America Has a Culture Problem, Not a Gun Problem

Let me say this up front: this is not a post about gun control. I’m not taking a stand for or against the Second Amendment. I am neither advocating for unrestricted access to all the guns, all the time, nor am I saying that every gun in the United States should be confiscated. Partisans will undoubtedly look at what I’m about to say and run it through their own filters and lenses, or just make assumptions about what I’ve written here without reading it. Please take a closer look. The problem, in my opinion, runs much deeper. America has a culture problem, not a gun problem.

Acceptance of a Broken Status Quo

My impetus for writing this was the viral image of the recent Kent State graduate with an AR-10 slung over her back. It’s been deconstructed in a number of different ways, from cheering her on for defending her rights to invoking the memory of the 1970 campus shootings by the National Guard to the inevitable death threats she’s received. I’m parsing this in a completely different way.

Let’s start with the basic assumptions she’s made about her right to defend herself. It begins with the notion that, at some point, she will be required to defend herself. We know the statistics on campus rape. There’s a mass shooting every week or so. Crime is a thing that exists. The notion that the solution is to take up arms one’s own self is a de facto acceptance of these things. It’s the way things are, it’s how things are going to be in the near future, this is just the way the world works. There is no expectation that anything is going to change, that things will get better, so be prepared for the absolute worst-case scenario.

This is sad and frightening.

Lack of Trust in Authority

“When seconds count, police can be there in minutes.” That’s what a friend of mine who was always armed used to tell me when I lived in New Mexico. He equated owning guns to having fire extinguishers. It’s great that the fire department will show up to help keep your house from burning down, but there are steps that you can take to keep things from getting out of hand.

It seems reasonable on the surface, but I need to point something out. In the US every apartment I lived in had a fire extinguisher. Almost every place where I lived on an upper floor had a fire escape. You know what we don’t have here in Finland? Fire extinguishers and fire escapes. Seriously. Okay, there’s a fire extinguisher for the whole building to share, down on the ground floor. You know what else we don’t have a lot of in Finland? Fires.

Without going into great detail — I have too many points to cover in this post already — our building isn’t made of flammable materials. The kitchen is ridiculously safe. Even if something caused a fire, the solid concrete building isn’t going up. To get back to the point, I currenty live within a society that has largely eliminated the need for these things. There’s still a fire department. There’s also insurance to help replace and stuff you lose, and a social safety net to help you acquire new housing if needed.

But I digress. What my friend was alluding to is that you can’t rely on the police to solve your problems. You shouldn’t rely on them. In addition to taking personal responsibility, you can’t trust authority to have your best interests in mind. All I can do is look around my apartment, and see the effects of regulations and building codes and quality control, and realize that authority wielded with public safety in mind is why I don’t need a fire extinguisher.

Lack of Respect for Expertise

Making this a separate point from the one above might be splitting hairs, but I think it deserves to be called out on its own. In addition to a lack of trust in authority, Americans believe that they are best served by making their own decisions. If a person feels that the best way to ensure their safety is to buy a gun, then they will buy a gun. Rather than working with their local school to improve public education, they put their kids in private schools or charter schools or home school them. There’s a lot of consumerism packed in there, an attitude of “the customer is always right” embedded in that thinking. It comes from not trusting or believing experts.

I could cite statistics refuting the wisdom of the Kent State graduate’s reasons for carrying a weapon. Okay, let’s be honest, she was making a statement. An AR-10 isn’t what she’d be carrying every day for self-protection. Assume she normally carries a pistol in her purse, with all of the proper training and permits necessary to do so legally and responsibly. There are other, more effective ways of avoiding campus rape, not becoming a victim of crime, and surviving a mass shooting. There’s data, compiled by people who know what they’re talking about. She is rejecting those measures. Those experts do not know better than she does what is best for her.

Again, I have to compare and contrast my experiences in the US with life in Europe. People argue politics here, they fight over policing policies, they challenge the conclusions and recommendations of experts. But they don’t mistake their opinions for facts. They don’t elevate their personal desires over community needs. There’s no push to completely eradicate diversity of thought because it doesn’t fit with their ideology. The concept is that debate tempers good ideas and makes them stronger, and culls the bad ideas out of the mix. For that you need expertise, not emotional outbursts and consumerist posturing.

