Guns and culture in America

Recently the Wilmington StarNews Editorial Board provided Tom Barth, professor of public administration at UNC-Wilmington, a full-page column titled, “A gun culture in America?” on their “Perspectives” page. Prof. Barth tried to make an academic case, with some personal observations, that we are a gun culture. (link)

Barth bases his column on recent press stories after another “shooting spree,” abundantly supplied with references to “the gun culture.” He examines this claim with what academics call “organizational culture,” defined as “patterns of shared beliefs that a given group has learned to use in solving problems.” Fair enough. Americans over the centuries have solved many problems with guns.

Of course, we can solve only limited and very specific problems with them, for instance protecting life and property imminently threatened by murderers, rapists, lunatics and thieves. However, Barth claims that 60 percent of Americans do not own a gun. So, of course, most people have little effective means of solving that problem. Under those threats, we call them victims (the National Rifle Association has a training program called “Refuse to be a Victim”). Further, if only 40 percent of us own guns (and only a tiny fraction uses them for evil purposes) it’s difficult to argue that the entire country is a gun culture.

Barth doesn’t define the term as it is used: negatively to spread fear, demean those who possess guns and restrict their use. Rather he diverts readers’ attention to three levels at which, he says an organizational culture is clearly apparent: symbols we see, what we say and how we act.

Symbols of guns, writes Barth, are everywhere: on billboard ads; in gun stores and movies; on TV; in violent video games and in the daily news. He says the “physical symbols abound” showing America as a gun culture. True we can see evil gun users in movies, TV, video games and reported in the daily news. But it’s obvious that these media promote the dark and unusual side of our culture. Guns on display in stores, gun shows and ads are highly regulated and neither available nor intended to be used by criminals.

What we say about guns is the second organizational level defining culture, according to Barth. He uses as example that many of us “endorse” guns for self-defense and as a recreational tool. Further, ownership of guns is “enshrined as a constitutional right.” True. These values are cherished by free people.

However, that may be changing. Certainly, anti-gun activists and their political supporters say so—and hope they can bring about more restrictive gun laws. Their ultimate goals are a government ban on personal possession and confiscation of all private guns. But a backlash condition confronts the anti-gun sub-culture. Their threats against our freedom result in dramatic increases in citizen gun purchases. And more people, including many women, learn to use guns. Also NRA membership increases.

The professor also cites “our concern over the state of our military arsenal” as the greatest example of what we say about guns. Personally, I think that this represents a different culture: call it a national defense culture or a political-military-industrial complex culture. These have little to do with our individual rights and everything to do with the expanding power of our central government and our history of imperialist presidents and their supporters.

Barth’s third and “deepest” level of organizational culture relates to actual behavior. Here he seems to doubt that Americans “behave like a gun culture in our daily lives.” Of course we don’t.

Only a few hard-core activists and the press obsess daily over gun ownership and the violence it might cause. They focus attention on rare and unusual events, yet largely ignore frequent gun violence in the inner cities and the thousands of crimes prevented and criminals apprehended every year because of citizens using guns.

In contrast to the fearful, I believe that law-abiding citizen gun owners are more confident and secure people. They understand the tool and know how to use it. Moreover, sensible people know that they are the first line of defense against bad guys with violent intent. If we are a gun culture proper and beneficial uses far outnumber criminal use.

Although I don’t think Prof. Barth has made a compelling case for an American gun culture, he could make a case that violent sub-cultures exist within our society. Statistics show that most gun violence occurs in urban centers with populations 250,000 or greater. Further, I believe, based on his criteria, there is a growing psychopathic sub-culture in America; young anti-social people who show aggressive, perverted or criminal behavior without remorse, spawned by a permissive, undisciplined narcissistic adult sub-culture.

I generally agree with Barth’s concluding statement that we are in a “culture war”—not I think in the way he sees it, but on many social fronts; some I’ve cited above. However, he cannot credibly state that by “all accounts the gun culture is winning.” According to FBI records violent crimes in America are down dramatically over the past 20 years.

In final words Prof. Barth reveals his agenda on this issue: more government gun control from power he hopes President Obama will use to “lead the charge.” The charge Obama will lead (from behind in more campaign speeches) will not be directed at the social causes of violence in America. Rather it will assault one of the tools used—and our personal freedom.


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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