I’ve been reading a lot about guns and gun ownership lately. Since we have just had two major mass shootings 10 days apart—one in a supermarket, one in a school–this is not surprising. And then we had about 10 more. The media sees guns and gun ownership as a topic of compelling interest right now. That said, I was surprised that, according to a Pew Research Poll, only 30% of Americans own a gun. I thought it was more. Juxtapose that fact with the statistic that there are over 300 million guns in private hands, and that means some gun owners must own lots of guns. And ammo too. A friend of mine told me about a relative of his who had stockpiled 1 million rounds of ammunition in his garage. For what purpose, I asked. My friend said that his relative was preparing for the coming apocalypse. His relative thought that, when the time came, he could distribute his ammo to others like him who wanted to survive.
I don’t own a gun. I’ve never felt the need to own one. I haven’t fired a gun since I was 12 years old and went out with my father to shoot tin cans with a .22 rifle. Whites have a higher percentage of gun ownership than other groups, and they are mostly men. Pew Research says about 48% of White men own guns, compared to 24% of White women. Pew also says that when asked why they own a gun, 67% of respondents cite the need for protection. Once when I was young I was robbed at gunpoint on the street in the city. But that hasn’t made me want to get a gun. Maybe that’s because for most of my life I’ve lived in safe neighborhoods. Or maybe it’s because I don’t see having a gun as important for my identity. In fact, the Pew poll found that whether or not someone lives in a safe neighborhood does not substantially affect whether they own a gun.
But Pew did say that for many gun owners having a gun is important to their identity. These “identity” gun-owners are probably more likely to be men, although Pew doesn’t specifically cite this. Has this always been the case, this connection between guns and identity, or is this something recent? Certainly people who live in rural areas tend to see their guns as useful tools, i.e. for hunting. And in previous centuries when the country was still being settled, having a gun was essential for hunting as well as protection and, at times, war. But a gun as a marker of identity seems to be something different, a metaphor or symbol of something, rather than a utilitarian tool.
America has a far higher percentage of gun ownership than most other countries, and yet the men of Japan or the U.K.—countries with few private guns—don’t seem to be lacking anything in terms of their identity. What is it about our identity needs as Americans—especially American men—that seems to require the possession of a gun to satisfy?
I do know that boys like guns as toys. When I lived with my wife at a Buddhist retreat center, there were several school age boys in residence. The parents met to decide whether we wanted to let the boys have toy guns. Some parents felt that as Buddhists we shouldn’t allow that. Others felt that it was inevitable that the boys would find a way to play with guns. Sure enough, when we experimented with not letting the boys have toy guns, they picked up sticks and made the sticks into guns. You could hear them outside playing with their sticks and shouting “bang” and “you’re dead.” Eventually the parents gave in and let the boys have toy guns.
So do adult men own their guns partly as an extension of their innate boyhood fascination with firearms? Perhaps so, but I’m not sure this aspect has been well studied. Gun owners are passionate about their guns, and the Pew poll found that among men who said guns were important to their identity, 89% said they would never, under any circumstances, give up their guns. That makes sense; to give up an essential marker of identity is a serious existential loss, a kind of death.
The debate about guns—a long-standing central issue in the “culture wars”—seems destined to go on indefinitely, regardless of what the polls say, what people think, or what makes practical sense. There will be more school shootings, more mass murders, and more mayhem. I write this article two weeks after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and already in the past two days there have been 10 more mass shootings—one at a hospital, two in shopping malls, and one on a city street full of nightclubs, and several other places. These shootings do make the news, but they are not the top stories. Not any more. There are too many of them. So far in 2022 there have been more than one a day.
This is the world we live in now, whether we like it or not.