Opinion: Stigmatizing ‘black gun’ culture won’t stop rampage shootings. But it would put firearms back in their proper place as tools that require respect, not idols to worship.
My Uncle Ralph is the person I picture when I think about the typical gun owner in America.
He was raised and lived his adult life in northeastern Pennsylvania. He was a construction man who oversaw the building of gas stations on the byways of rural America. Anyone who has shaken the hand of a working man knows the calloused, muscular grip of my Uncle Ralph.
One summer he taught me, a city boy then living in the outskirts of Philadelphia, how to shoot a .22-caliber rifle – a “plinker,” as they call them. A gun you might use to shoot rabbits and other small game.
The gun wasn’t powerful and had little recoil – the perfect trainer for a know-nothing kid from suburbia – but my first lesson began with a primer on safety:
Always know if your gun is loaded. Never point a gun at anyone. Keep the barrel down. It’s all very vague now, and my greater memory is of his kindness toward me, a boy of 12, who was completely ignorant of the outdoors and real guns.
Through the years I’ve known many gun owners like him, people who respect firearms and treat them as a tool, albeit one that if misused can do serious harm. I’ve known farmers and police officers and hunters and outdoorsmen within the family and beyond whom I trust implicitly with these weapons.
They make me feel good about the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. They are not the gun problem in America. They are the soul of this country, and I think we need them now more than ever.
A breakthrough came after Texas shooting
Of all the ocean of words that spilled out across the internet since a young man with guns killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, one essay among the thousands stands out to me as a breakthrough – an idea that moves us beyond the ocean of words that spilled out after Columbine, Newtown, Las Vegas, Orlando, El Paso, Buffalo.
The writer is David French, a constitutional attorney and religious conservative, who often annoys me with his never-ending critique of the right. There’s no denying American conservativism deserves the regular lashing it gets from a principled conservative like French. American conservatism has grown every bit as decadent as the rest of the country and needs a street cop to set it straight.
French picked up the nightstick.
I just wish he would apply a little more of that nightstick to the left in this country. They’re decadent, too, and unrelenting in their efforts to control their fellow countrymen and trample free expression.
Be that as it will, I respect French and admire his thinking, and was intrigued with the lament he wrote post-Uvalde about the country’s gun culture and how it has grown corrupt.
French sadly acknowledged he could no longer write the same column he wrote four years ago for The Atlantic defending America’s gun culture.
Calling out the cosplay of ‘black gun’ culture
His newer essay published on June 5 on Substack is headlined “Against gun idolatry” and argues that responsible gun culture, such as I saw in my Uncle Ralph, is “under threat”:
“I’m not talking about the threat of gun control. Few cultural and political movements are more successful and politically dominant than America’s gun rights movement.
“… No, the threat to America’s gun culture comes from the gun rights movement itself. The threat is gun idolatry, a form of gun fetish that’s fundamentally aggressive, grotesquely irresponsible, and potentially destabilizing to American democracy. And it’s become so prevalent that I would not – I could not – write the same piece for The Atlantic again.”
French described the “tactical” or “black-gun” lifestyle that has become ever present at gun shows and shops, in which “civilians intentionally equip themselves in gear designed for the ‘daily gunfight.’ It’s a form of elaborate special forces cosplay, except the weapons (and sometimes the body armor) are very real.’ ”
Many of the guns made to look like military assault weapons are black, thus the expression.
Another smart conservative, Charles C. W. Cooke at National Review Online, pushed back, pointing out that everything French describes today in gun culture was present four years ago when he wrote his Atlantic essay.
That’s no doubt true, but the value in French’s latest gun essay are the words he gives us to describe why “black-gun” culture is wrong and why it is such a break from the more sober and restrained gun culture that once suffused American life, “Field and Stream” and the National Rifle Association.
