A very long time ago, from middle school through much of high school, I knew a funny, kind, creative young man. We were best friends. As is the way with these things, later we were not. However because we knew people in common, some time during college I got talking to him at a party. We were discussing gun culture and militarism, which I was not keen on and said so. Then he told me he had a friend in or out of the military or something who would happily beat the shit out of me for saying that…
Sometimes when we discuss gun ownership and gun culture we focus only on the victims of mass shootings, or racist gun violence, or suicide. While these are horrific social problems undeniably tied to gun culture, particularly in the US, we might consider whether they are the central problem itself or a byproduct.
I like guns. I liked target shooting as a child. I only ever owned a pellet gun myself; I think I still have it. But my dad was a member of the gun club. I knew kids who had dads with guns. Even today I love a first-person shooter.
If I were traveling in Polar Bear Provincial Park I would have to get a rifle. I do not think you are allowed to go in without one. If I were a mid-western American crop farmer being raided nightly by hundreds of feral pigs I would need a high-powered rifle with a telescopic infrared night sight. Guns are useful. But for most people, most of the time recreational gun ownership is a luxury.
Right-wing interests trying to weaken the state need levers with which to motivate supporters. Ideally those levers are free. A reason the religious right can agitate its constituents with anti-abortion rhetoric is in part because the abortion status quo has no cost to society. Although the people pulling the lever and the people gulled into being levered will disagree with spittle-flecked adamancy.
Gun rights are the same. Unless you are a biathlete, or a hunter, or exploring a dangerous wilderness, you are not fundamentally being deprived or punished, not being allowed to collect and play with banned firearms. Any collector might feel bad at not being able to collect particular desired weapons, but they will never suffer deprivation because of it. So gun-rights advocacy is a free lever. There is no cost to society in regulation limiting firearms as toys or collector items.
But the guns and rights are not the point. The lever is the point. The conflict between broadly agitated defenders against the infringement of rights to keep and bear arms, and the rest of society serves the people who fan those flames. Social unrest, discord, and conflict, these drive wedges into society preventing the formation of consensus and precluding unified action. If you are trying to weaken government, or empower and enrich a tiny minority of moneyed corporatists and profiteers you need division in broader society. You need anti-abortionists and gun-rights activists.
At the party I was taken aback. A person whom I had been fast friends with for many years had just told me, with some delight, that I should be shit-kicked for thinking of infringing a belligerent’s access to weapons. I did not feel reassured by the implication that it was fine for an angry gun owner to do violence to me for disagreeing, essentially, with whether that was ok or not.
Guns are fine though. They are neutral. But people are not. Gun ownership for worthy purposes is fine. But gun culture is a more dangerous weapon than a gun. It turns the kind to meanness, the reasonable to belligerence, and the gentle to violence. We should consider it a warning when a gun-rights advocate dismisses the École Polytechnique massacre as irrelevant for being 31 years ago. The problem is not that, in Canada at least, this is the continual crisis as it is in the US, yet. The problem is that a cultivated indifference to human decency allows anyone to act as though 15 deaths is less meaningful than a childish insistence on keeping a dangerous toy.
One day, off-duty policemen who were likely also members of the gun club and the Legion came to my house. My dad had been at the Legion, very drunk and spouting off. And I guess he made some threats against, likely my mum, but who knows. His Legion Gun-Club police acquaintances showed up at the house and took his gun. They took it, not because he had ever shot anyone, but because he should not have had a gun. And fine, after that he could not bring his own gun to go drinking at the Gun Club. But his not having it never was, could never be, a serious deprivation. Which is very unlike what would likely have occurred had the gun not been taken away.