Wednesday, March 14, 2018


Arguments about gun control have raged ever since the wave of school shootings and other rampage massacres started in the 1980s. The striking thing is that no one is convinced by the arguments of the opposing side.

Opponents of gun control rest their case on the Second Amendment:
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

The Constitution is not verbose, and this sentence can be read as saying, each state that makes up the United States needs a militia, and therefore... Or the clause can be taken alone: "...the rights of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."   These selective readings convince no one except those already on your side.

The same goes for other arguments.  Guns are justified because it is the constitutional right of Americans to possess guns;  because they are part of the American heritage of liberty, and a stand against the encroaching power of the government; because they are used for sport shooting and hunting; because they are weapons of defense against criminals, a bolster to the forces of good against the already well-armed forces of evil.

A sociologist does not take such arguments at face value. It is not a sociological explanation of behavior to quote the reasons people give, without asking: why do particular people hold their particular beliefs?  When and how did they get them?  Did they have these beliefs first and then decided they should acquire guns?  Or did they acquire the guns first-- as gifts, or by example of family and friends-- and then the verbal justifications?  Similarly, we know that persons join a religion, not because they start by agreeing with its beliefs and then decide to join, but typically because they know people who bring them to its religious services; if they like the group and the ritual, they take on the religious beliefs (but often disregard beliefs they don't care for). 

And if persons have vehement beliefs-- they fanatically defend them, and angrily dispute any statements and persons to the contrary-- we can expect a sociological pattern. Holders of the most vehement beliefs typically belong to a cult-- a religious group that shuts itself off from the outside world, spends a lot of time in its ceremonies, and generates a lot of emotion.  In the same way, political extremists belong to cult-like groups that meet constantly or even live together, are intensely suspicious of outsiders, and keep a high degree of emotional pressure on their members. It is the group activities that keeps the beliefs alive.

In this sense, militant gun advocates appear to be a gun cult. But as a sociologist, I am not going to jump to that conclusion, without looking for what kinds of social activities make a gun cult. As we will see in conclusion, not all people who have guns are gun cultists; but it is the ones who are more cult-like who carry on the public campaign for guns. And there are gun cultists who are downright dangerous: paramilitaries and gang members are cultish about their guns, and mass rampage shooters usually have a private gun cult of one's own.

Guns as symbols

In a gun cult, guns are symbols. They mean more than the practical things one can do with them. They are sacred objects, to be treated with respect, and to be defended against disrespect. Hence an attack on guns is not just a limitation on going hunting or shooting at a target range, but an attack on a way of life.  But symbols do not float on air. Symbols become pumped up with meaning when they are at the center of rituals.

How would we know a gun ritual if we saw one?  The theory is already well-developed for religious rituals and symbols. Symbols are the most visible marker of belonging to a religion: the Bible, a crucifix, the Quran, a yarmulka, a prayer shawl, the image of a Buddha or a saint.  An object becomes a symbol when a group assembles around it, and collectively focuses their attention on it. Rituals can be stronger or weaker; stronger when its adherents gather frequently, when they build up a shared emotion and act together in rhythm. Physical activities carried out together have the strongest effects-- all prostrating themselves bodily on the ground facing towards Mecca; all kneeling and standing up at the right time; all chanting or singing together, especially while watching each other's faces on CCTV screens as in contemporary mega-churches. When rituals build up high intensity, they produce effects on their participants: a feeling of belonging together in a community and identity; a feeling of emotional strength; a belief in the symbols of the group.  How one behaves towards sacred symbols instantly marks one's attitude towards the group: showing respect and protecting the symbol makes one a good person; showing disrespect or attacking the symbol is the worst possible offense, and it gives rise to righteous anger to punish the offender.   

-- As noted, religious rituals vary from highly intense to low-key; fanatical and cultish groups are produced by intense rituals. At the other end of the continuum, low-intensity rituals (like church services one attends infrequently) give little attachment to symbols,  and a relaxed tolerance or indifference towards other groups and their symbols.

Where do different kinds of practices around guns fit on this continuum? What are low, moderate, and high-intensity gun rituals?

Gun rituals: what do people do with their guns?

Toward the low-intensity end is hunting. But this often has a social-ritual aspect. Typically, groups of men go hunting together, treating it as a special occasion, a break from ordinary life (as all rituals are breaks). They do a lot of drinking together, tell past hunting stories, engaging in traditionalistic male bonding. The concluding ritual is bringing home their kill, such as a deer draped over one's car, or having head or antlers mounted on the wall, a proud display of the hunter's identity. The popularity of hunting has declined, as animal-rights advocates (a different kind of cult whose rituals take the form of a social movement) embarrass hunters from displaying their trophy carcasses.

