The U.S. Senate’s rejection of a measure mandating extended background checks for gun purchases two weeks ago becomes all the more strange when the events are viewed from the United Kingdom, which since the Dunblane school massacre in 1996 has had on its books a law criminalising private possession of most handguns with a caliber of .22 or above. It grows stranger when you consider that the measure had the support of a wide majority of Americans. This was not the case, for instance, with the Affordable Care Act of 2010, a bill which nonetheless narrowly passed Congress. “America’s politics,” a British friend told me understatedly, “are weird.” That is certainly true, but weirdness does not necessarily imply inexplicability. What happened?
On the one hand the law’s failure is the result of structural issues that seem unlikely to be resolved soon. Chief among these is the ineradicable influence of the National Rifle Association, which mobilised supporters to pressure Democratic senators in Republican-leaning states into voting against the bill. On the other hand, there are underlying reasons that explain why gun-rights proponents were able to mobilise support in the first place. These have to do with cultural resentments felt by a certain number of Americans, the symbolic place guns occupy in these Americans’ worldviews, and the way Republican politicians played on this complex to defeat legislation.
Guns, like country music, cowboy boots, and bourbon, have for the past forty years enjoyed a cultural cachet in America that is removed from any practical uses to which they might be put. They have become symbols of Southern and Western self-sufficiency and toughness, an easy way for consumers from particular regions in a market economy to flaunt a middle finger to authority. Buy a gun, and you are an independent man. In the 1970s, when my dad was friends with a number of Southerners living in the North, he remembers them often getting drunk, taking out their rifles, going to a nearby forest and firing them into the air while singing “Dixie”. Then they would put away the firearms, go to a bar, and my dad would be the one who ended up arguing with the bartender if they got overcharged. For these people guns represent a fairly harmless method of emotional release; a way to strike a pose of manliness in a society that was adapting (or not) to the feminist movement; and a way to celebrate a disappearing Southern agrarian culture that has always exercised a strong hold over the American popular imagination.
In and of itself, this is not particularly meaningful, but when social symbols become conflated with the way a modern state is governed—when, in other words, culture becomes politicised—nostalgia can have consequences. And, indeed, guns are a symbol that the modern Republican Party has avidly turned to its rhetorical advantage as a part of its anti-government platform: “Those Washington bureaucrats might be able to mandate the size of light-bulbs you buy, but at least they cannot take away your constitutional right to self-defense!” This emotional resonance about guns appears to have only solidified over the past ten years; as the nation is changing demographically and weathering an economic slump, citizens feel they have less and less control over their lives. To conjure up the spectre of gun control, then, is to tap into a constellation of resentments which are given some rational validity by constitutional arguments, but which extend far deeper and broader: from anger at officious East Coast bureaucrats and self-righteous TV personalities to fear over declining wages in the South and Midwest to bitterness about affirmative action.
These were the sorts of emotions that were appealed to over the past four months. It was instructive, if depressing, to witness this process play out with leaden predictability, as the actual issues at play were buried beneath the weight of rhetorical poses and irritations. Sometimes the Democrats seemed to be working to ensure their own defeat. For instance, the NRA was given the unexpected gift of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who avidly assumed the role of leading gun control spokesperson; this predictably inflamed people, annoyed as they were at being lectured by a billionaire whose regulatory pretensions extend to New Yorkers’ soda intake. (“Tell your senator to listen to America’s police instead of listening to Obama and Bloomberg”, the NRA ads urged.) Even without help, though, conservatives in Congress managed to manipulate the issue to their own advantage. Most effective in this regard was Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who framed his anti-gun control argument in the dichotomous no-nonsense language that has become idiomatic for Republican politicians over the past twenty years: “My biggest concern with the legislation, the Democrat legislation on the floor, is it doesn’t address the problem. It doesn’t target violent criminals. Instead, what it does is, it targets law-abiding citizens”.
This assertion was interesting, amounting as it did to a fundamental misreading of the reason that Americans were talking about gun laws in the first place: the Newtown massacre. This event showed that those “law-abiding citizens” could turn into dangerous criminals without much notice. The shooter in that case, Adam Lanza, was a mentally disturbed young man from a middle class background whose psychological problems were noticed but unreported. A similar narrative, tellingly, could be resurrected in many similar cases over the past fifteen years. But these facts had become obscured beneath the familiar, culturally loaded complaints about infringing on the rights of “law-abiding citizens,” particularly, as some of Cruz’s colleagues revealingly emphasised, those from rural areas.
There are more basic rights to be considered than those which may or may not protect law-abiding gun owners in rural areas from extended background checks. These rights include those of the 27 Newtown victims, and of the countless numbers of Americans whom more stringent checks might have helped keep safe in the future. Since 1996, Britons have suffered one gun rampage, while Americans have endured more than ten. At this point, it is time for Republicans to find another, less dangerous issue to use to channel their base’s frustrations.