Mourning and Mulling calls attention to how “there are parts of America where guns are simply part of the culture.” Blow says he grew up and comes from a “gun culture” in northern Louisiana.

One of the themes of Living Anthropologically–from the February 2011 Doubling-Down on Culture to the September 2015 Culture, Culture, Everywhere–is to pay attention to the way culture is used in anthropology and beyond. With that in mind, does Blow’s use of gun culture make sense?

In this case, Blow’s use of gun culture does make sense. First and foremost, talking about gun culture focuses us on how this is a learned behavior and not primordial or natural–it is a pattern of behavior that is historically and geographically specific. People talk about shootings in terms redolent of natural disasters, but this is an important corrective. As Eliot Spitzer put it on Slate (after the Colorado shootings), The Aurora Shooting Wasn’t “Shocking”–It Was Inevitable, Given Our Lax Gun Laws.

But very importantly in talking about gun culture, Charles Blow does not fall into subsequent common culture traps. He does not assume that gun culture is a container that encompasses all of the U.S. Rather, it is different in rural and urban areas, and has changed over time.

Also very importantly, Blow does not talk about gun culture as a way of saying that we need to change gun culture, or as a way of avoiding politics, economics, and law. Rather, Blow recognizes the need for legal change:

One step in the right direction would be to reinstate the assault weapons ban. Even coming from a gun culture, I cannot rationalize the sale of assault weapons to everyday citizens.

In other words, pursuing the grand and amorphous goal of culture change is less important than the more practical and necessary adjustments to legal, political, and economic incentives. And in this case, Blow is not using culture as an explanatory loop to avoid power.

Gun CultureAt a time when culture is everywhere–and often used as euphemism for race or in quite pernicious ways–Blow’s use of gun culture reminds me of another tactic anthropologists can use that may be more effective than simply whistle-blowing: using culture in what might be seen as the wrong or unexpected place. This is one reason I like to assign Elizabeth Chin’s Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture. Many people would expect anthropologists to talk about “black culture” as creating a kind of consumerism, but in fact Chin has relocated the term, cleverly and correctly pointing out that these are black kids entering an overarching sphere of “consumer culture” which structures the interaction. (And interestingly, the fortunes of Chin’s fieldsite were shaped by the rise and decline of the Winchester Repeating Arms factory.)

Raised in northwestern Montana, I too come from gun culture, and like Charles Blow, “while I hesitate to issue blanket condemnations about gun ownership–my upbringing simply doesn’t support that–common sense would seem to dictate that it is prudent and wise to consider the place of guns in modern societies.”

This is one place where an anthropological analysis of gun culture can contribute to understanding–and to practical and necessary adjustments to our legal, political and judicial system.

I had originally revisited this earlier “gun culture” post while pondering Newtown and Violence–No Easy Answers from Neuroanthropology; and trying to grade student essays on Elizabeth Chin and the use of the term culture. Disturbingly, Charles Blow’s last published column on the subject before Newtown, The Gun Frenzy, discussed how “President Obama’s election and recent re-election have apparently fueled a gun-buying craze in this country unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times.” Despite the wacko claims of the NRA, “the president has done almost nothing in his first term to restrict gun ownership.”

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