In the early 20th century and before, hunting among the upper classes was a full-scale ritual of potlatch proportions. Hunters on country estates in England or Europe were elite land-owners and their guests; they wore distinct costumes, assembled in shooting lines to fire at birds or beasts being driven from the brush by large numbers of beaters-- servants or farmhands who concentrated the game animals and made a kind of chorus for the stars of the show, the gunners. Fox-hunts on horseback, with their red coats, horns, and packs of hounds, were a variant ritual. In either case, hunts were big ritual gatherings of the upper class. Sometimes they killed hundreds of birds at a time-- trophies heaped up in large piles. These were less a gun cult than a elite show of orchestrating everyone's attention towards the animals killed. But in recent years the minor parts in the hunting orchestra-- the beaters and hounds-- have declined, leaving mainly the hunter and his guns.

Hunting ritual, Italy 1470  Uccello

Present-day ritualism about guns is more apparent in gun shows, gun shops and shooting ranges. Gun shows have a fair-like atmosphere, attracting large crowds. What do they see and do?  There are displays of many kinds of weapons-- different makes of pistols, rifles, automatic weapons, but also large displays of knives and even swords. Some of this has the atmosphere of a museum of war nostalgia: you can handle and buy weapons ranging from the World Wars to the Old West. Military camouflage outfits, helmets, goggles and other gear are laid out in rows of booths. It seems to be largely an occasion for entering a fantasy world of bygone times, kept alive in the present. Nazi and other memorabilia are on sale, probably less because attendees are Nazi sympathizers than because old enemies are part of the show. Conversations with dealers at gun shows often include griping about the onerous regulations on gun purchases imposed by the government.

Shooting ranges are often attached to gun shops. From my observation, there is a good deal of fantasy inside the range. You can purchase different kinds of targets: concentric circles with bulls-eye are the most neutral, and are generally used for shooting competitions. But most shooting range customers choose targets with the outline of a human head and torso. We can infer something about the accompanying fantasies from the kind of people one sees at the range:  husband-and-wife couples who look like they own small retail shops and are practicing shooting an intruder; young male-female couples who look like they are on a date, or just entertaining themselves by shooting at fantasy people. Clusters of young men of military age shooting together. Most gun ranges are in white areas, but a small percentage of the shooters are young males of minority ethnicities; they might be gang members, or may be thinking about using guns for defense in their own neighborhoods. In any case, everyone is on their good behavior at the gun range; it is neutral territory.

The ideology of the gun cult comes out most clearly in the way gun salesmen talk to customers. They bring up topics such as what kind of weapon you would need in a dangerous situation, what weapon would be adequate to take out a threatening challenger or an intruder in your house.  The talk that typically takes place in the gun shop invokes imaginary uses of guns in dramatic situations, which are rather far from the routines of the gun cult itself (the actual shooting on the range).  This dramatic content is a form of sales talk, but it is taken seriously by customers and perhaps salesmen themselves; in effect, it is the content of the fantasy they are buying.  Like buying pornography, buying a gun is chiefly buying an opportunity to fantasize.

There are other kinds of gun rituals, different because participants recognize them explicitly as fantasies and fun. Children for generations have played cops-and-robbers or cowboys-and-Indians with cap pistols and other toys; kids have fun with squirt guns, especially on hot days at a pool or in the back yard sprinkler. In the era of electronic games, most shooting is at icons on a screen, and lacks anything that feels like a real gun in one's hand. There is a debate about how much violent video games contribute to real-life violence. Bear in mind that the tens of millions of such gamers are hugely disproportionate to the tens of thousands who shoot other people with real guns; the fraction of gamers who go on to  real shooting is on the order of 1 in 10,000.  These may be gun rituals, but they are not very intense ones, and they have a self-conscious barrier between fun and real life. The same goes for participants in paint-ball gun parks; here the experience is more like real war (without all the logistics, the boredom, the officers giving orders and the bureaucracy) and without real wounds. Paint-ball fights extract the fun part of violence and makes it friendly shared fun rather than deadly fighting with enemies-- similar to water-splashing fights in pools.

To underline the point of this comparison:  toy guns and make-believe guns aren't symbols of very much; whatever membership identity they have consists of little more than acting like kids. These pseudo-weapons are cheap and disposable, and not treated with ritual care. Serious gun cults, on the other hand, take themselves extremely seriously.

