Gun Culture

Gun Culture & Anthropology on Culture

by Jason Antrosio

Update 15 June 2017: This post from 2012, reflecting on Charles Blow’s use of the term “gun culture,” began a blogging series on anthropology, gun control, gun reform, and gun violence. A complete set of links is available at the end of this post. Today Charles Blow wrote Rhetoric and Bullets, an important continuation and contribution in the wake of mass shootings. “This country has a violent culture, is full of guns, and our federal lawmakers . . . are loath to even moderately regulate gun access.”

In July 2012, Charles M. Blow wrote Mourning and Mulling. Blow called attention to how “there are parts of America where guns are simply part of the culture.” Blow grew up in a “gun culture” in northern Louisiana.

For Living Anthropologically, I try to pay attention to the way the term culture is used in anthropology and beyond. I began this theme in the 2011 Doubling-Down on Culture. The theme carries through to the 2015 Culture, Culture, Everywhere. 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. Gun culture is a pattern of behavior that is historically and geographically specific. People talk about shootings in terms redolent of natural disasters, but “gun culture” provides an important corrective. As Eliot Spitzer put it (after the Colorado shootings), The Aurora Shooting Wasn’t “Shocking”–It Was Inevitable, Given Our Lax Gun Laws.

Avoiding Gun Culture Traps

Very importantly in talking about gun culture, Charles Blow avoids subsequent common culture traps. He does not assume that gun culture is a container that encompasses all of the United States. Rather, gun culture is different in rural and urban areas. Gun culture changes over time.

Also very importantly, Blow does not talk about gun culture as a way of saying that we need to change gun culture. He is not trying to avoid 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.

Using Culture in Unexpected Places

Ideas of culture are now everywhere. People often use culture as a euphemism for race or in quite pernicious ways. In these times, Charles Blow’s use of gun culture reminds me of another tactic anthropologists can employ that may be more effective than simply whistle-blowing. Anthropologists can use culture in what might be seen as wrong or unexpected places.

This is one reason I like to assign Elizabeth Chin’s Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture. Many people expect anthropologists to talk about “black culture” as creating a kind of consumerism. But Chin relocates the term to the end of the title. Chin cleverly and correctly points 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. See Cultural Anthropology 2016 for using Chin’s book.)

Raised in northwestern Montana, I too come from gun culture. 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 arena where an anthropological analysis of gun culture can contribute to understanding. Anthropology can also contribute to practical and necessary adjustments to our legal, political and judicial system.

Gun Culture Postscript

I originally revisited this “gun culture” post in 2012. I was pondering Newtown and Violence–No Easy Answers Neuroanthropology while 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, President Obama “has done almost nothing in his first term to restrict gun ownership.”

Gun Control Series

This post was 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:




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  • Matthew Bradley

    I don’t know how a ban on so-called ‘assault weapons’ would have made much difference in the Aurora shooting. It is a frightening but imprecise term. Yes, the AR-15 model has at various points fallen within that category, but there were and are other models with not-so-dissimilar capabilities available.

    • Hi Matthew, thank you for weighing in here. You may be correct, but I don’t think reinstating a ban that was once in place would be a bad place to start. It’s probably in some way true that one can always argue against legal measures in terms of not being able to prevent or change a particular outcome. However, with at least 10,000 gun murders in the U.S. every year, it seems appropriate to consider some reduction measures, even if imperfect.

      • Steven LaPidus

        Hello, most people who enter gun control debate with percentages and calls for gun bans forget where the original right came from. The Brits first act against us was the attack on our weapons store in Concord because they knew whoever controlled those weapons would win the early conflict. The Founders made sure that the citizens would have the rights to own and possess their weapons in case of the need to be called up. This helped to protect the early citizens across the Country up until England attacked us again in the 1812 war. This began to change back to the formation of the town armories where the local militias weapons were stored which is still in use to this day in the form of the National Guard. But as the Nation grew the normalcy of owning a weapon became expected and the ownership of weapons kept potential attacks from Mexico and Canada at bay. Now the enemies are within in the form of street gangs and criminal so we still need the weapons in the home. Any person who has been in the military has been taught that the key to winning a battle is as in the words of Patton making the other sob die for his Country by having the better weapons. If you believe that a criminal or multiple criminals are going to break into your home with a large weapon you need to take the high ground and have a large automatic weapon so that one of you can defend against multiples of them. This was the basis for the gattling gun to the AR15.

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  • Bjarne Johannesen

    You should learn about gun-laws in the rest of the western World. I`m glad i live in Denmark…. We are not alowed to have a weapon, unless you have a special permit

  • Bjarne Johannesen

    You Americans are fucking naive. You only think about yourselwes

  • Bjarne Johannesen

    You are 310.200.000 People with 290.000.000.guns = 89,9 % in USA has a gun
    We are 5.600.000 people with 7100 guns = 3,9 % in Denmark has a gun
    Where would you feel secure

    • Hi Bjarne, greetings from the U.S.A. to Denmark. I’m all for thinking about the particularities of being “American” and not universalizing the experience–see my What is American Anthropology – 4 July 2012–but your tone comes off as more than a bit hostile. Plenty of us do think about laws and the like in the rest of the world. However, as others have pointed out, Canada seems to have a lot of guns without the same percentage of homicides. And in a post on The Ecology of Gun Violence in America, Eric Michael Johnson writes that the root cause may be the social inequality.

      I do take your point, but even I have a bit of bristling at your tone.

      • Bjarne Johannesen

        Hi Jason. Sorry for my vocabulary the other day. I had a few beers to much. I have been to USA severel times(7). Like some things, hate other things. Ever been to Europe??

        • Hi Bjarne,
          Happy to be your friend on Facebook, and if looking for more Facebook anthropology, see my catalog of anthropology blogs, Facebook Anthropology.

          As you might guess from my surname, my paternal grandparents hailed from northwestern Italy. I have traveled a bit in Europe, but that was too long ago. Would love to return!
          Cheers,
          Jason

      • Bjarne Johannesen

        By the way, have just asked for your friendship on facebook. That might open for a dialog(and my English needs training(a lot))

  • Amanda

    Thanks for providing an anthropological perspective! It’s always refreshing to see anthropological knowledge applied to policy and current issues/events.

    • Hi Amanda, thank you! I’m not sure how much of this comes from an anthropological perspective or just basic human decency, but it does seem many of the common arguments against meaningful gun control are rooted in assumptions that can be anthropologically debunked–the idea of gun culture, or that violence is part of human nature, and so forth. Thanks again, Jason

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