Addressing Symptoms, Not Root Causes

If you carry a gun to fend off a rapist, you’re not dealing with why rapists exist. You aren’t addressing toxic masculinity, male privilege, mental health issues, even things like proper lighting in public places at night or the lack of police or security patrols isnareas that are statistically dangerous. It’s solving your problem, but it does nothing to address the bigger issues.

The same can be said of mass shootings. Is it mental illness, or terrorism, or the ease with which people can get ahold of firearms? It doesn’t matter, because if the solution is to arm yourself, that’s not doing anything to ease the underlying cause. If you think it’s about mental illness, but don’t fight to make sure people have better mental health care, you’re ignoring the root cause. If you think it’s terrorism but you’re not looking into why people become radicalized and turn to violence, you’re ignoring the root cause. When crime and gang violence and related issues are your concern but you don’t do anything to help address socioeconomic issues, poverty, drug use, systemic racism, and other issues the lead people into a life of crime, you’re ignoring the root cause.

Assuming Who Is and Isn’t Worthy

America doesn’t have a justice system, it has a revenge system. It is reactive, not proactive. There are few functional mechanisms to help ensure that citizens have access to food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care. Cry socialism all you want. I live in a very capitalist/consumerist country that also has all of those things. Social safety nets, public schools, free university and polytechnic, affordable physical and mental care. I also live in a country with one of the highest rates of private gun ownership in the world. There are gun control laws, yes. But there is also a marked reduction in the circumstances that lead people to engage in gun violence. It’s not because everyone is packing, because they’re not.

The assumption is that not every citizen in the United States is deserving of those essentials. The rates of hunger are staggering. That food banks even exist is a weird notion. Families and military veterans are homeless in shameful numbers. You only get higher education or vocational training in America if you can pay for it or are willing to go deep into student loan debt. People die from preventable diseases and treatable illnesses, and declare bankruptcy because of medical bills. And people wonder why the economy has issues.

What people are deserving of is a bullet. They deserve to be roughed up by law enforcement. Rights? Why should undesirables have rights? Lock them up! Kick them out! With the increasing marginalization and dehumanization of various groups — pick one, and you-know-who has probably mocked them at a rally, creating an atmosphere of permissiveness for bigotry — it becomes easy to deny people human rights, and dignity, and basic respect.

This goes back to not addressing root causes, because when you buy a gun for defense, you’re not looking at the bigger picture. You’re not looking a potential assailants as people. There’s a presumption that they’re not worthy, so they’re ignored until they do something wrong. Then they get shot, by an armed citizen or the police. No rule of law or due process for them. Because of the assumption that they’re not deserving of those things.

A Personal, Not Societal, Solution

Look, I understand. The world is a mess. I have an anxiety disorder, so I know how overwhelming and frightening things are. Individually, this stuff is disheartening. Taken all together, it feels hopeless. It’s easy to feel discouraged. It’s also easy to pick up a gun and feel instantly empowered. That fixes things for you, temporarily. You feel safer. It doesn’t solve the larger problems. Those come from the culture.

The acceptance of the broken status quo, the deeply-rooted and often justified lack of trust for authority, the lack of respect for expertise, it all fits together. Addressing symptoms because you don’t have the knowledge, the resources, the energy, or frankly the power to tackle the root causes is understandable. Bigotry and exclusion and deciding who is deserving or not is equally quick-and-dirty for the purposes of dealing with your own safety and self-esteem. None of this will make the world better. This mindset isn’t going to fix the problems.

We don’t need posturing or photo ops. What we need is for things to actually change. Unless something happens soon, though, and happens relatively quickly, it may already be too late. The culture has effectively thrown up its hands and surrendered. We yield to the terrible state of current reality.

2 thoughts on “America Has a Culture Problem, Not a Gun Problem

  1. Excellent analysis, Berin.

    Fix problems, not blame. It’s what I say to my students in a computer ethics class that I teach. When things go wrong, find out how and why, then work out how to prevent that particular problem happening again,

    The aircraft industry is a good example – even if the result of an air crash investigation is that the crash was due to pilot error, they seek ways to make it harder for pilots to make that particular error rather than pointing fingers at the poor pilot (who may well not be around to defend himself anyway). Because they do that, every investigation gets genuine cooperation from everyone involved, because they don’t have to cover their own backsides when giving evidence.

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