Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Another Perspective on Gun Ownership (2018-06-16)
or early 19th
century french fintlock rifle, image courtesy of christies
, june 2018
Sometimes instructive comments turn up in surprising places as blow bys that usually get relegated to a footnote, but luckily this one did not, and it suggested some additional perspective on the mindset of americans who have become hyper-committed to gun ownership. The comment summarized part of Patrick Malone's arguments from The Skulking Way of War: Technologies and Tactics Among the New England Indians, specifically the bit where he suggests that europeans were poor shots because they were mostly agriculturalists and who could own and keep weapons was limited to "a privileged few." This is not wholly convincing in light of how many european colonists were not actually agriculturalists at all, but impoverished city dwellers who were somehow expected to spontaneously become farmers, or at least be conveniently out of the way, once dispatched to the "new world." There were opportunities to learn to farm of course, especially from local Indigenous farmers, and sometimes from already established religious communities that may or may not have welcomed them. Plus, it seems doubtful that all weapons were limited, but the expensive ones certainly were by nature of the cost, both initial and ongoing. There were plenty of knives and other cheaper weapons that remained quite accessible. All that said, the association between owning guns, expensive guns, and social status is emphatically on point if we bear in mind that who is considered a lawful gun owner by default is emphatically racialized.
Originally european men at least could not make sense of Indigenous hunting practices because in european societies hunting was restricted to the people who had parlayed various forms of violence into claims to "titles" and a supposed right to force others to support them or starve. So in the early years of the invasion of northern Turtle Island at least, european men were absolutely certain that Indigenous men who hunted were in fact the laziest of the lazy, because on one hand, hunters at home were the "nobles" who conspicuously didn't work. By the early to mid nineteenth century, the use of guns was part of a whole series of ritualized behaviours and elaborated "sporting" rules that non-Indigenous men invented to differentiate themselves from "savages" and reassert their supposedly masculinity. Part of the "sporting" rules was specifically not eating the animals they shot, which of course they wouldn't need to anyway, if they were at least wealthy enough to go shoot something large out in the bush.
Not being an american, I have what may be a misimpression that a key element in the american construction of gun ownership is that guns are somehow a necessity of survival. Never mind that Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples alike got on quite well without guns for far longer than guns have been around. Estimating very generously from chinese evidence, guns have been in existence and some sort of use since the 1100s, which makes for perhaps a thousand years of guns relative to approximately 200 000 years for "anatomically modern humans." (This odious term was invented by racists and is only slowly leaving the lexicon.) So "far longer" here is an understatement, considering the difference is 0.5% versus 99.5%. Fear of wild animals and Indigenous peoples gets trotted out regularly to rationalize gun ownership in earlier periods of colonial history on Turtle Island, but this makes little practical sense, even for getting enough to eat. Even later hunting rifles that had fewer smoke and flash problems were still best for certain types of hunting at certain times of year for certain animals. It's surprisingly easy not to get attacked by people by not attacking them or stealing their homes, but that's a story already well covered elsewhere.
Okay, maybe the issue isn't physical survival then but political survival as a separate community from the original british government that the "thirteen colonies" wanted to get economically free of at least at all costs. "The right to bear arms" as insurance policy against being colonized or otherwise oppressed by outsiders school of gun ownership. I'm not sure how strong an argument this really is in the case of those original thirteen colonies. By the time they wanted out, part of what made that time propitious was england's weakening commitment to spending hard cash and recruiting soldiers to garrison and hold less profitable overseas colonies. The full flowering of that shrinking commitment didn't happen until the american civil war, which led britain to cut the original version of canada loose in quite a hurry, while hanging onto the still lucrative "rupert's land" and "newfoundland." An interesting historical counterfactual is to try thinking through whether the "united states" would have developed anyway, even without the war the putative americans undertook against england. But after the creation of the united states, such as they were, they weren't busy fighting against other colonial states focussed on bringing down their government. Instead, they got busy in pursuing the project of stealing Indigenous lands and slaughtering Indigenous people. Right now, today, racist fearmongering aside, people who think they are white are not under siege by people of colour, the desperate poor of any ethnicity and phenotype, or their fictional stand-ins, zombies and robots.
If there are no logical reasons for the remarkable claims about gun ownership made in the states in terms of something we usually see as practical like hunting for food or self defence, then I think we can conclude the logic at hand is not practical in that sense. Instead, it is about the practicalities of maintaining and performing a certain social status. They still represent a sort of conspicuous consumption, and have developed over the past 100 years or so into a badge of particular political views. Analogous to being "a card carrying member" of the party or club. To get the card, you have to do something, pay something, or think a certain way, often all three. People don't fight and produce their most virulent rhetoric over objects or actions that lower their social status. With this in mind, it is no surprise then that people who think the are white who find themselves in socio-economically precarious circumstances may feel especially driven to acquire and hang onto a type of status building object or practice that would be difficult to take away without suffering damage.