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Symbols of people you don't like

By Sean Crist
3 November 2004

Why is it so important for marijuana to be illegal? There are some semi-rational arguments to be made about health and safety, but I don't think these are the real reasons for the ban. We associate marijuana with hippies and other unsavory counter-culture types (notice that hippies and anti-hippies alike agree on this symbolism). If you can't ban hippies, you can at least ban the symbols of hippies. All the health and safety arguments about marijuana are fluff; they are nothing but weak rationalizations of a visceral dislike of counter-culture people. If hippies were associated with martinis, then we would have a ban on martinis. We would also have the type of college student who hangs a martini flag in his dorm room.

I think something similar explains why gun control has ended up as part of Democratic platform: it's an expression of dislike for the sort of person who owns guns. There might be some merit to some of the arguments for gun control, but the arguments are rationalizations nevertheless. I think that a failure to recognize this is a reason why Democrats will continue to fail in the voting booths.

This is not to say that a rational argument in favor of gun control is impossible. A rational argument for banning guns would need to find support for the following points:

1. If a ban on guns is enacted, violence will substantially decrease. This will happen because a ban on guns will reduce the supply of guns, and not merely drive up prices and lower quality control. The underlying social causes of violence, whatever they are, will not simply be diverted to other lethal outlets such as knives or baseball bats. Or, if these negative consequences do happen, they would still be better than our present situation.

2. A ban on guns would solve more social problems than it creates. A ban on guns would not create a gun-smuggling network which stands in a prepetual war with with police and border control. Or, if it does, this would still be better than our present situation.

3. We should place a higher value on our safety than on our freedom to do as we please, including owning whatever sort of objects we please. Even though most adults own many lethal objects such as automobiles and kitchen knives, and even though most gun owners don't shoot at people, we should treat guns as a special case where public safety is more important than freedom (the reasons for this need to be given).

1 and 2 might or might not be true, but they are not obvious and would need to be supported. 3 is a value judgment, and not an obviously right one. Still, I can imagine that someone might construct a convincing rational argument along these lines.

My experience, however, is that the pro-gun-control folks usually don't even attempt to address these points, but instead appeal to emotions, perhaps by giving gun fatality statistics or showing pictures of victims of gun violence. But this is merely a restatement of the problem. It is usually left as an exercise to the reader as to why a gun ban is the appropriate response.

Is this not curious? I would expect more liberals to explain gun violence as a symptom of unjust social and economic conditions, as a product of preventable poverty. Yet many Democrats propose to address the problem through gun control, not by addressing the underlying social injustices. Why?

The real reason, I think, is the same as the reason for the marijuana ban. Attacking a symbol is a way of attacking people who you don't like.

In our culture, guns are associated with redneck men (or, if you prefer, non-prestige, low-income, rural, working-class males). There are some townships which actually prohibit residents from keeping a pickup truck at their homes, which clearly serves no purpose other than to exclude the demographic group which is the major market for this type of vehicle. Guns are also symbolically associated with lower-income urban African-Americans (so preface your discussion with "I'm-not-racist-and-some-of-my-best-friends-are-black-but...").

The gun owners agree with this symbol of their group membership. It might be a point of pride for a redneck man to keep his gun rack installed and visible in his truck outside of hunting season. If you don't like rednecks, you might not be able to ban them, but you can at least try to get at them by banning their guns.

I think that Democrats should make a tactical decision to drop the gun control issue, or, better yet, to reverse our position. We should treat gun violence as an outcropping of a larger economic problem, and focus on causes not symptoms. We should treat gun ownership as a personal liberty issue rather than a supposed public safety issue. A pro-gun-ban position does not follow in any obvious way from liberal principles of economic justice; the current conjunction of liberal economics and gun control within the Democratic party is a cultural accident. We know that this is so, because there are historical cases of political movements which were strongly anti-left-wing but pro-gun-control, of which Naziism is a well-documented example.

Rational or not, a gun owner sees his gun as the final defense of his freedom. His gun is an expression of his identity, a symbol of group membership, an indicator of his strength and potency. He is adamant about keeping his gun, for much the same reasons that he is adamant about keeping his testicles. The matter is not open for negotiation.

You may hate this and find it disgusting. But please, ask yourself why you react this way. Is it because you think it probable that a man of this kind will actually ever shoot at another human? Or is it that you just really dislike him and are disgusted by him?

As long as the Democrats take a pro-gun-ban position, a voter of this kind will accept our symbolic rejection of his identity. He will continue to respond appropriately by hearing nothing of the core Democratic principles of social and economic justice.

Last updated 30 May 2010