Don’t Take Your Guns to Town

Scott’s long and deeply-felt reflection on American gun culture is worth reading in full, and I certainly understand why an outsider would find our collective infatuation with things that go ‘boom’ baffling or even dangerous. As a card-carrying coastal elite, I also suspect my views on personal firearms are closer to Scott’s than to most rural Americans’: In addition to not owning a gun, I have never wanted to own one, and watching someone casually stroll by with a glock on their hip is enough to make me pretty uncomfortable.

That said, I’m wary of broad-brushed cultural essentialism, and I think Scott’s view of America’s “undercurrent of violence” is a bit too reminiscent of s0mething Mark Steyn spat out in the wake of another tragedy, this time in Canada:

Every December 6th, my own unmanned Dominion lowers its flags to half-mast and tries to saddle Canadian manhood in general with the blame for the “Montreal massacre,”  the 14 female students of the Ecole Polytechnique murdered by Marc Lepine (born Gamil Gharbi, the son of an Algerian Muslim wife-beater, though you’d never know that from the press coverage). As I wrote up north a few years ago:

Yet the defining image of contemporary Canadian maleness is not M Lepine/Gharbi but the professors and the men in that classroom, who, ordered to leave by the lone gunman, meekly did so, and abandoned their female classmates to their fate — an act of abdication that would have been unthinkable in almost any other culture throughout human history. The “men” stood outside in the corridor and, even as they heard the first shots, they did nothing. And, when it was over and Gharbi walked out of the room and past them, they still did nothing. Whatever its other defects, Canadian manhood does not suffer from an excess of testosterone.

Obviously, these men didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory in the midst of a terrible shooting. But does the inaction of a few scared students indict Canadian society as a whole? Does this incredible tragedy  reveal some hidden undercurrent of Canadian passivity? I think not, and besides, a quick Google search reveals any number of counter-examples (the honor roll of Canadian dead in Afghanistan immediately comes to mind.

Violence in America is less extensive than you might think. And broad-brushed essentialism – however intuitive – detracts from our ability to address serious problems by laying blame at the feet of some socially-constructed bogeyman. Sometimes schoolbus bullying is just bullying. And sometimes a shooting is just a terrible tragedy.

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43 thoughts on “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town

  1. Well Steyn is a member of the 101st Chairborn who are plenty brave in front of their computers. In the real world plenty of solders with training and guns and stuff have panicked or frozen in battle. We would all like to think we would have been brave in that tragic situation in Canada but some of us would have frozen. “Canadian manhood” has had plenty of it’s blood split in WW1 and 2 and Afghanistan.

    I think there is a real issue with American glorification of violence. Trying to talk about guns (fun to shoot, don’t own any) muddies the issue since guns are so tied to rights and are symbols of freedom and manhood. Bringing a gun to a health care protest, whether there is a right to it or not, suggests that the implied threat of violence is a reasonable part of a debate. There are plenty of recent videos of teabaggers or various protesters who feel the threat of violence is just peachy. America does have a high rate of violent crime, although maybe those Brit’s are up there with us. But American’s seem (as a wide generalization) seem to feel violence is a reasonable solution to many problems. The continued popularity of the death penalty seems like a part of that.

    There has been a lot of research on violence in the media. While there is some connection between there is also a clear connection between violent people who search out violent media. But even more then that there is no particular evidence that having a violent media creates a violent society. Plenty of us non-violent types like John Wayne movies. Although Clint Eastwood is and always will be far more famous for Dirty Harry then for Unforgiven.

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  2. I do believe that passivity is a cultural artifact that continues to be taught north of the line. I was just reading, with some incredulity, a story of a couple of lads stopping a burglar. Of course, the authorities first response was that civilians shouldn’t interfere, stay at a safe distance and leave it to the Richmond Fire Department.

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  3. Typically, I either ignore Steyn or wonder how he manages to stay employed, but he’s far more rational about Lepine than 99% of Canadians. I knew a lot of details about what happened that day, but I didn’t know until today that Lepine’s father was Algerian – much like reports that the Egyptian guy who shot up the El Al ticket counter at LAX was a “middle-aged white guy with a ponytail,” Canadian society has been blamed for attitudes that emanated from far outside of it. In a country where people are more accustomed to violence and where men are conscripted, somebody would have killed him.

