The gun industry has a problem. Despite the United States having a reputation for being a “gun-loving” country, interest in gun ownership is actually declining, fairly dramatically in fact. Nearly half of American households had a gun in the '70s, but since then it’s sloped downward. Now only 34 percent of American households own a gun. Demographic changes are a huge factor, with younger Americans showing very little interest in gun ownership. Only 23 percent of people under 30 live in households with a gun, down from 47 percent in the 1970s. How does the gun industry keep selling guns and making money when the customer base for guns appears to be rapidly shrinking?
It seems the industry has figured out an ingenious solution to the problem: Convince people who are interested in guns to buy more guns. Indeed, having a bunch of highly invested repeat customers might make for an even more profitable strategy than simply trying to get a gun into every household. Convincing the small number of gun lovers in the United States to create individual arsenals has kept gun sales numbers high. The result is that gun ownership is becoming a highly concentrated activity. Nearly half of gun owners own four or more guns. Twenty percent of gun owners—around 7 percent of Americans overall— own a whopping 65 percent of the guns in this country.
The gun industry has clearly figured out how to make a lot of money convincing a small number of Americans to own a whole bunch of guns. Unfortunately, the result is a subculture of gun fanatics whose combination of masculine insecurities, paranoia and hostility to their fellow Americans make them quite possibly the people you least want to be around, armed and dangerous. Sadly, the most recent mass shooting in California that left 6 people murdered is all too good an example of this, as the shooter, Elliot Rodger, was quite open about his masculine insecurities and power fantasies.
The gun industry, through its direct marketing and through industry front organizations like the NRA, has settled on a marketing scheme they’ll never openly admit to but which is completely evident in their press releases, advertisements and other marketing materials. They target men who have high levels of insecurity when it comes to issues of masculinity and power, and suggest that buying guns will make them feel powerful and manly and chase those insecurities away.
The centerpiece of the pitch is the fantasy of putting down a home invader. Anxious men are encouraged to believe there’s a high chance that someone will break into their home—their castle—for some raping and pillaging, and that they can play the role of the brave and stalwart hero by shooting the invader. (A corollary pitch is the power fantasy of armed resistance to some vague government “tyranny,” where the insecure man gets to imagine himself as a brave resistance fighter, his masculinity put beyond a shadow of a doubt as he gets to play at being a revolutionary.)
That a gun in the household is far more likely to cause an accident, or be used for suicide or interpersonal violence than to fend off a home invader doesn’t matter. It’s a fantasy of masculinity, used to paper over insecurities, and facts cannot compete.
That these power fantasies used to sell multiple guns are explicitly masculine is hard to dispute. For one thing, gun manufacturers don’t really try to hide it. The Bushmaster rifle Adam Lanza used to murder elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut was advertised in magazines with the tagline, “Consider your man card reissued.” Doesn’t get more blunt than that in admitting that the customers are concerned about not being masculine enough and the gun is being sold as a panacea.
Other ads collected by Mother Jones show the same anxieties: Guns being sold with promises that they will make you more soldier-like, more powerful, and even more sexually vigorous. Between these ads and the NRA-stoked fantasies of shooting down a home invader, the pitch to men is obvious: You may be a soft-handed, khaki-wearing suburbanite, but with this expensive arsenal at home, you will be The Man. No wonder men are three times as likely to own guns as women.
In the world of masculine power fantasies, women exist merely as objects with which to prove your manhood, either by protecting them from the imaginary hordes of rapists at the door or by having them around showing skin to demonstrate how heterosexual the men are. Women who speak up for themselves or, God forbid, actually disagree with the manly men are disruptive to the power fantasy and regarded as human garbage.
That’s what Mark Follman of Mother Jones found out when he investigated the trials facing female gun control proponents. Women who speak out, in favor of the mildest of gun restrictions like background checks and improving the child safety features on guns, face unbelievable amounts of misogynist vitriol from gun lovers. Follman spoke to one woman, who is wheelchair-bound after a shooting, who has had men spit in her face, tell her she should have died from being shot, and shot her with waterguns to mock how easy it would be to murder her.
He also chronicled the way one group, Open Carry Texas, flaunted its misogynist fantasies proudly by shooting up a female mannequin they named after the group Moms Demand Action. “They positioned the figure with her hands raised in surrender, naked from the waist up. Afterward, they posed with the bullet-riddled mannequin, her arms blown off and her pants down at her ankles.” Masculine dominance restored in a group outing of fantasies about sexual abuse and murder of women who dare to disagree with you.
Shortly after Follman published his expose, the mostly male members of Open Carry Texas decided that they needed to treat the suburban sprawl of the Dallas area to a display of their masculine fantasies. They descended on a local Chipotle to eat burritos while showing off their comically huge assault rifles, an action that Moms Demand Action immediately denounced. The display was so pathetic that it really takes the edge of fear off the realization that it’s so easy for people with such a zeal for drama to buy as many guns as they want. The whole thing was such a perfect distillation of what gun marketers want: A group of middle-aged American men, made deeply insecure by the bland suburban strip mall safety of places like Chipotle, react by buying a bunch of guns in a desperate bid to feel more powerful and important. The guys are assholes, yes, but more fundamentally, they are dupes.
If the fetish object of masculinity for these uptight, insecure men was harmless, we could all just point and laugh (and make their insecurities worse, no doubt) and get on with our day. But the fetish objects in question are deadly. It’s not just the now semi-frequent occurrence when an Adam Lanza or James Holmes or Elliot Rodger takes those power fantasies to the next level, shooting up a public place to show the world he’s an expert dealer of death. It’s also in the outrageous accidents that happen every day because people treat guns like toys. It’s the thousands of people who would still be with us today, except that they had easy access to a gun while experiencing a suicidal moment (which usually passes, if the person survives the attempt, which is less likely with guns). It’s all the people who are murdered by someone who lost his temper and had easy access to a weapon. Convincing a bunch of highly insecure people to stockpile weapons makes money for the gun industry, but for the rest of us, it’s nothing but trouble.