America's recurring doomsday is by design: Gun culture is now part of our DNA

How the fight against Big Tobacco provides a roadmap to stop the killing sprees

Published August 6, 2019 8:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Don Juan Moore)
(Getty/Don Juan Moore)

As we look back at the twin massacres in El Paso and Dayton with fear, crushing sadness and mind-blowing frustration due to the helplessness of it all, including the usual political cowardice, a clear majority of Americans continue to support reasonable and obvious regulations to limit the supply of these deadly retail products. 

But what about the demand? What about the uniquely American compulsion to own unnecessarily powerful firearms – specifically, the family of military-cosplay ARs and other semi-automatic weapons, not to mention their myriad accessories designed to augment their killing power? It seems as though simply limiting the supply will unintentionally spike demand. Knowing this, there has to be a concurrent national effort to address the demand side of this deadly equation. 

Specifically, we have no choice but to minimize, if not extinguish, the pervasiveness of our gun culture.

What is the gun culture?

There's an almost historical, genetic aspect of Americanism that's synonymous with warfare and firearms. As we thumb through our national history, it’s impossible not to observe how our revolutionary founding, the glorification of war and the romance of the Wild West have collectively embedded guns into our national DNA, more so than any other industrialized nation. Even our generational traditions, our relics handed down from parents to children, involve an unnecessary reverence for guns.  

Due to painfully effective marketing and lobbying in our modern First World age of consumerism, gun ownership has evolved from being a frontier necessity to a creepy, vaguely penile, Freudian symbol of masculinity and power. American guns have become unnecessary yet unmistakable avatars of virility and strength — of aggression, resolve and heroism. Scroll down through your Facebook newsfeed and note all of the advertisements for military-style tactical gear marketed to civilians who probably couldn’t point to a theater of war on a map. That’s a reflection of the gun culture.

While Donald Trump and the Republicans try desperately to sidetrack the debate by blaming the  usual NRA-defined scapegoats: video games and mental illness — factors that absolutely exist in dozens of other nations where mass shootings are statistically nonexistent — we need to instead take a harder and more critical look at the crutch-like bellicosity of our political leaders who routinely explain that solving a problem by shooting at it is not just the only option, but the noble and patriotic one.

Likewise, we can’t overlook the national history of the post-World War II years when, for the first time, America kept a standing army and developed the infamous military-industrial complex, with its permanent lifeblood drawn from the virally universal idea that more firearms (in this context, weapons of war including nuclear warheads) are necessary for both prosperity, national security against the Soviet Union and, eventually, extremist Islamic terrorists. For a short while there, following Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell warning, the military-industrial complex was regarded as a necessary evil. Yet by the 1980s and on through the George W. Bush post-9/11 era, American patriotism — our basic love of country — became defined by the magnitude of our support for military aggression, complete with our vast arsenal of weaponry proudly arrayed against our enemies.

An entire American generation has been raised with the following ultimatum: Either you’re with us, and our shoot-first problem solving, or you’re with the enemy. To be clear: retaining a formidable national defense is compulsory, but we shouldn’t be so rah-rah turgid about it.

Despite what pro-gun operatives have been suggesting as a means of distracting from the real issue of gun regulations and the gun culture, breaking the nightmarishly escalating wave of mass murders requires the breaking of the dominant cultural attitude that aggression and weaponry are the only bulwarks standing between us and doomsday, even though it's difficult to observe massacres like Sandy Hook, Parkland, Charleston, Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton and not regard them as a series of micro-doomsdays.

Enough screwing around. To extricate the gun culture from American society, we have to engage in an effort to 1) pass serious and unprecedented gun control regulations to, at the very least, match the regulations on cars and drivers, and 2) disconnect the false associations between masculinity/virility/power/patriotism and gun ownership.

Everything else orbiting this issue is secondary to regulating guns and undermining the visceral, demented obsession with using them. If we can limit both the supply and the fetishistic demand for guns, we can begin to roll back this age of mass murder in our public spaces.

The campaign against Big Tobacco, for example, has been wildly successful on both fronts: due to a broad effort to both limit cigarette sales while stigmatizing the act of smoking, cigarettes are more difficult to purchase (advertising has disappeared and prices have skyrocketed, though not enough), and the very act of smoking has become increasingly rejected, with smokers shamed and banished outside to huddle like refugees under awnings and inside bus shelters. It's absolutely possible to accomplish the same thing with firearms.

By the way, the news media has a part to play in this — a major part.

Cable news has no choice but to devise a new way of covering gun massacres as well as covering the aforementioned political war-hawking. The profit-motive of modern television journalism is dependent upon running sensationalized breaking news that lionizes military strength and demonizes rational diplomacy, the latter framed by cable news analysts as weakness. 

Unlike video games or other works of fiction, this is real-life blood and death, aired for the gawking masses and cynically pitched to advertisers for profit. And we wonder where disaffected, radicalized loners get the idea that murdering 20 people is not only the strong, patriotic thing to do, but it’ll make them famous, dead or alive. (Side note: Germany, Japan, Australia, England, France, South Korea and the Netherlands all spend more per capita on video games than the U.S., but the rate of gun violence is significantly lower in those nations. Jaw-droppingly lower. Why?)

If we break the culture, and if we disrupt the proliferation of firearms, the consumer demand will begin to adjust accordingly. Part of this monumental effort will involve reversing the prioritization of military strength over thoughtful statesmanship -- to seriously adopt a war-as-last-resort policy at the highest levels of government, once and for all. Part of the effort will have to involve the marginalization of Americans who mistakenly sanctify gun ownership as a badge of pride and testicular fortitude. Another not insignificant part of the plan will have to include returning to a time when war of any scale required total national sacrifice, from everyone. 

No matter how we get there, addressing the culture won’t work if we don't make it much more difficult to attain firearms, especially ones that are manufactured for hunting people.

It's not going to be easy. But we can't allow necessary changes to be derailed by the usual suspects and their horseshit rhetoric. Their time has ended. Emerging from the heart-wrenching sorrow, the legacy of this past weekend and all of the doomsdays that preceded it has to be the launching of a national campaign to destroy the toxic culture that helped to manifest it all.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.


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