(This is a “hot button” topic. If you’ve not commented here in the past, then I encourage you to read my policy on comments and spam before commenting now.)
So, another day, another mass-shooting; ho-hum. The NRA and other gun lobbies will noisily declare – in absolute defiance of all logic and evidence – that if only there were MORE guns, such tragedies would not occur. The staggering costs of gun violence will be dismissed out of hand, even and especially on those vanishingly rare occasions when they are mentioned at all. Meanwhile, gun advocates will brazenly insist – again, in absolute defiance of all logic and evidence – that gun control is incapable of effecting gun violence.
This last piece of nonsense deserves special attention, given that the absence of basic reasoning is so manifestly stark. The claim essentially amounts to insisting that since gun control laws cannot be 100% effective (which is to say, completely eliminate all forms of gun violence), then they can only be completely ineffective and useless. In other words, even if gun control laws only reduced gun violence by 1%, those 330 lives saved each year (since we slaughter over 33,000 annually), simply don’t matter. And let us apply the above “reasoning” to other laws: making murder illegal has not ended crimes of murder; so by the same argument, we should make murder legal. The same approach applies equally to every other law and regulation out there.
Many gun owners – probably the overwhelming majority of them – are responsible citizens. Moreover, a great many of these are adamant about the need for meaningful gun control laws. But more than a few owners are completely unhinged. Even without engaging in active criminal behavior, these people can be seen parading around with military style “assault” weapons, engaged in a gross and cowardly form of argumentum ad baculum where, unable to carry their argument through logic and reason, they seek to impose their beliefs through bullying and intimidation.
Many persons react to such behaviors with a form of mockery, making Freudian based comments about the gun owners and the interpretation of their public posturing. I think that such Freudian approaches are of dubious value. Even to the extent that they avoid the ad hominem by being both true and relevant, they are of little or no value. And as far as being “true” goes, as Karl Popper pointed out some 70+ years ago, any observation one makes can be forced to “fit” the Freudian theory, making the Freudian approach the “model centrism” of psychology. So I would suggest a different approach, one that is no less interpretive and theory laden, but which might prove more useful in the long run: let us look upon this kind of gun fetishism as a form of identity politics.
Now, as the above linked article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy indicates, the term “identity politics” is a much laden one. It is so confounded that the article at Wikipedia (to which I’ll not link) has multiple caveats and disclaimers in its header. The term was originally coined as a way to capture how individuals alined themselves as members in minority and oppressed groups in such a way that they did not just identify themselves “with” the group, but identified the group as, in a sense, their own self-identity. This is a very strong form of identification; one is not simply an individual who is a member of a group, one is a member of a group from which that individuality is an emergent property.
However, the application of identity politics, and its attendant forms of analysis, to just and only minority groups is arguably neither necessary nor desirable. For example, Paul Rosenberg did a three part series a few years back on the idea of “Conservatism as Identity Politics.” In the third part of Rosenberg’s analysis, he very explicitly makes the link between conservative identity politics and Robert Altemeyer’s discussion of the authoritarian mind. These connections are important to us here, because the more egregious legal forms of behavior and belief amongst gun owners (those of the second, rather than the first group, mentioned above) does appear (on the surface, at least) to be far more intimately and directly connected with conservatism as Rosenberg has analyzed it, and authoritarian thinking as Altemeyer has described.
One of the points worth highlighting from such analyses is how persons in these groups actually veiw themselves as oppressed, regardless of how false that view demonstrably happens to be. Thus, many white people are outraged by the term “white privilege,” denying that they enjoy any such privilege at all. But the phrase is about an aggregate, not a few outliers, particularly since even those outliers are relatively better off than comparable members of the non-white communities. That sense of external threat is no small part of what drives the group identity, and which in turn leads the individuals involved to derive their own identities from their group cohesion. Thus, it has been suggested (ostensibly in satire) that the only result of President Obama’s recent speech advocating for gun control legislation will be an increase in gun sales. But in terms of identity politics, this is quite seriously to be expected. In so far as this speech is perceived as a threat to the group, the group will respond by digging in its heels so as to project its identity even more definitely.
This is because the threat that is perceived is not to bits and pieces of relatively disposable property. This is identity politics: the threat is a centrally existential one to the very source of the self. To these people, such legislation is less akin to laws that require their vehicles to meet certain basic emission standards, as they are threats to their very existence, to the very possibility of their self and their identity. My rhetoric here might be a bit excessive, but its intention is to establish the qualitative poles along which identity politics is to be understood.
In an earlier post, I glossed the idea that personal identity is an emergent property of communities. In that post I turned to some works of John Dewey: Human Nature and Conduct, Democracy and Education, and Individualism Old and New. To that earlier list, I would now add Freedom and Culture, as well as The Public and Its Problems. My reasons for emphasizing Dewey here is that, quite aside from its relevance, Dewey viewed himself as a thoroughly public intellectual. As a result, he tended to eschew gratuitously technical calisthenics in his writings, even as those writings typically fell far short of “scintillating.”
So, from a Deweyan perspective, at first sight, the problems that can emerge from identity politics are related to the fact of individual identity emerging from group cohesion. Yet if Dewey is correct (and I’m satisfied that he is in the essentials) then this cannot be a problem, because it is a fact. Insofar, all politics is identity politics. Where problems arise is in the failure to apply the best methods of inquiry to establish the broadest, most comprehensive, and most democratic forms of community, such as will cultivate the growth of the most intelligent and responsive kinds of individuals. As a pejorative (which it need not be), identity politics refers to a community that is so aggressive in its narrowness of scope and vision that it has adopted the authoritarian characteristics highlighted by Altemeyer and Rosenberg. It is in this group that we find the worst of the gun owners, those whom we might legitimately characterize as “fetishists.”
 Technically, the weapons in civilian hands are not genuine assault weapons. However, in the absence of an equally straight-forward and easily recognizable classifying term, I’ll pay the price of technical inaccuracy for the gain of rhetorical clarity, and continue using the term.