After Newtown: A Discussion about Gun Controls and Popular Culture

While I take for granted that gun control is a proper response to the atrocity in Newtown, not all do. This is the second of a two part extended exchange (part 1, here ). My friend Thomas Cushman, who holds libertarian views, challenged me and proposed a different interpretation and a different course of action. I hope this will open a deeper deliberate discussion.

Tom: Jeff, I wonder if we as sociologists could bring some kind of understanding to this situation that does not sink down into the extreme positions on either side? Otherwise it’s just politics as usual. Consider, for instance, that Connecticut already has severe gun control measures. They did not stop the atrocity. Vermont is a state where any resident can buy as many guns, and as much ammunition as they want, carry concealed handguns, own assault rifles, and it has the lowest homicide rate in the country. I am not a fan of the gun culture by any stretch, but it seems shallow to imagine that some amorphous, state induced “gun control” is going to ever stop these kinds of things. As you know, the problem is cultural. We live in a degraded cultural environment full of simulated and prosthetic violence,. Our children, especially our boys, are immersed in violent culture produced by Hollywood. Why not start there?

Jeff: Agreed the problem at its base cultural. Gun culture, the culture of violence and its glorification.   And yes, violence in popular culture is a problem. But why have so many guns? I would like to work on all fronts. I would start with a discussion about gun controls in the political arena. Certainly some weapons shouldn’t be in private hands. Certainly, also, we should have a discussion about depictions of violence in films and music. If you want to start there, fine. Figure out how to address a degraded cultural environment, and do so. These discussions needn’t be in competition.

Tom:  There is a group of cultural producers who control the content of popular culture. They degrade the cultural environment with violence, yet,  many of them are liberals who clamor for gun control. That inconsistency bears as much scrutiny and critique as it is humanly possible to give….. To keep this on a positive note, we could do a study of how people react to events such as the CT shootings. I’ve become more and more vexed by trying to understand evil sociologically; the contingency and agency of it beguiles any explanatory/causative vocabulary. Theodicy seems better than sociology for me right now. I want to see cultural sociology address these issues. As for politics, I think a very appropriate action that would appeal to libertarians, conservatives, liberals –something everyone might like – would be to do a concentrated boycott of the next Hollywood film that glorifies violence. Everyone stays home and evokes the memory of those poor murdered children and their teachers and sends the message, without state intervention, that we’ve had enough. Ditto with the video games. Why not organize a “buy and burn day” nationwide? There is no censorship, just people using their 1st amendment rights to say “no more.”

Jeff: Hollywood liberals and conservatives make violent films. Why Hollywood liberals and not just Hollywood? I am not afraid of characterizations but of stereotypes. Last time I noticed Clint Eastwood was not a liberal. Nor are other heroes of violence whose names I don’t know. My ignorance about such cultural products is almost complete. I always boycott such products and recommend that all do. But I am rather convinced that gun violence occurs not by viewing films but by people having guns readily available, and I am not thinking about hunters in Vermont. Really why semi automatic weapons, handguns? Why not tanks and missiles?

Tom: I am trying to be a sociologist here. The fact is that most filmmakers and producers are on the political left. If they are truly concerned about violence, why do they continue to make films that saturate our children with it? It’s the hypocrisy that irks me. The cultivation hypothesis in media sociology is something I’ve taught for years: when the culture is saturated with violent depictions of murder and mayhem, people come to see it as normal and it provides the cultural base that activates action. That guns are are readily available makes it possible to translate more ideation into action. I agree with that. But my main point is this, sociologically: the ready availability of guns is not necessarily the main cause of massacres. I keep mentioning Vermont, because it is not all hunters, as you say, Jeff. The place is infested with guns. You can buy a gun, load it, conceal it and carry it, no permit, nothing. And huge numbers of people do. So the availability of guns has nothing to do with the rate of violence there: how do you explain that? If your theory that access to guns is the cause of violence, Vermont should be drowning in bloodshed, yet is has the lowest death by handgun rate in the nation. The person who committed these heinous acts in CT got his guns from his mother, who went through rigorous process to get them, permits, etc. Access was difficult. And he did not use assault weapons. One could also use the case of Brievik in Norway, one of the hardest place in the word to buy guns. I’m trying to understand this more sociologically?

Jeff: I too am trying and in fact am a sociologist. Most filmmakers are liberals, also a disproportionate number of Jews, but their work should not be reduced to their politics or their identity. Is there anything in the work that is a function of their politics or identity? My criticism of such reductionism has been central to my professional life as a sociologist of culture. As far as guns: we agree that the issue is cultural. For me the arguments for guns are pernicious. The arguments constitute a culture of violence: purported individual defense of the safety of the home and defense by oneself from state tyranny. These NRA positions are very dangerous, perhaps more dangerous than gun ownership. I think that having many guns at home make matters worse, as in the Newtown case. My fundamental concern is with the culture of guns in people’s lives, not as they and violence are fictively depicted. Though as I said, I agree it would be better to turn away from such depictions as individuals and as a society.

Tom: A libertarian would be as ferociously against the misuse of weapons to harm people as the liberal statist would. We live in a violent society where police powers are not sufficient to protect the basic right to life. The question is what we should do about that.

  • Alex N.

    I think it is a mistake to assert a causal relationship between access to, or ownership of, guns and gun violence. It’s true that the U.S. has a startling amount of guns per capita, but it is trailed by Yemen and Switzerland, which seem to lack the high rates of gun violence associated with availability and possession (although Yemen has other clear problems with violence). This observation, however, does not mean that stricter gun control laws are unnecessary.

    But I think in order to discuss gun violence in America we also need to discuss a whole host of other domestic issues, which contribute to it. One of these issues is that gun violence (and a large amount of violence in America, including exorbitant rates against women) is related, in part, to an American public that has become desensitized to violence and suffering while producing them. This is where I agree that the media, but also a highly techno-militarized nation, play a large role. We can mobilize drones to wipe out families thousands of miles away with the touch of a button in the name of freedom and democracy and fund foreign militaries who isolate and destroy entire communities in the name of defense, while at home we have the highest incarceration rates and a broken health care system. These various forms of indirect and direct violence on foreign and domestic bodies (literally) surely cannot produce a safe environment, at least with regards to weaponry.