America has a problem with guns. This is certainly not news, but at the moment it is once again newsworthy. I have mentioned my position on guns here before (see also comments). More recently, I remarked elsewhere with regard to the poor political efficacy of anthropology that the US is struggling with gun control in a profoundly disturbing way. Meanwhile, it feels as if anthropologists have only just scratched the surface on this deadly issue, throwing their hands up and demanding more research and less action (see AAA Statement on Gun Violence). Notable exceptions to this trend include efforts by Jason Antrosio at Living Anthropologically and some coverage over at Savage Minds.
I still believe that the AAA's own response was weak and has not helped enough to bring together a cohesive stance on guns on the part of anthropologists. The discussion in the comments section on Ryan Anderson's Newtown post at Savage Minds covers a broader spectrum of responses to the subject of what anthropologists can/should do and was, on the whole, much more divided and contentious. This no doubt more accurately represent how anthropologists feel about, and react to, the gun debate and our roles in it than the brief AAA statement might suggest.
Repeated in several comments was the now standard call for more ethnography about the culture of gun owners and/or gun-loving Americans in order to better understand and inform the gun control debates. Conversely, Jason Antrosio counters that we're missing the point by getting bogged down in what amounts to an overdue and absurd "national conversation" about guns:
On this issue the only conversation we need to have is how to best reduce and ban the semi-automatic weaponry, following examples set by Australia or Britain. That conversation might include how to best reach people who have a knee-jerk negative reaction to “gun control,” but a conversation about gun control itself is pointless. One reason anthropologists might be involved in these issues is that many so-called Second Amendment arguments invoke a very bad anthropology, with assumptions about human nature, culture, and history which should be challenged.Similarly, commenter Steven Tran-Creque posed a very pertinent question that has in part inspired this post: "How did we get to the point where even anthropologists are discussing gun control policy in such insipid terms?"
Anthropologists and Gun Politics
In the latest issue of Anthropology Today, Hugh Gusterson (who has previously drawn attention to the irony of the uniquely American approach to guns; see Arming Ourselves to Death) similarly takes issue with anthropology's seeming inability to adequately address the gun issue:
‘Firearms remain largely at the margin of the ethnographic lens’ […] is surely an understated characterization of anthropology’s remarkable indifference to one of the leading sources of mayhem and suffering in the contemporary United States. Those firearms that anthropologists hardly ever write about kill roughly 30,000 Americans every year. Of these deaths approximately 17,000 are suicides, 12,000 are homicides, and 1,000 are accidents. According to a recent New York Times column, ‘more Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined’.
He highlights what little anthropology has been produced on guns thus far and how the tone oddly fits in with the position of the NRA and the gun lobby. The NRA itself is a facet of this debate that anthropologists have been slow to address, perhaps for fear of getting "too political", something we should really stop being afraid of:
Rather than critique the NRA, the little that had been written by anthropologists about guns in America before the Newtown massacre tended to align quite closely with the NRA narrative that gun owners should be understood as patriotic citizens who ‘believed that gun ownership was necessary for a country to truly be free’ (Doukas 2010). This might seem surprising in view of the liberal politics of most American anthropologists, but it is a classic example of a relativizing liberal anthropology seeking to discomfit readers by making the strange familiar. Abigail Cohn (2004) and Dimitra Doukas (2010) are symbolic anthropologists who studied the culture of gun owners in California and upstate New York – the kind of small-town Americans about whom Barack Obama famously (and dismissively) said, ‘they cling to their guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them’. By contrast, Cohn and Doukas ask us to see the sense and power of a social world within which owning a gun is viewed as a rite of passage to adulthood, the consummation of masculine power, and as an exercise of a free citizen’s responsibility to ensure that Americans are armed against a possibly tyrannical government. Cohn also emphasizes the aesthetic appeal of weaponry within this world, quoting one man who said, ‘I’m happy just to hold a gun in my hands… it’s a work of art, and thing of beauty… I would rather fondle a fine firearm than I would a naked woman’ (Cohn 2004:12).
This type of storytelling certainly offers an anthropological look into the sad reality of gun ownership in America. Anthropologists and ethnographers are especially apt at communicating the intricacies of localized social and cultural values, which is our edge as a discipline over, say, historical, legal, political or sociological accounts of gun ownership, violence, and public safety. It seems like the best use of our skills to shed more light on the human stories behind gun violence, hence all the calls for more and better research. Yet romanticized analyses of guns that promote sympathy over criticism offer little to advance any meaningful understanding of the broader realities of America's lethal obsession with firearms. At this point, they are also – as implied in Jason Antrosio's comment quoted above – too little and too late.
