Guns have become an intimate part of American culture, nurtured by gun manufacturers and the gun lobby, the right-wing media and Hollywood, and of course the Republican Party. Our children pay the price.
By Sonali Kolhatkar
Mass shootings are good for gun sales. In the days following the horrific massacre of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, gun makers’ stock prices unexpectedly rose. Gun owners who have been conditioned to buy guns because they fear they will not be able to buy more guns tend to anticipate coming restrictions and buy more guns. This in turn boosts gun profits and stock prices. It’s a macabre cycle seemingly fueled by Republican-led, fear-based culture wars.
Gun buyers act in such a way that they logically assume that lawmakers will respond to a mass shooting by making it more difficult to purchase a gun. Because when consumer products turn out to be dangerous for humans, they are often regulated.
The federal government routinely recalls dangerous products — such as a line of children’s bunk beds whose broken ladder resulted in the death of a 2-year-old Ohio child. In this case, nearly 40,000 units sold to the public were recalled. The US Public Interest Research Group has a long list of toys that the federal government has recalled that posed a choking hazard to children.
It makes sense to regulate harmful products, especially when it comes to children’s health and safety. The government does not sidestep the problem by saying that it was the child’s or the parents’ fault that a product caused harm. Instead, it assumes that only safe products should be available for purchase and penalizes the manufacturer.
But time and time again, the very rational fears of gun owners remain unfounded as thousands of children are victims of gun violence every year, yet firearm manufacturers are absolved of blame and weapons of war remain readily available. The Uvalde gunman reportedly bought two AR-15 rifles legally from a state-licensed gun shop just days before the massacre and used one of them to end 21 lives.
A group of pediatricians published an appeal in Scientific American in response to the Uvalde shooting and the fact that gun violence is now the case leading Cause of death in young people aged 1 to 19 years. The doctors wrote, “We need to do better for our children,” noting that “politicizing guns takes precedence over public health.”
How else to explain the endless proliferation of deadly killing machines if we can’t even tolerate a broken ladder on a bunk bed?
It’s true that gun sales are big business, with millions of firearms sold each year. Some gun manufacturers with lucrative federal contracts are even using their profits to crack down on government gun control. But the impact guns have on the nation goes deeper than just the economy.
It is also true that the National Rifle Association has great influence in Washington through its political affiliates, which make large campaign donations to GOP politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to ensure gun control inaction. But the NRA alone is not driving increased access to guns.
At its core, it is about how guns have become a central issue in right-wing culture struggles in the United States today. They’ve become synonymous with “freedom,” or rather, a perverted interpretation of the word. They are also associated with ‘defense’, a word that appears in the name of manufacturer Daniel Defense, whose gun was used to kill victims at Uvalde Primary School.
“Freedom of self-defense” has become a powerfully compelling cultural idea for a shrinking white population whose paranoia is relentlessly fueled by Fox News, the Republican Party, and gunmakers like Daniel Defense.
The arms manufacturer engages in aggressive marketing. In a commercial, founder Marty Daniel said, “There are two kinds of people in the world, good people and bad people.” He continued, “And just in case bad people take charge, good people must have the ability , to fight back.”
While the language of “good versus bad” sounds simple and even benign, in reality it’s often code-coded language for good white straight guys versus bad blacks and browns. Or LGBTQ people. Or undocumented immigrants. Or “woke” white people.
What often remains unanswered is the question of whether weapons offer the freedom to defend oneself against what or against whom? They’re certainly not wild animals, despite Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy’s recent ludicrous claim that Americans need AR-15 rifles because of “wild boar.”
There is a concern that “there are all these criminals out there; They’re going to break into your house in the middle of the night,” Michael Siegel, visiting professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, told me in a recent interview. “It’s a racist fear,” he added.
Right wing (mostly white, male) gun owners are so convinced that they must defend themselves against imagined evil “others” that some in the hours after the Uvalde shooting went so far as to speculate that since border guards killed the gunman, he must have been an “illegal alien”. Others were convinced the shooter was a transgender woman.
The facts about gun ownership and self-defense show how ridiculous the idea of ”freedom to defend” is. Polling firm Gallup found that in 2000, 65 percent of Americans cited “safeguarding from crime” as a reason for owning a gun. In 2021, that number rose to 88 percent. At the same time, since the 1990s, rates of violent and property crime have fallen dramatically across the country. Studies now show that firearms are extremely rarely used in self-defense and far more often used for assault, homicide or suicide, or fired accidentally.
“It’s a charade,” Siegel said of self-defense. “It’s not a question of freedom. The Republicans who refuse to support these laws are not standing for freedom.” If parents and children are right to fear school because of gun violence, “that’s not much of a free society,” he asserted.
Hollywood also takes some blame, using gun violence to increase tension in film and TV show storylines, which amounts to a massive public relations campaign for gun manufacturers. Researchers Brad Bushman and Dan Romer, writing in Quartz, found that “acts of gun violence in PG-13 films nearly tripled in the 30 years between 1985 (the year after the rating was introduced) and 2015.”
In addition, they write, “The gun industry pays production companies to place their products in their films,” and “Prominent placement in high-profile films can result in a significant increase in sales for gun models.” While Hollywood may not nurture the same fantasy (“freedom to defense”) as the right wing, it certainly makes guns seem “cool” like the cigarette smoking industry did.
A majority of Americans support various gun restrictions; But the Republican Party, which has spent years laying the groundwork for minority rule away from white conservative voters in anticipation of the impending demographic shift, does not have to listen to the will of the people. Instead, they have rigged districts, enough seats in the undemocratic Senate, and a conservative majority on the Supreme Court to ensure they remain immune to popular will.
Ultimately, white male Republican belief that guns are a way of defending themselves against imaginary evil people is a hateful fantasy — a direct result of cultural conditioning by right-wing media, gun lobbyists, Hollywood and the GOP. The price we pay as a nation for this fear-based fantasy is our children’s lives and their sense of security in school.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of Rising Up With Sonali, a television and radio show aired on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing grantee for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.