Look within to change U.S. gun culture

Henry Allen / Special to The Washington Post /

Let me dust off my favorite Sufi parable.

A man loses a ring inside his house. A friend sees him crawling around outside and asks, “If you lost your ring in the house, why are you looking for it here?” “You fool,” says the man, “the light is much better out here.”

And so it goes with people looking for solutions to gun killings in America.

We’re talking about the very best people, the people with statistics and proposals for regulation, crawling around in the sunlight of their social-scientific rationality.

They never find a solution because all their legislation, academic studies, mathematical proofs, and proposals for waiting periods, background checks and buying limits aren’t going to do much more than they ever have.

Nor are the pleas of the progressives asking why anyone would ever want to own a gun — thereby demonstrating their arrogance toward the people who own the hundreds of millions of guns in the United States.

Both the problem and the solution lie elsewhere, in what historian Richard Hofstadter called “America as a Gun Culture.”

It started with New England Indians trying to drive out settlers in King Philip’s War, 1675-76. Some 5 percent to 10 percent of settler men of fighting age were killed. Laws soon required settlers to keep firearms in their homes.

The 1700s brought the “Kentucky rifle,” the long-range symbol of frontier independence. George Washington encouraged “the use of Hunting Shirts, with long Breeches made of the same Cloth ... it is a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror to the enemy, who think every such person a complete marksman.”

In the 19th century, Samuel Colt brought the gleaming modernity of mass production to gunmaking. The slogan had it that God created man and Samuel Colt made them equal. Cowboys carried Colts the way noblemen carried swords, as blazons of their status. Dime-novel writers invented the quick-draw duels that almost never happened.

The 20th century brought the dark romance of the gangster armed with Thompson submachine guns and private eyes with their snub-nosed .38s. World War II veterans brought home enemy guns as trophies of their victory. Then came the AK-47, weapon of choice against Western imperialists.

Hollywood employs armorers tuned to the tiniest details of gun fetishism. I’ve read that on “Miami Vice,” Don Johnson’s character was equipped with not an ordinary cop’s sidearm but a 10mm Dornaus & Dickson Bren Ten with hard-chrome slide on a stainless-steel frame. How alluring.

Guns get handed down through generations, symbols of patriarchy.

They’re symbols of protection of the home, the romance of industry, equality, cool daring, mean-street savvy, fighting for liberation and family tradition.

There are complications of class, too. Campaigns against “Saturday night specials” were campaigns against the arming of the lower classes. In 1941, a Florida Supreme Court justice wrote an opinion that a gun-control law had been “passed for the purpose of disarming the Negro laborers and ... was never intended to be applied to the white population.”

Last week an analyst talked to an NPR talk-show host about “insurrectionist” gun owners — a rising of the masses against, presumably, some of the people who listen to NPR.

When elites talk about “armed rednecks” and “gun-toting trailer trash,” they may think their bigotry stays secret. It doesn’t. Those maligned Americans are aware that governing classes throughout history have sought a monopoly on violence, in the manner of the British redcoats trying to seize American guns at Concord, Mass.

Purveyors of guns rejoice whenever America is seized by gun-control crusades — they do little but drive up gun purchases by those who fear total confiscation.

The gun problem, however it’s defined, can’t be solved by statistical correlation between gun ownership and gun deaths, or by sneering at gun owners, or by lawmakers calling for more laws (which is, after all, what they do).

Instead, we need to look at America as a gun culture.

We might start with public pressure on the media and mass entertainment. We might stop catering to gun fetishism. We might increase the number of high school rifle teams — the dwindling of which, following calls for bans starting in the 1960s, has helped leave gun training to movies and video games. We might point out that the great names of American gunsmithing — Winchester, Colt, Smith and Wesson, and Remington — are now just brands bought and sold by corporations. U.S. pistols are so shoddy that our armed forces chose a pistol from Italy, the Beretta. Our police carry pistols from Austria and Germany.

We might think about the cultural effects of turning endless war — Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan — into a norm. And we should know that gun culture is founded on a small amount of facts and a large amount of romance.

Changing a culture is a lot harder than changing the law. But look at our cultural shifts on race and gender, on drunk driving and the cooling of the American love affair with the automobile. It takes a long time, and there are no guarantees, yet we might actually find the solution we’ve been looking for in all the wrong places.