While such reports from behind ideological enemy lines are certainly useful and interesting, in the context of what is becoming a national epidemic of gun violence, anthropology surely has more to contribute to the gun control debate than a warmed-over rehash of NRA talking points legitimated by our discipline’s historic legacy of cultural relativism. A more critically edged anthropological enquiry would juxtapose such ethnographic explorations of gun owners with an investigation of the political economy of American guns, and it would probe the relationship to guns of other constituencies as well as the NRA’s base.
Without the relevant context and an appropriately critical approach, we end up not only humanizing gun ownership, but also risk supporting it, inadvertently colluding with the gun lobby, and doing little to further the preservation of human life.
Relevant anthropology now
The ownership of deadly weapons is something that affects us all (even non-Americans) including all the other peoples we work with around the world. This is all happening on a global stage. So, if we can't avoid the topic any longer and we can't approach it with distanced and disinterested relativism, what else is there to do? On an individual basis, we can at least be more open and vocal about our own perspective as political beings in a society whose troubles are at least as profound as those that pad out the pages of our monographs. In my opinion, a suitable reaction from an anthropologist is to at least give the issue the attention it deserves and stop worrying in this instance about theorizing, reflexivity, and whether or not it is our place to discuss such things. I was surprised not to see more blog posts and calls for action in my anthro feeds; no suggestions for outreach; no conferences planned; no activism close to the kind we display in a fight for open access or chiding academic pay scales; no press attention like the coverage we get when cutting down Jared Diamond and disgracing Napoleon Chagnon.
An example of a more thoughtful reaction (in addition to Gusterson's articles and Antrosio's blog) is this podcast by the Anonymous Anthropologist. The questions s/he poses balance an anthropological and historical approach with some real insight about gun control, anger, violence and mental health in the wake of the Newtown, CT shooting from the personal perspective of an educator who, just because s/he works in America, has to give real consideration to what s/he would do in the event of a mass shooting at work. More than just an anthropological response, it is a natural human response. It doesn't come with all the answers, but it asks the right questions.
Not all anthropologists can be expected to embark on ethnographies of gun control. And really, there is no end to the number and depth of studies that can be done on all manner of related aspects of guns and US politics. From what I am re-learning about my own country in its post-9/11 years, there are probably more pro-gun democrats than there are anti-gun republicans. Party lines offer only a rough guideline that is contradicted around each small-town corner in America. For every furrowed brow maligning gun ownership or defending it to the literal death, there are dozens of politically apathetic citizens clutching a Constitution they've never read much less understood, relishing in their freedom to be fully equipped to kill just because "it's a free country" (even when it's not).
This is not an issue that will become easier to solve with time, so we have no time to waste. Change is far too slow in coming for the tens of thousands of senseless deaths each year. It is completely farcical to simply reduce the number of bullets a legally owned semi-automatic weapon magazine can hold and call it "gun control". Proudly announcing that New Yorkers can no longer buy assault weapons over the Internet as a "victory" is cringe-worthy when one deduces that such an activity is still legal in 49 other states, or, hell, that it was ever legal in the first place, and of course that a myriad of other gun types are still freely available online and off.
I live in New York. Shortly after the latest regulations on gun and ammunition ownership were passed, I found myself conversing with a security officer at a nearby federal building. Probably in his late fifties, gray on top and a bit on the portly side, he was friendly and fit the description of the typical Long Island family man, happily edging his way towards retirement. We talked as he went through the government-mandated machinations of his front-desk job, programmatically guiding visitors to their appropriate electronic sign-in points, handing out the correct bureaucratic forms and directing them to wait in the lengthy line. Although he sat at a desk positioned below side-by-side framed photos featuring the grinning faces of President Obama and Vice President Biden, it did not take long to find out that he'd rather have any other portraits peering down upon the back of his head than theirs.
A staunch Republican, one of the first things he brought up in our conversation was gun control. The new restrictions on his guns - which he insists he keeps safely in his home and present no threat to society because he has been shooting since he was 7 or 8 years old – to him amount to unacceptable government intrusion. He openly announced, while at work in his security uniform, badge and all, that he would never succumb to these new regulations, especially those which require him to officially register his firearms, because such laws are merely a ploy by the government to steal his guns upon his death and not allow him to pass them on to his son. He defiantly refuses to comply, repeating the mantra: "They're not taking my guns. No way."
