Guns, dildos and Christmas: Conservatives cling to guns as identity markers, not for practical use

To understand why conservatives love guns, it's important to accept they are used mostly for social signaling

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 8, 2015 4:33PM (EST)

  (<a href=''>STILLFX</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(STILLFX via Shutterstock)

Rational debate over guns in this country is clearly impossible. Gun nuts repeatedly recycle the same debunked arguments, talking points that ceased to be serious arguments years ago. Now they are something more like prayers or mantras, rituals whose content long ago lost meaning and now are only repeated to give the gun nut a sense of identity and security.

Republicans have raised the gun to the level of a religious icon, so afraid of offending the weapon's worshippers even the smallest, most commonsensical restrictions are voted down. The gun shall not be insulted. Sooner to say something blasphemous about Jesus than the mighty firearm.

You can't understand the gun debate in modern America unless you understand the totemic, near-religious status that the gun has been elevated to by conservatives. The gun industry has grabbed the brass ring of the consumer society, making a product whose appeal goes well beyond any practical usefulness and instead is purchased mostly as a way for the owner to signal social status.

Ordinary, law-abiding citizens in the 21st century have very little practical use for guns. Most of us don't hunt and the much-vaunted self-defense value of guns turns out to be poppycock. The average gun sold in this country will either be used to do something terrible and/or illegal (shooting an innocent person, being used in a crime, suicide), or, in the best case scenario, it will have a mundane existence, used only to shoot paper targets and nothing else.

The uselessness of guns to people who have no intention of shooting up a school or knocking over a convenience store is no doubt why the number of gun owners in this country has dwindled down to 1 in 5 Americans. Why spend hundreds of dollars on a bang-bang toy with limited entertainment value, no practical use and is dangerous to boot? More and more people would rather just spend that money on a new iPhone instead.

Except, of course, for conservatives. In right-wing circles, buying a bunch of guns is more popular than ever, and it's clear that, no matter what excuses they make for it, the real reason is that owning a gun — and more importantly, being seen handling it in public — is a way to signal membership in the right-wing tribe. The gun's main function is decorative. Like a designer purse or expensive jewelry, the purpose of having a gun is to be seen and to send a message about your taste, your cultural affiliations, and, of course, your ability to afford expensive items like that.

This was exemplified by Las Vegas Assemblywoman Michele Fiore's family Christmas card, which featured many adults and even children, one as small as five, bearing their favorite weapons. Fiore got a lot of grief over this, but her family is hardly the only one that is making posing with guns a Christmas tradition.

As Buzzfeed chronicled two years ago and the Atlantic chronicled three years ago, holding a gun in front of the Christmas tree is quickly becoming a red state Instagram cliche, the conservative equivalent of posting selfies to show off new clothes or a new hairdo.

A photo posted by Macy Needum (@macyneedum) on

Many buy a gun for the same reason one gets a tattoo or wears Louboutins: Not because it is practical, but to make a statement about yourself to the world. It might initially seem that, since guns have no real value to ordinary people outside of social signaling, that would mean that it would be no big deal to restrict them. Your right to show off your membership in the wingnut tribe vs. someone else's right to live? Should be a no-brainer, right? But in reality, that's just not how human psychology works. On the contrary, the more an item is tied into social signaling, the more precious it becomes to us. That's because it ceases to be just an object and instead is a symbol of our identity and our social standing, two things that are of paramount importance to most people. A beloved band T-shirt, a wedding ring, your favorite pair of sneakers? The more wrapped up your identity is in the object, the more defensive you'll be about it. Hell, this isn't even the first era when weapons graduated from practical use to decorative items, as the long-standing trend of hanging swords on the wall demonstrates.  This isn't about "safety" or "rights." It's about self-definition. This fact is driven home by Metafilter founder Matt Haughey's new project where he photoshops pictures of Republicans holding guns, replacing the weapons with comical-looking dildos instead.

At first, the joke is funny for the obvious reason: Dildos, while a perfectly harmless and legitimate item to own, are goofy looking, and they make a nice visual substitute for the overcompensation issues that seem to drive a lot of gun nuttery.

But after looking at multiple photoshops, a more subtle, nuanced reading emerges. The photos don't look ridiculous just because there are dildos in them. They look ridiculous because no one would actually hold a dildo like that. The reverence in these men's eyes, the way they position the "dildo" as if it's a precious item of beauty to behold, the show-offy displays are all extremely weird looking poses when you're holding a dildo.

That's because the dildo, unlike the gun, is a practical item that people take out to use and otherwise don't make a giant fuss out of owning. Dildos have almost no social signaling value. People don't pose for pictures with dildos and they don't haul their dildo collection out to be oohed and ahhed over when company comes over. Even people who are entirely sex positive and have no hang-ups about sex toys don't run around waving dildos over their heads. Dildos really are items meant to be used and put away.

You could replace their guns in their hands with equally incongruent items — rolls of toilet paper, boxes of Cheerios, prescription medicine bottles, screwdrivers — and it would look almost as weird. The juxtaposition in these photos works to highlight how much the men in them want you to look at the item they are holding and admire them for holding it. The objects in question have no real value outside of that.

It's a real shame that conservatives latched onto guns, of all objects, as the go-to items for right-wing social signaling. Why couldn't it have been designer teddy bears or gilded walking canes or snazzy top hats? Those things would do just as a good a job of showing off your affiliation with the conservative tribe and your difference from those top hat-eschewing liberals, all without creating unnecessary danger to life and limb. But the gun industry wisely realized that, unless they could convince huge numbers of people they need to collect their product in order to signal social status, the demand for their product would bottom out.

The marketing campaign equating gun ownership with being conservative has been a rousing success. Fewer people own guns, but those who do often own many, for the same reason that your average hipster has more than one band T-shirt.

And, just like clockwork, the San Bernardino shooting led to a rush on gun stores, as mass shootings typically do. Having the symbols of their identity criticized makes conservatives defensive, and they go out and buy even more guns in a very expensive effort to reassert their identity. Thanks to the shooters in California, even more Republicans will have beautifully wrapped killing machines placed under the Christmas tree.

Watch to learn about the correlation between gun sales and mass shootings:
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Democratic State Rep. On Why He Disagrees With Obama On New Gun Reform

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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