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Gun Culture and the Manly Virtues

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The third issue of "Trigger" magazine, a fledgling editorial product of "Guns & Ammo" features a story on John Hinson, a Civil-War-era vigilante in Tennessee who, the story relates, meticulously assassinated Union Army officers after two of his own sons had been killed and beheaded. The piece is written with unabashed admiration for Hinson's arbitrary justice:

Throughout history, man has had the responsibility to do two things: protect his family and provide for that family. In this day and age, some have steered away from their manly roots, but many of us still want to do right by our loved ones. Anyone who considers himself a red-blooded protector of his family will feel his blood boil when he hears the saga of Captain John "Jack" Hinson. 

If traditional masculine virtues are under assault elsewhere in Western civilization, they are vividly paraded in American gun culture. You can rate the top 10 "manliest firearms." Or peruse a Pinterest board of "manly weapons." A letter writer in the January 2015 issue of Guns & Ammo laments an essay by "a limp-wristed shooter." In 2010, the website Ammoland.com promoted a marketing game by Bushmaster, maker of the semi-automatic rifle used in the Newtown mass shooting, that all but shouted its intention to exploit masculine insecurity: "To become a card-carrying man, visitors of Bushmaster.com will have to prove they’re a man by answering a series of manhood questions."

Despite efforts to expand the market to women -- gun manufacturers are still making a go of pink products -- the gun world remain a man's world. And the most important color in gun culture (and marketing) is white. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of adult gun owners are white males, which is almost double their share of the U.S. adult population.

Popular culture continues to make plenty of room for macho dudes. But ambivalence and indecision have made a movie star of Michael Cera, and as A.O. Scott wrote in September, it's possible to chart the relative decline of white males in American culture through our television sets.

From the start, “Mad Men” has, in addition to cataloging bygone vices and fashion choices, traced the erosion, the gradual slide toward obsolescence, of a power structure built on and in service of the prerogatives of white men.

Meanwhile, the real world has featured a devastating economic downturn that looked to many like a "mancession," even as growing economic autonomy among American women has reshaped breadwinning and gender roles. It's getting tough out there for tough guys.

When tough guys are threatened, gun culture beckons, offering reassurance about the command and control of traditional masculinity. If record Black Friday store sales are any indication, there is plenty of insecurity to go around this Christmas season, which follows a lengthy sales boom inspired in part by the presidency of Barack Obama. As crime rates continue a historic plunge, lots of Americans resist the good news, believing instead that the U.S. is growing more violent. Gun marketers feed off the anxiety, offering "tactical" firearms as a last defense against creeping disorder.

Guns loom large in the imagination, altering perceptions. One study concluded that people who are armed are more likely to believe others are armed, as well:

The current results indicate that the mere act of wielding a firearm raises the likelihood that nonthreatening objects will be perceived as threats. This bias is also detrimental for the armed officers and soldiers who act violently after mistakenly thinking they saw a gun. Public gun safety and police training courses should incorporate these findings into their training protocols.

Another study, conducted by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, suggested that by holding a gun, "a man of any size appears bigger, an altered notion that probably occurs at a subconscious level." It doesn't take much imagination to grasp the appeal of this to gunslingers. In a world in which the longstanding privileges of white males have been inexorably shrinking, and in which white males are likely to command even less terrain in a multicultural, multiracial future, a gun offers an appealing illusion -- that a man's power expands even as the cultural, political and economic space he occupies contracts.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net