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    • Steyn has a fair point about excessively glossing over racial backgrounds but of course he carries it way to far. Ever heard him go on about Europe? Sure he’s right that perhaps the Europeans go to rediculous lengths to be culturally sensitive but he actually claims the Muslims are going to overthrow the continent.

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      • Steyn’s point is based on demographics. The Muslims in Europe are having more children than non-Muslims and they do not want to be assimilated. If something doesn’t happen, they will take over by force of numbers.

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        • Yes, but Steyn’s numbers game is hyperbole. We’ve seen many a high reproduction number group of immigrants come into the west in the past. Inevitably their birth rates plummet. In fact, their birth rates are declining.

          Additionally Steyn assumes that these children of the Muslim immigrants will never absorb our classical liberal values which is a pretty pessimistic way to view our values. Now I hate -hate- the idea of cultural relativism and my scorn would be scorching for anyone who would defend deplorable immigrant practices in the name of cultural sensitivity or who would oppress others in the name of political correctness (I’m looking at you Minnesota Taxi cab drivers refusing to let seeing eye dogs into the taxis). But I feel Steyn goes over the top into hyperbolic scare mongering.

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  4. This strikes me as a fundamental difference between the two countries.

    The mythology of America is that a bunch of militia members fought a bloody war of Independence against the British. The real story is something close enough to that, I guess.
    The mythology of Canada is *NOT* that (queue up “Responsible Government” heritage moment).

    In America, there was an entire argument regarding Justice given in the Declaration of Independence (read it again, your jaw will drop at some of the stuff those thin-skinned wimps thought were infringments. They didn’t understand the idea of a “social contract” at all!) and there was a culmination of sorts in the Bill of Rights. Speech, Guns… they’re both there.

    Canada, by contrast, has a different cultural mythology and they put different (not better or worse, mind) emphasis on different things.

    The “Human Rights Commissions” for example are something that wouldn’t show up in the US. They are something that seems inevitable for Canada to have come up with.

    The underlying mythologies of both countries lead to places where the US will say something like “I can’t believe you X!” and Canada will respond “I can’t believe you Y!” (well, nicer than that, but that’ll be the gist)

    We have different ideas of ourselves in our heads. We have different gods. We have different cultures.

    And that’s cool.

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    • Don’t kid yourself. The mythology of Canada is that Canada burned down the White House. That brave Metis fighters opposed the central government’s attempt to take their lands (or, if you come from a kind of odd viewpoint, that Canadians put down rebellions by those rowdy French through the country.) That Canada saved the Dutch and the Belgians and the French in WWI. That the poppies in the cemeteries were immortalized by a Canadian. That Canada solved the Suez crisis. That Pierre Trudeau could declare martial law and kick De Gaulle out of the country. Shit – Canada had a “war” with Spain less than 15 years ago that was no less a transparent play on jingoism than the invasion of Grenada or the War in the Falklands.

      When you’re not watching, Canadians revel in military bravery. But once somebody thinks Americans are around, out come the human rights commissions, and the complaining about how Americans are all fat, right-wing, born-again, gun-toting crackheads.

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      • I’ve encountered the argument that their existence prevents many of the rhetorical excesses found in the US.

        It was given me by a Canadian so I don’t know if it was a “I believe this!” argument or a “Screw You, Outsider!” argument. Doesn’t really matter, I suppose.

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        • Agreed. If they must be kept, and I’m skeptical that they serve sufficient good to be worth keeping but I’m open to the arguement, then they need to be subject more to rules like court. Oh and the practice of subsidizing plaintifs but making the defense pay for their defense is mind blowingly unfair.

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          • Administrative tribunals do all sorts of work that I doubt you’d want to see go away, everything from wrongful dismissal to religious freedoms to not firing the pregnant girl. The problem is that they wanted them to be under the executive so as to be more politically accountable. I think that instinct was short sighted and wrong.

            Subsidizing plaintiffs is a bit of a red herring. You get what you pay for. If you had a legitimate complaint would you really want to rely on the overburdened, under-qualified public offering? It’s not unheard of for complainants to be charged. It’s possible that they can even be ordered to pay for the respondents legal fees. Much of the vitriol that comes out of the Canadian Right against these tribunals is admittedly ignorant. Why someone would read Warren, Levin, or Steyn see that they state they don’t understand the processes and then repeat their rantings is a mystery. At the very least these tribunals act according to statute. To do otherwise would be “judicial activism” — going against the actual law.