He listened sensibly to my concerned reply, offered his counterpoints about keeping his home and family safe ("if you have guns in your house, no criminal is gonna mess with you"), and remained friendly as ever while I rebutted each point with logic. But his diehard stance – including actual plans to hide his guns from the government if they came knocking on his door ("I wouldn't shoot a cop, but they're not getting my guns") - was no different than a street gang caching their weapons out of police view to subvert the law.
We debated his position on liberal media "lies", my position on Fox "news", and the reality of the Constitution as a document that needs to grow and change with the society whose protections it ensures. I'm pretty sure we didn't change each others' minds on anything. The same reasons he clings to as support for why Americans need their guns (safety, a violent society, personal freedom) are the reasons why I desperately want them banned. The only two things we agreed on are that the US has problems that make it a pretty uncomfortable/scary place to live in right now and that American news media has no integrity.
Yes, the second amendment is a deeply entrenched political and "cultural" issue with many points of view. That excuse has allowed the severity of the American weapons epidemic to intensify with no sign of abatement and little palpable commitment to the kind of dramatic change that is necessary. How much more "research" and "understanding" do we need before something is done to stem the bloody tide?
Take a stand
If it hasn't been made clear by now, I favor a full ban on the public ownership of guns, regardless of the "cultural impediments" to making this a reality that, drenched in a sticky residue of American exceptionalism, have for too long offered a reliable crutch for stagnating real progress towards eliminating public access to lethal weapons. That unavoidably means repealing the outmoded Second Amendment which thwarts all legal attempts to enforce bans that include handguns as well as semi-automatic weapons.
Gun ownership in America is a form of sanctioned domestic terrorism. A constant fear of being shot while going about one's daily life is not - as fear-mongering, gun-toting Republican pundits would have you believe - a quirky fact of American history which necessitates that guns be readily available to the public, but itself a byproduct of this very obsession with guns as a "right" worth dying for.
As a US Citizen and a human being, if it will take 3 to 5 or even 10 years of ethnographic research to begin chipping away at the giant iceberg of reasons behind America's infatuation with guns, then, genuine an academic pursuit as it is, I have to admit that I wouldn't want to waste the time. I also do not think that it is okay, under the guise of inexplicably warm and cuddly social science/cultural relativism, to lend decency and credibility to the gun-lovers' cause by validating their poor, misunderstood feelings. Emotions aside, as scientists, we have plenty of evidence to support a fundamental and radical reversal of gun policy in the US. So where is the source of this crippling disciplinary roadblock? We participate in and observe life in this country and have a right and duty to call out failed policy-making when we see it.
When I add up all the people that will die or have their lives and families destroyed by mass shootings, accidental shootings, in cross-fires and miscellaneous gun crime while we're making meticulous notes about it, I can't help but care more about fixing the problem than documenting it. Like Gusterson argues, we can begin by expanding our investigations of gun culture far beyond the sympathetic realms of the NRA's comfort zone by openly exposing the hypocrisy of gun laws in America. I would add that anthropologists (and academics in general) today can better serve humanity by demanding prompt legislation from a government that ignores us in large part because we never put up much of a fight. Finally, we can stop dithering about whether or not we're authorities on the lethal potential of guns and just take a stand.
Not being able to formulate a meaningful stance on this issue without logging years of additional ethnography – all the while moaning that we don't have the cash to get it done – is a perfectly convenient way to justify more inaction. The next time an anthropologist has to bother mentioning anything about guns will be in the wake of yet another national "tragedy", again playing catch-up to media sensationalism and partisan politics and being drowned out as irrelevant academic navel-gazers (which would not be too far off the mark in this instance). Or, we can take this opportunity to lead a conversation on implementing a real weapons ban on behalf of the preservation of human life.
We will be able to ask Americans why they once loved guns or why they're attempting to resist reforms during the enforcement stage of a second amendment repeal (when my friend the security guard will be burying his guns in the back yard) or, better yet, after the firearms have been safely mounted behind glass displays at various museums. And hopefully, one day soon, we'll study guns like we now view asbestos-lined toasters, cigarette smoking, and over-the-counter heroin prescribed for children's colds. That solves another problem: the gun conversation will be squarely in our anthropological purview when they're obsolete artifacts of a peculiar and misguided time in human history (ours), and then we won't have to worry about how to go about discussing it.
Gusterson, H. (2013), Making a Killing. Anthropology Today, 29: 1–2. doi: 10.1111/1467-8322.12001
Photo credit: Pro-gun rally, nydailynews.com