US & Canada

Viewpoint: America's gun control impasse

A young boy in a field aims a rifle
Image caption For many in rural America, gun ownership, hunting and the defence of property seems a basic need and right

The shooting tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, has reignited the debate over gun rights in America. But, argues Rod Dreher, senior editor at The American Conservative, the arguments on both sides say little, and accomplish even less.

Every time we Americans have an episode of spectacular gun violence, you can count on hotheads taking their standard culture-war battle positions and shooting their mouths off before the victims' blood is even dry.

Louie Gohmert, a particularly troglodytic Republican Congressman from Texas, blamed "ongoing attacks on Judaeo-Christian beliefs" for the mass murder in Aurora, Colorado.

Without waiting to hear details of the crime, liberal New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the murders make the case for more gun control.

The ABC News journalist Brian Ross broadcast a shockingly irresponsible, and inaccurate, story implicating a Colorado Tea Party member with the same last name as the alleged killer. (ABC later apologised)

None of it matters. America will have a national media fit over gun violence, as we always do, and then carry on as we always have. The pattern never fails.

I wish it would, for once. Both sides in the US gun debate are heavily committed to absolutist positions that make little sense.

Predictable, tedious debate

The anti-gun side holds to a dogmatic belief that stricter gun control would prevent these kinds of killings. Norway has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world. Those laws did not stop Anders Breivik from killing last summer.

Evil or insane people will always find a way around the laws. The idea that stronger anti-gun laws would meaningfully discourage thugs in the US inner cities from acquiring and using weapons is risible.

Besides, sometimes legally armed citizens can do real public good. Last week, an elderly Florida man shot and wounded two armed men as they tried to escape a cafe they had just robbed. The security camera video has gone viral, and the old man, Samuel Williams, has quite rightly become a folk hero.

People on the pro-gun side, however, tend to carry on like fire-breathing fundamentalists at a tent revival. They meet any proposal to restrict weaponry or ammunition, no matter how sensible, as an attempt to give a toehold to the devil.

"Why, if we outlaw so-called 'cop killer' bullets that have the capability to penetrate police armour, what's to stop the government from confiscating everyone's guns, just like Hitler did!"

The noisy public debate after events like this is predictable, tedious and unenlightening.

As someone who grew up in a rural gun culture, but who has lived most of my life in big cities, I've seen how both sides invest guns with an almost religious meaning.

In turn, I've seen how these highly emotional judgements distort our collective ability to develop a sensible and realistic attitude toward guns and gun violence.

Two cultures of fear

In the countryside of south Louisiana, nearly everyone has guns. Many people hunt, and if you don't hunt, it's still completely normal to have at least one gun in the house.

You need it for personal security - the police can't come soon if you live far out of town - and for shooting poisonous snakes and coyotes threatening your farm animals.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionAurora Police Chief Dan Oates: "Mr Holmes was apprehended outside... with three weapons"

I bought my first gun from Rinaudo's Hardware when I was 10 years old. My father took me into the store with all my savings in an empty bread crumb can. I gave the clerk $51; he gave me a 20-gauge shotgun.

Dad, an avid hunter who had a number of rifles and shotguns, taught me how to shoot. He taught me about gun safety, too, as did the fathers of all my friends who hunted.

There was in our culture a fear of guns - fear in the Biblical sense of intense respect for their power. Almost everyone treated guns with great care; those few men in our community who fetishised guns were commonly thought to be poseurs and closet cowards.

My wife grew up in Dallas, and, as is typical for urbanites, also developed a fear of guns. But hers is the more conventional kind: near-terror at the sight or thought of them. Because few if any people in her urban life hunted or had real need for guns, she associated them with criminals. Still does.

As someone who has lived in both town and country, I understand both sides. A 2011 poll by the non-partisan Pew Research Center found that one's race and locality had a lot to do with one's stance on gun control.

Whites are far more likely to oppose gun control than blacks and Hispanics, who suffer disproportionately from gun violence. Coastal America, where the biggest cities are, favour gun control more than the South and the Midwest, which are more rural. If you live in a big city, you're far more likely to favour gun control. The opposite obtains in the country, while suburbia is split down the middle.

These opinions reflect people's everyday experiences with guns and the culture of guns. Both may be right, and both may be wrong in equal measure. The issue is highly complex, not least because guns are inextricably woven into the American psyche, given that the US was a frontier nation for much of its history.

Yet as with so much in contemporary American politics, the gun control issue is not about reason and dispassionate analysis of the facts. It's about emotional assertion and rhetorical bullying amid an atmosphere of mutual incomprehension.

One nation, in denial

We Americans live in a nation that prizes individual liberty and valourises violence in our popular culture. This complicates the issue in ways that defy a clear drawing of liberal and conservative lines.

Liberals, for example, often defend grotesque violence in film and hip-hop music, denying that it has anything to do with gun crime, and claiming that tolerating it is the price one pays for First Amendment freedom of expression.

Civil libertarians object to stop-and-frisk laws that get illegal weapons off the streets.

For their part, conservatives idolise the Second Amendment guarantee of gun rights, but rarely consider what that liberty does to peaceable poor people trapped in inner cities ravaged by armed young thugs.

Look at this music video by a Baton Rouge rapper, Lil Boosie, recently acquitted of murder. Thirty-five miles from where I live in bucolic splendour, gun-toting men like those celebrated in this video terrorise inner-city Baton Rougeans. The murder rate there - mostly young black men killing each other - is one of America's highest.

Americans seem incapable of honest debate among ourselves about what our permissive gun laws do - and do not - have to do with the chronic bloodletting.

If our ideological hardness keeps us from talking straight about gun violence, how can we ever make any real progress on reducing it?

Rod Dreher is senior editor at The American Conservative