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  5. I think the Canadian would say “I can’t believe you Y, eh”. That was too easy.

    I think mythologies are complicated. Quite a few Canadians are descendents of loyalists who were chased out America, but I don’t think there is some seething desire for revenge against us. And the American mythology doesn’t quite include the French help we got or that we were just a side show for England.

    Of course, I would think, a country that was born to a strong degree out of a guerilla war and unconventional tactics where the foreign power lost the hearts and minds of a big chunk of the locals would have more insight about certain kinds of foreign endeavors.

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    • There’s more than meets the eye. Manitoba was founded by rebel leader Louis Riel because of popular outrage resulting from the government’s attempt to re-survey land that was already surveyed and occupied by the locals. After government troops fired on (and killed) a farmer, the locals had had enough and founded their own republic. They actually tried and hanged a man for treason in the brief period before government troops showed up to fight them. Riel was on the run for 15 years, but was elected to parliament in exile, and led another rebellion a bit further North and West. Riel was captured by government troops and hanged himself…

      And yet, today, aside from generic hatred of people from Toronto, there’s no sense of popular anger against the federal government in Manitoba. There’s no significant anti-tax sentiment. A significant number of Manitobans joined the labor party in the early part of the 20th century, fought for workers, and that movement ultimately morphed into an NDP government that is perhaps the sole implementation of socialism on the North American continent – and it has been in power for 25 of the last 40 years.

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  6. A Canadian commenter in a previous Scott post made a statement to the effect that a few years go if you asked “an American,” she would tell you that of course America had the best health care in the world. I agree that such essentialism (read: stereotyping) is unfair. Obviously some would have said that, but plenty would have not. It’s a very unfortunate verbal tic that seems to be widespread around the world when it comes to people expressing their impressions of America, and therefore of Americans.

    However, there is often a kernel of truth to these impressions, and franky, I tink that the statement that there is an undercurrent of violence (or the threat thereof) in American political discourse both generally and especially lately is just simply stating the truth, and not even in overgeneral terms. Had he said “Americans have a propensity to resort to threats of violence in their political rhetoric,” that of course would be an inaccurate generalization: some do, others don’t. But the fact that guns have taken an increasingly visible place in discourse of late in my view absolutely justifies the statement that there is an undercurrent of violence. Any implication that this is not as much the case elsewhere is, of course, subject to an examination of other political cultures. But that doesn’t make it untrue here.

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    • Michael: I wrote that. And I stand by it. I lived in Berkeley in 1999-2000 and San Francisco from 2001-now. In the 1999-2003 time frame, I had numerous conversations with people I knew about the US health care system. Not one – not even any registered Green Party members – thought that the American health care system was anything less than the best on earth. Americans may not have been satisfied with their health care system back then, but they certainly thought it was better than what anyone else got.

      This is the same American mentality that, after the stock market and job market imploded in 2001 (well before 9/11), “Of course everything will get better – this is America. Things have always gotten better.” This optimism in the face of no evidence transcended political affiliation until very recently. Or the same mentality that says Ronald Reagan was a hero, while Jimmy Carter was a failure.

      That’s not a sentiment that makes sense to me as a Canadian. I know that the entire economy can be depressed, my entire family can get laid off, that life can suck and I can have no expectation of it getting better. Canadians aren’t convinced that they’re best at something (unless they really are) and they’re always looking around for people who are doing things better (though they don’t necessarily incorporate the successes of others.)

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      • I’m not sure what to say. You didn’t talk to anyone with any but one particular opinion in a certain place, so it didn’t exist anywhere in America at that time? I couldn’t object if you had initially described your experience as you do now — everyone in your experience thought X. But you said, “Ask an American and they’d tell you…” You really think that flies? Does that logic apply to your country and every other one as well?

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        • It was accepted as an article of faith that the US has the best health care system in the world until very recently. But this has now become a survey question: Percentage of people who said the United States has the best health care system in the world:

          3/12/09: Pew – 15% said yes (ignores DK) including 28% of Rs
          3/2/08: Harris – 45% said yes (55% if you exclude the 15% DK) including 68% of Rs

          So 18 months ago, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, half of respondents actually said the US had the best health care system in the world. What do you suppose that number was ten years ago? Whether it was 90% or 100%, it hardly matters.

