Let’s take a break for a minute from the usual economic and finance commentary to talk about something that I think is important – guns in the U.S.
I won’t profess to have some profound ideas about how to change what is clearly a crisis in this country. This problem is more complex than most people make it appear, but I wanted to spill some thoughts because I feel like I understand the issue fairly well.
So, I grew up around guns in Virginia and West Virginia. Me and my brothers and sisters were all comfortable with weapons. I’ve shot everything from a .22 to an AK-47 to an M60 to a grenade launcher. Like most (many?) Americans I think guns are pretty cool and I support the Second Amendment. The second part of that statement is totally fine and I think the first part is kind of stupid. Guns aren’t cool. They’re killing machines, literal killing machines. Machines that kill people are not cool.
That brings me to the problem in American culture. We have a serious cultural problem with the way guns are portrayed in our society. They’re displayed across social media and the Internet as cool gadgets. As if a gun is the same thing as a nice pair of sunglasses or a neat watch. Or perhaps a better example is smoking. Smoking was often portrayed as the thing “cool kids” do. But we now know that smoking is definitely not cool. It’s super stupid. Cigarettes are killing machines. We know that for a fact. Guns are not that different. They are killing machines. And they are not cool.
Now, I am of the opinion that banning guns will not solve our problem. Many Liberals say we should ban “semi-automatic” weapons, but almost every single gun in the USA is a semi-automatic. Most handguns are semis. And make no mistake, a marginally well trained shooter could carry out massive damage with a few small weapons and a whole bunch of clips. So if you ban the big guns, killers may just buy more little guns and more clips and get comfortable unloading them quickly. I don’t think banning guns will stop the killing any more so than banning cigars will stop lung cancer. The smokers will just switch to a different type of killing machine.¹
This problem is bigger than most people assume. It’s a cultural problem. We love guns way too much. We think they’re cool and they’re not. And our kids grow up in this culture thinking that guns are just like cigarettes – something that the cool kids use.² And they’re not. Guns are bad. They are machines you should only have to handle when confronted with an evil that we wish did not exist. Of course, that evil does exist, and that’s one reason we have guns. But I think we have to cleanse our culture of this false idea that guns are cool. Not to beat a dead horse, but guns are not cool. Cool kids don’t use guns. The Second Amendment is necessary, but only for very uncool reasons. It should be protected, but maintained in the right perspective. And until an entire generation of Americans grows up recognizing this fact it’s hard to imagine that this problem will go away.³
¹ – As someone who believes this is very much a perceptual issue, I would not be against banning a weapon like the AR-15 simply because it is perceived as the “cool” killing machine of choice. That won’t stop the problem, but I do think our government needs to lead the way in tackling this idea that guns are cool. Bans won’t solve the problem, but the right messaging could start to set the right precedent for the future. That said, I am very much in favor of common sense gun laws like extensive background checks, age restrictions and felony conviction restrictions.
² – I think the cigarette comparison is apt again. Guns are a “gateway” to greater violence. But if the messaging is right, “cigarettes are terrible and they kill people” then you start to see real results in the decline in cigarette usage. Maybe I am naive, but I think the same thing can and should be done here.
³ – Make no mistake, the NRA is very much akin to “big tobacco” on this issue. They promote the “guns are cool” concept more than anyone and there needs to be more pushback against this messaging.
Update – Some people have responded to the idea that guns are “killing machines” with the fact that these killing machines can be used for other enjoyable purposes that don’t involve killing. That’s true. But let’s go back to first principles here because that’s how I think about things and I think it’s an appropriate way to think about this. Guns were invented to kill. The first human uses of gun-like instruments were in China and the Middle East during various wars. They evolved over time as weaponry. They are literally designed to kill things. So, for instance, I can use a knife for lots of fun purposes, but at the end of the day it’s designed to cut things. The fact that a knife can be used for other purposes doesn’t change the fact that it’s a tool for cutting things. Same thing with guns. Guns can be used for other purposes, but we should stop distracting from the fact that these weapons are designed for one primary purpose – killing.