Back in 1835, the French Chronicler Alexis de Tocqueville published his remarkable portrait of our country, Democracy in America, which retains an extraordinary clarity and insightful awareness to the present day. Based largely on conversations between the author and Americans he met as he went hither and yon, the two-volume work captured much of what we still believe makes America an exceptional country both in terms of word and deed.
Two things that made America exceptional, according to de Tocqueville, was our individualism and our penchant for violence, both of which he believed reflected the degree to which most of America in the 1830s was still largely a frontier zone. What connected individualism and violence, according to de Tocqueville, was the apparent willingness of Americans to settle disputes without recourse to any government authority, and to use weapons to settle disputes, in particular knives and guns. This strikingly American cultural trait remains true to this day, expressed most directly in the current argument about guns. Stop and think about it: gun-control advocates have established a clear link between elevated homicide rates and access to guns; pro-gun advocates claim that the risks of gun ownership are far outweighed by the degree to which guns protect us from crime. Take your pick either way, the fact is that as regards the current argument about guns, what de Tocqueville understood about American culture in the 1830s appears to be alive and well in the present day.
Ultimately what is going to resolve the debate about guns and gun violence is how guns fit into our overall culture, and right now on this issue America seems to be split. On the one hand for the first time a clear majority of Americans believe that guns keep us safe. On the other hand, despite the upward spike of gun sales since you-know-who moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the percentage of American homes with guns sitting around continues to decline. And believe it or not, I believe that these two seemingly contradictory trends will not only continue, but will become even more pronounced over time. Why do I say this?
First, the demographics that are averse to gun ownership will continue to drive the population profile of America as a whole, by which I mean millennials, single women, racial and ethnic minorities, new immigrants, in other words, everyone except older White men. And White males between ages 30 – 60 still own most of the guns. A recent poll of registered voters in New York State showed that virtually all the groups except older White men overwhelmingly supported the restrictive new SAFE Act that will, at least in the case of New York, no doubt result in fewer guns.
At the same time, the media and popular culture continues to promote guns and gun violence as a basic theme. Of the ten most popular movies released this year, half involve multiple shooting scenes with good guys getting shot by bad guys or the other way around. So Hollywood still believes that we respond to settling arguments with guns.
Remember when the local bowling alley was a place where the family would spend Sunday afternoon because the backyard barbeque was rained out? To be sure, there were always a few lanes being used by serious bowlers who were practicing for their next league match, but most of us went bowling just to have some fun. I think the idea of shooting ranges becoming destinations for family fun may be coming into its own; an operation like Colonial Shooting is a far cry from the nasty and overly-serious range environments that cater to the hard-core shooting crowd. If the NRA would stop taking itself so seriously and stop trying to convince everyone that they need to walk around with a gun, the industry might actually begin to attract all those outliers whose natural curiosity will motivate them to shoot guns even if they have no interest in owning one. And you never know, put a gun in someone’s hands and they might actually want to keep it there.