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            • …That’s because, contra Will, I actually believe making some essentialist generalizations based on national tendencies is often justified — as I said in the case of an “undercurrent of violence.” What doesn’t work is to say what “any” or “a” citizen of a given country would say based on those essentialist conclusions or personal experience. You must always acknowledge the minority viewpoint; the variation within the trend.

              Am I just being picky about language here? Yes. What you said is false, clearly so, and you should acknowledge that, if only because of how easy it would be for you to just say what you really mean.

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              • I simply did not encounter the minority viewpoint ten years ago, even among a group that (according to the Pew poll, for example) is more likely to think that American health care is not the best in the world. Americans of all political stripes were simply delusional about the state of the health care system ten years ago.

                If John Kerry gets 47% of the vote, yes, it is important to acknowledge the “minority” opinion. But if Eugene Debs gets 6% of the vote in 1912, it’s merely a footnote and a minor trend, and does not require acknowledgment that some Americans were at some point socialists.

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  7. Great rebuttal Will.

    One anecdottal story i will tell: I went to the NRA National Meeting here in Louisville last year. There were something like 30,000 ‘gun nuts’ there, myself included. We’re the kind of folks who fondle shotguns and high-powered rifles and try not to drool while doing it. After spending the morning touring an enormous hall full of guns and people who work for gun companies, we headed over to the afternoon forum. Speakers included Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Mitch McConnell, John Bolton, Karl Rove and John McCain (this was just after McCain clinched the nomination). The Secret Service was handling security and there was very thorough searches of the 10,000 people allowed into the hall. As we were passing through the guy in front of me said to the Secret Service folks, “I bet dealing with this crowd is pretty stressful.” The agent replied, “Not at all. This is the easiest and most respectful crowd I’ve ever worked.”

    THAT is American gun culture in the same way that gang-land slayings and school shootings and hunting trips and shooting cans with your dad are. Broad generalizations seem to overlook that.

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  8. Mark, I think how the question about health care is worded is critical. If one assumes one is going to get all the health care one wants on demand, then, yes, I believe there is a predominant sentiment that American health care is the best in the world. After all, people who can afford it come here from all over the world to get treated. But if the question is more along the lines of, the health care that you personally are actually able to get (IOW, make the question more about insurance rather than health care per se), the answer might be very different. The 30-40 million people who are uninsured presumably would not answer positively to that question. (These people of course are excluded from those polls that claim that 80% of Americans are satisfied with their health care). As a self-employed person who has to pay through the nose for a policy that forces me to pay out of the pocket for everything but the most expensive items, I wouldn’t answer positively (and I live in the Bay Area, btw). My premiums have tripled in the past ten years. There is also the evidence of the increasing number of Americans who go abroad for certain procedures, particularly to places like Thailand and India, because prices for basically the same treatment are 10-20% what they are in the U.S. Often, paying the full price abroad is cheaper than paying with the help of insurance in the U.S.

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  9. I don’t know that America’s a great deal more violent than other places, but if the violent people have heavier weaponry they’ll cause more damage. As a Canadian, the US conservative attitude towards guns confuses me: I’ve got no problem with people owning hunting rifles, or collecting them if that’s what they think is fun, and can understand some people wanting a handgun for protection. But beyond that, when you get into the arena of automatics, semi-automatics, all the giant guns – I don’t comprehend why anyone would want them unless they were planning on killing people.

    For Canada my preference would be a gun registry for handguns (which I think we have); one isn’t needed for shotguns and the attempt at it just annoyed people and went way overbudget. For the US given the greater interest in “gun right” I’d drop the idea of the registry, but still don’t think people should be walking around with the kind of armaments you’d expect on a battlefield.

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    • ” I’d drop the idea of the registry, but still don’t think people should be walking around with the kind of armaments you’d expect on a battlefield.”

      In Switzerland men are required to keep military guns at home in order to quickly mobilize in the event of invasion. I believe it’s been that way for ages. It’s how they structured the defense.

      In the U.S. the right to gun ownership was guaranteed as a check and balance to the possible power of a Federal Government run amuck. Now even the biggest automatic weapon isn’t going to stop the black helicopters, but that was the original intent.

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