Campaign ad is the epitome of what’s wrong
I’ve seen a lot of black-gun culture over the years, but a group that stands out is the half-dozen men outfitted in combat fatigues, body armor and assault-style weapons at a 2017 Trump rally and counterprotest in downtown Phoenix. I tried to interview them. They didn’t want to talk. They just stood there demanding a lot of attention from Phoenix Police, who probably would have rather used their officers to perform more conventional crowd control.
This past weekend brought another example: A campaign ad by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Greitens of Missouri. In it, Greitens, carrying a long gun and wearing a holster, racks his rifle and says, “I’m Eric Greitens, Navy SEAL, and today, we’re going RINO hunting.” He then leads a team of uniformed commandos as they bust open a door and storm into a house.
“Join the MAGA crew,” says Greitens. “Get a RINO hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit and it doesn’t expire until we save our country.”
Somewhere in the ranks of the Navy SEALS there’s an officer watching that ad and thinking, “Act like you’ve been there before.”
Greitens is a boy with a toy pretending to be tough. His cosplay is as much an affront to the military as it is to mature gun culture. Responsible gun owners know a firearm is not a toy or an accessory to your army-man costume.
They use guns for defiance, not defense
French describes why such garish gunplay is wrong and cuts against the traditions of gun culture:
“It’s displayed not as a matter of defense but rather as an open act of defiance. It’s meant to make people uncomfortable. It’s meant to make them feel unsafe. This transition from defense to defiance can destabilize our democracy. The concept of self-defense is rooted in a high view of human life.
“… Defiance is different. It’s rooted in the will to power. It is designed to implant fear, not to save lives but to exert control. It contradicts a core value of a classically-liberal society, that change comes through courts and the ballot box, not through intimidation and fear. It’s even more disturbing to see that spirit of armed defiance so closely correlated with the religious right. The decision of Christians to provoke their fellow citizens into feeling palpable, physical fear of armed violence is deliberately malicious and cruel.”
McConaughey calls for background checks, red flag laws at White House
Actor Matthew McConaughey, a native of Uvalde, Texas, pleaded with lawmakers to end gun violence during the White House briefing.
Anastasiia Riddle, Associated Press
On a parallel track after Uvalde was screen actor Matthew McConaughey, whose speech at the White House elicited eye rolls from my fellow conservatives given his ties to Hollywood. But McConaughey had standing to speak on the issue. He grew up in Uvalde and understands Texas gun culture. “Uvalde is where I learned responsible gun ownership,” he said.
In the face of such carnage, we can’t do nothing, he said. “Responsible gun owners are fed up with the Second Amendment being abused and hijacked by some deranged individuals.”
“… we’ve got to look in the mirror, lead with humility, and acknowledge the values that are inherent to but also above politics. We’ve got to make choices, make stands, embrace new ideas, and preserve the traditions that can create true – true progress for the next generation.
“… So where do we start? We start by making the right choices on the issue that is in front of us today. We start by making laws that save innocent lives and don’t infringe on our Second Amendment rights.”
Responsible gun owners must reject gun idolatry
There is no cure-all for the gun problem in America. It’s well understood by now that the gun problem is many problems that require many different solutions.
One problem we can begin working on today is the worship of weapons that has become too prominent in our society. We need to go back and imbue gun ownership with a seriousness worthy of gun rights.
Guns are an important tool fundamental to our self-protection, but with that comes responsibility and a sober understanding that guns aren’t playthings. They are extremely dangerous tools that should never be casually displayed in a fun or threatening manner. We don’t have a Second Amendment so we can entertain ourselves.
We need responsible gun owners of all political stripes to call out and stigmatize those who irresponsibly use these weapons. Call out the campaign ads and the gun ads and the movies that glorify guns; call out the manufacturers who build rifles to look like a John Rambo’s rapid-fire mega-weapon.
Will it stop rampage shootings? No. But it will put firearms back in their proper place as a tool that requires respect, utmost caution and a little bit of humility.
Phil Boas is an editorial columnist for The Arizona Republic. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.