Update: This post from 2012, analyzing Charles Blow’s use of the term “gun culture,” began a blogging series on anthropology, gun control, gun reform, and gun violence. For the latest, see Guns & Anthropology. A complete set of links is available at the end of this post. For a wonderful recent reflective take on the idea of “gun culture,” see Joe Henderson’s Gun Cultures Reflect Broader Changes in American Society. In May 2018, Joe Henderson’s contribution was re-posted on Somatosphere to kick off a series Notes on guns and violence.
Anthropology & Gun Culture
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:
- #ParklandStudentsSpeak – Anthropology for a Safer World updates the theme for February 2018 and provides a brief bibliography on anthropology and guns
- The Gun Control Podcast – Bringing Sanity to Gun Violence (December 2015) attempted to summarize this issue as mass shootings continued.
- Shoddy Anthropology & Gun Control: Human Nature, Culture, History (March 2013) underscored how “shoddy anthropology” contributed to gun control inertia.
- Anthropology, Gun Reform, American Anthropological Association (January 2013) followed on the December 2012 round-up, thanking the American Anthropological Association for a statement on gun violence.
- Anthropology and Gun Violence: New Guns or New Gun Control? (December 31, 2012) was an account of how the Newtown massacre caused more gun buying than gun control.
- Gun Violence Anthropology: AAA and the NRA (December 26, 2012) was a round-up of anthropologists writing on gun control after Newtown. I also pleaded for a gun violence statement from the American Anthropological Association.
- Semi-Automatic Anthropology: Yes, the guns really do matter (December 19, 2012) revisited the post on Gun Culture, making the case that this was a simple issue for anthropologists to address.
- Semi-Automatic Weapons Buyback – The Future of Gun Reform (December 18, 2012) attempted to urge a forward-looking policy in what seemed to be a moment of potential political change.
To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Gun Culture and Gun Control: Lessons from Anthropology.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/gun-culture-anthropology/. First posted 12 July 2012. Revised 16 February 2018.
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