Saturday, January 19, 2013

Gun Culture

When I was in high school, I spent a part of every summer backpacking with my brother and our friends on trips of up a week in length. Often we hiked on the Appalachian Trail, the famous footpath that snakes its way some 3500 kilometers (2200 miles) from up near the Canadian border in Maine southward to a mountaintop deep in Dixie (in fact on the edge of my home county in Georgia).

I remember on one such trip meeting a solitary hiker as we approached Tesnatee Gap, a shallow pass where the AT dips down to a scenic two-lane highway crossing the Blue Ridge mountains of Georgia. The hiker we met was from New Jersey, probably a “through hiker”, those hardy souls who hike the entire length of the AT, usually from north to south. I still remember this encounter decades later mainly because this hiker from the Garden State was a little rattled by something he had seen just before we met him.

He explained that in the little parking lot back at Tesnatee Gap there had been someone in a pickup truck – with two rifles prominently displayed in a gun-rack inside the cab’s rear window. The presence of the guns had clearly unnerved him. As I recall, upon hearing the “Yankee” hiker’s concerns, most of my hiking companions, all local Georgians, just shrugged our shoulders.

Typical pro-gun Facebook photo.
We couldn’t see what the big deal was. As Southerners, we were fairly used to having guns around, and hunting rifles in a gun-rack in a pickup truck, well, it’s practically a fashion statement in some places, though nowadays it might be more of a political statement.

That short chat with a stranger randomly met on a ribbon of worn dirt, almost swallowed in the lush vegetation of summer and stretching all the way back to Maine, was perhaps my first inkling that, when it comes to guns, the South is different.

At least, it used to be different from much of the rest of the US. Maybe it was just ahead of its time. And that, in my mind, is not something to be proud of.

America as a whole has always had some kind of gun culture, born as the nation was out of armed revolt against Britain and the violent conquest of Native Americans. Though I’m no authority on other parts of the US, the “culture” of guns has always seemed to run deeper in the South, where the history of armed revolt didn’t stop with the Revolutionary War and the tradition of hunting seems more ingrained than in other, less rural and impoverished, regions of the US.

Many Southerners like to hunt. And they like guns. They, in a sense, have a close personal relationship with them.

I recall hearing how during the Vietnam War commanders would often tap a platoon’s ever-present Southerner to be the “point man” when going out on patrol, because they were supposed to be better hunters and shooters. Maybe that’s a myth, though it’s one happily fostered by Hollywood in such movies as “Saving Private Ryan”, where the expert sniper in the band of brothers led by Tom Hanks was an unmistakable Southerner.

While the shooting skills of Southerners wasn’t enough to ultimately give them in the upper hand in the Civil War – since they lost – they were presumably better than those of the other side. An army commander from New York was so dismayed by the poor marksmanship of the Union infantry, which managed to hit only one Confederate soldier out of 1000 shots fired, that after the war he helped create an organization to improve the aim of Americans. That group, the National Rifle Association, nowadays seems dedicated more to ensuring that disgruntled secessionists can fight against the United States.

When I was growing up, we always had guns in the house, since my father was a serious hunter. He hunted everything from grouse to rabbits to squirrels to, later in life, turkeys. But his big passion was deer hunting, and I still have fond memories of being with him on some ridge top watching the sun rise on a cold winter day, staying deadly quiet so we could hear any tiny sound of a deer approaching through the woods.

Another photo proudly shared on Facebook.
If I remember correctly, we had at least three deer rifles, a couple of smaller-caliber rifles, at least one shotgun, and a revolver. We had a gun rack in our truck. My father often carried .22 shells around in his pocket, just out of habit. Guns were just a fixture in the house. And, all of our guns, except the revolver, were strictly for hunting. I don’t recall my father ever explicitly mentioning self-defense as a reason to have any of our guns, though maybe that just went without saying.

So, I do understand how “normal” it feels for many Americans to have guns. I understand the “benign” use of guns by hunters, though I long ago stopped hunting myself and have no plans to start again. I understand that some people want guns for personal security, though I think that's often exaggerated. I might even understand shooting for sport, especially if it’s for target practice and not just for the “thrill” of it.

What I don’t understand is the fetishism surrounding guns, or the pervasive fear of “tyrannical” governments that apparently grips so many supporters of “gun rights”. Many gun advocates say that guns are merely “tools”, but it seems to me that for far too many of them, guns have become more than that. Guns have almost taken on a mystical quality, becoming practically an object of worship for some people.

