Those against firearm ownership often lead their objections with a distaste for over-enthusiastic attitudes about guns that they say verges on cult-like worship. The claim is also made that these attitudes encourage a needlessly violent approach toward conflicts that have alternative resolutions. At most, those passionately opposed to gun ownership may allow an exception for hunting, but tend to scoff at any claims of usefulness beyond that, including home defense — usually saying guns tend to escalate and worsen problems rather than solving them.
A person holding these views is often someone socially progressive and liberal in other areas — it wouldn’t be an unsafe bet to picture them also voicing deep sympathies for movements like Black Lives Matter, calling for police reform or defunding, and making a conscious effort to recognize their own relative privilege while encouraging others to do so. Yet, where these socially progressive views meet militant opposition to gun ownership is exactly where this bundle of beliefs is almost paradoxical. Those who say they genuinely can’t fathom the desire to own a gun, let alone why anybody would need one, are displaying a lack of sympathy and awareness based on a stereotype of gun owners, and their own position of privilege.
There are probably two main sources for this attitude: An aversion to the gun culture many have been exposed to and feel they are above, and the comfort of living in fortunate circumstances. Those circumstances might include: having relatively little interaction with law enforcement, living in a decent neighborhood and enjoying a certain social status, inexperience with racism, or having previously leveraged the police to render a positive outcome for themselves.
Starting with gun culture, one can easily see how many of its elements, especially those that overlap with ultra-conservative viewpoints, do more to enforce an anti-gun point of view rather than seriously challenge it. It becomes plainly obvious to anyone who spends more than two minutes online that the pro-gun camp is not exclusively full of calm, articulate discussion about self-defense, target shooting, and the intellectual foundations that might lead one to support the right to bear arms for safety and political reasons. Instead, one often finds hordes of people yelling (literally or figuratively) political talking points about socialism and “gun-grabbers.” Couple that with the kind of people who seriously claim kids should start handling firearms at the age of two, and it’s easy to see why so many have an initial aversion to guns based on the culture that is sometimes on display with them. Even many who own and enjoy firearms cringe when they think of many of their fellow gun owners. All of this leads many to incorrectly believe the stances and territory of politics surrounding guns is only relevant to angry white males, and while it’s true that this demographic is more likely to own guns than others, gun ownership is nowhere near exclusive to this group.
Nevertheless, critiques of a facet of the culture that surrounds a set of tools cannot stand in place for judgement of the tools, their usefulness, and one’s right to own and use them. Just as pointing out how some use social media to say hateful things and rally others around their point of view isn’t a critique against social media itself, pointing out that some gun proponents have questionable ideas isn’t a valid critique of, or point against, gun ownership and the right to own guns.
In any case, my experience has been that it’s relatively easy to convince someone that their aversion to certain aspects of gun culture may be biasing them unnecessarily. What’s harder is getting someone to recognize how their stance on guns may be heavily reliant on their relative privilege and social status, especially if much of their reasoning is based on the idea that they should simply call the police for their own protection.
Many do not recognize how others may not only feel helpless and in danger when interacting with law enforcement, but, furthermore, how even calling the police to come to their aid can be hazardous or dangerous to themselves or to others in the community. Not regularly having negative experiences (directly or indirectly) with law enforcement is a way that one can become sheltered from even the slightest sympathy for the desire to own a firearm for personal protection, perhaps even against the police.
Consider first someone’s level of interaction with law enforcement in their life so far. Those fortunate enough to have had little or no interaction with law enforcement (apart from a speeding ticket here or a traffic violation there) go through most of their life not dealing with the police when they’re doing the most policing. To rarely have to deal with the police and to see them as a line of defense standing between you and those who wish to do you harm, rather than the very people who would do you harm, is a privilege. The side of the line you find yourself on often depends not on your intentions, and not whether you’re one of the “bad guys,” but rather on your skin color, ethnic background, mental health, or a lifestyle correlated with a certain level of income or property. For many, the idea starts to take hold that those who have negative interactions with the police have asked for it, and that the police (the ones with the guns if you need them) are the people who you call to handle any situation where things get out of hand. The sirens and flashing lights become symbols of crime fighting and protection of property and lifestyle rather than warning signs of racial profiling, unnecessary harassment, and potentially violent situations that can rapidly, and unnecessarily, become life-threatening for someone on the receiving end.
Even someone who has had more than limited interactions with the police can still come out of those experiences with the idea that the police are the only ones who need to deal with the business of owning firearms or weapons because law enforcement responds in a favorable manner to them. Perhaps someone’s interactions with law enforcement have been when they were the ones making the call for help. If you live in a “good” or relatively wealthy neighborhood, you’re more likely to experience a series of events after calling the police that resembles what would most likely happen after calling the fire department: You call them, they respond, they do more good than harm by putting out the fire (in the police’s case, getting the “bad guys”), they verify if everyone is safe and see how else they can help. And when their job is done they leave.
Of course, others live in less well-off neighborhoods, drive different cars, and have a different skin tone. These people are less likely to relate to the experience and attitudes sketched above. I’ve already noted that, and many others have explored how, to many, the police can be overbearing and do more harm than good in their community. But, on the other hand, part of being underprivileged or disadvantaged is also being someone who would call an emergency number for help, but who also knows from experience that no good would come of it because it’s not likely that the police will do anything at all. And if they do show up, they’re likely to make things worse rather than better. The issues with policing that disproportionately affect certain groups and communities aren’t all active in nature, they can also be inactive. Indeed, current arrangements leave some communities without the help they are told they have on paper when it comes to violent crime and the security of their property and possessions, leaving “residents feeling perpetually underserved and unsafe.” If you can’t call anyone for help, maybe you have to rely on yourself — and if those who wish to do you harm have guns, shouldn’t you?
Those forced to live with these issues and be conscious of them (or those who have made themselves conscious of these issues) understand why many think matters of protection should and could be handled better by their community or themselves, and not the police. A natural extension of this is to believe they, and the people they trust the most, should have guns, rather than the police exclusively — or at all.
Someone who, at the very least, hasn’t achieved a basic level of sympathy or understanding of the desire to own a gun is not necessarily a bad person, but they’ve had an experience or set of experiences that is unlike the ones many in underprivileged communities face every day. Ultimately, nothing here disproves or validates any finer points of principle or consequence on guns and gun ownership. My point is that your views on guns and gun ownership — just like your views on government and democracy, police and justice, and social circumstances and hierarchy — are susceptible to bias in a direction that marches in lockstep with values you’ve internalized and experiences you’ve lived based on your relative level of privilege. If you can’t get that out of the way or keep it in check when thinking of guns, then you’re not doing justice to the issue or yourself.