If that sounds like I’m going too far, then you can’t deny that some people have ascribed guns with an importance that goes far beyond their actual use in everyday life (which hopefully is rare). They have become emotionally invested in guns in a way that to me seems irrational, or unhealthy, or just silly. Why else would anyone dream up a new holiday, “Gun Appreciation Day” (which happens to be today) if they weren’t, um, a little too attached to their firearms?

The same goes for the delusional notion that privately held guns are all that’s holding back  those menacing black helicopters full of “jack-booted government thugs” (to use the elegant phrasing of Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA) that are ready to swoop in and oppress Constitution-loving Americans. That is a long way from shooting contests or rabbit hunting. It’s a long way down into one very strange rabbit-hole.

Finland itself is a country with a strong hunting culture and one of the highest levels of gun ownership of any nation in Europe (reportedly something like 32 to 45 guns per 100 people, compared to America’s 86). But I know no one here who obsesses over firearms the way I see many Americans doing. None of my Finnish friends ever shares gun-related memes on Facebook (it’s not a political issue here). And I can’t imagine anyone here posting a video on Youtube openly threatening a killing spree if even the smallest measures are taken to restrict access to guns.

In short, Finland doesn’t have “gun culture”, and I wish America didn’t either. I for one won’t be wishing anyone a Happy Gun Day today.


  1. Funny how the "gun lover" in that video is a classic skin-head Nazi.

    I was with you when the kid from New Jersey encountered us on the Appalachian Trail. I'm the one who mentioned to him that your dad had a gun rack in his truck, too. That's something that my dad, who always owned guns, never had. It was something that just never appealed to him.

    Like you, I grew up with the things and my dad (who'd accidentally shot one of his pals when he was a teenager) drilled into me how freaking dangerous a gun was. "Never point one at a human being. Not even if it's unloaded." (He'd shot his best friend at the age of 17 with an "unloaded" pistol.) He had me so respectful of the mortal power of guns that I wouldn't even point a toy gun at anyone.

    My dad did have pistols. He usually had two...generally a .38 revolver and a .45 military pistol. I inherited one of each when he died and later had both of them destroyed by a local police department. The one rifle I had quite literally fell to pieces and I disposed of it in sections.

    Guns are part of the racist and religious insanity that infects the USA. It's one of the very worst things about this country.

    1. It's really horrible that your father went through something like that. I can see why he wanted to instill a healthy respect for guns in you. I wish every gunowner would do the same. I once discharged my rifle accidentally while hunting and it scared the shit out of me (I'll do a post about this sometime). Things can go wrong way too easily with guns, and I have no real desire to have anything to do with them.

  2. "<= My next door neighbor is a GUN NUT!
    Join me in my GLEE when his loved one is killed in a gun-related accident or by gun violence."

    1. I can’t really endorse that sentiment. What I would like to see is an America where no one feels the need to keep guns at home because of high crime rates (exaggerated or not) or some irrational fear over a government takeover or society collapsing. I know, I know, the US will probably never ever be like that.

      In the meantime, I would hope fewer people do stupid things with the guns they do have, especially when it’s innocent loved ones who get hurt. I’m not optimistic about that either (to say the least), hence in my mind the fewer guns, the better. Still, I wouldn't take any satisfaction from some idiot’s obsession with guns leading to a family tragedy -- even if they brought it on themselves

    2. How about this then:

      "<= My next door neighbor is a GUN NUT!
      Join me in expressing HALF-HEARTED SYMPATHIES
      when a member of his family is killed by GUN VIOLENCE."

  3. Do you half brain idiots really think banning guns will stop gun violence? Did the alcohol ban stop people from drinking during prohibition? How easy is it to go out and buy coke or heroin? You wont get rid of the guns morons. You'd just get rid of the legal ones. Criminals love unarmed victims. If gun bans worked, Chicago would be safe right? And what does me owning a firearm have to do with someone in my family being a victim of gun violence? If they get stabbed should we ban knives too? If guns are banned you can still be a victim of gun crime. Just like theres still crackheads wandering around the street. You dont like guns, dont buy one. Stay the hell away from mine.

    1. Huh. Really? I suspect it’s useless to respond to a comment like this, but just to be sure I reread my post and wasn’t able to find any reference to “banning guns”. Maybe you meant to address your insults to some other blog. (Or maybe you’re a robot.)

      My post talked about the gun culture in the US and the unhealthy/paranoid/bewildering obsession some Americans have with firearms. By responding with a hateful comment that you likely cut and paste every time you run across someone (like me) who favors more gun control (not gun banning), you have basically proved my point. Well done.