The same can be said of guns in the entertainment media. Guns in films and television often are the focus where the audience attention peaks.  When guns are used is typically a high point of the drama, where emotions are built up through a plot format of action-adventure or mystery/suspense.  There is considerable research on the extent of exposure of weapons on TV and its effect or non-effect on violence. But most of us (300 million Americans) have seen far too many gunshots in entertainment for it to have much statistical effect on the number of real shootings. Sociologically, watching a film or screen is a ritual of being an audience; it trains us to watch, to anticipate or be jaded, to gasp or laugh at an more-or-less expected experience that can't possibly touch you because you know you are not part of the show.

I will not repeat here what we have learned about people's performance in real-life situations where violence is threatened. But I will give the bottom line: using weapons against real people face-to-face is emotionally tense in a way that no experience of sitting on one's couch or in a theatre can possibly be. This tension I have called the barrier of confrontational tension/fear, because it makes most people unable to fire their weapons, or to do so accurately.  A small number of persons learn techniques for controlling their emotions and becoming competent at shooting humans; but these are only learned from real-life experience. Nothing you see on an entertainment screen gives you a hint of how to do it in reality.

For this reason, I would say that guns in entertainment media are a pseudo-cult of guns. More accurately, it is a cult of film-watching, similar to game-playing, in which the guns are just incidental devices for creating dramatic theatrical moments.

Serious gun cults take themselves extremely seriously.

Among the most intensely cultist of all are paramilitary groups and their war exercises.  Such groups have existed in the US since the 1970s and 80s, often holding paranoid ideologies about clandestine encroachment by the Federal government or international agencies. Paramilitaries are based in rural areas and small towns, places where farmers fell from being a considerable population to an embattled remnant, a decline reflected in their anti-modernist ideology.  But ideologies are intense only when a group assembles and carries out rituals enacting its shared identity. Paramilitaries in the US engage in military-style training, something like real military maneuvers although with small-scale weapons (despite the Second Amendment, people don't have tanks and anti-aircraft missiles). Thus it is small arms that are the symbol of this militant gun cult.

Another key feature is that they are "underground"-- they keep themselves in secrecy most of the time, except where they emerge for a march or protest demonstration (such as to protect monuments of Confederate generals).  The secrecy is crucial for keeping up an emotional atmosphere, the feeling that what one is doing is full of dramatic tension and excitement.  Beliefs about black helicopters spying on them overhead are an offshoot of clandestine paranoia-- at atmosphere deliberately cultivated by the group, its emotional life-line. A group that has nothing to do is going to disappear. Paramilitary cults (in the US, at any rate) rarely do much fighting with their supposed enemy, the government; to keep themselves going, they need the ritual of military exercises. In parts of the world with failed states, paramilitaries' rituals dramatize threatening their enemies, but mostly prey on vulnerable civilians.

Another gun cult is found in ethnic poverty ghettos. Guns are emblems of being seriously into the street code. True gang members (and free-lance tough guys) have guns, whether on their bodies or hidden in some convenient place (such as carried by their girlfriends). Since gangs are the local street elite, the on-the-spot upper class of a lower-class neighborhood, guns are central to one's personal identity. A study of a Chicano gang in Los Angeles found that the first thing gang members did in the morning was to check on their guns. They also play with their guns around each other, combined with the favorite ritual of making gang signs with their fingers. 

checking your gun before dressing

LA gang sign and gun

A shadowy but popular figure is the gun dealer-- in this case, a white man who drove up in a nondescript car, displaying his goods on the car seat. Although rival gangs threatened each other and sometimes shot it out, the gun dealer was above the fray-- holding right of secure passage from both sides. 

LA gun salesman

The larger number of ghetto residents who do not belong to gangs nevertheless may participate in the gun cult. This is most apparent among adolescents, who haven't decided yet which way they will go.   An interviewee in the Bronx recalls that his father had 3 handguns in the house, which his teenage sons borrowed and lent out to their friends  [Wilkinson 2003: 54]: 

INT:  And what was the reason they was borrowing these guns, they had beef?
JEROME:  No.  They just wanted to hold them.
INT:  And what happen?... they went out there doing stupid shit and they got caught up in the mix?
JEROME:  Yup.  And these is the people that we grew up with and stuff, the only friends we had, the only friends we knew.
INT:  And they all got killed.  How did that make you feel?
JEROME:  It had me fucked up 'cause even before we lent them the gun, it was cool.  And, um, it's like when, after we let them, when we let them hold it, it seemed like... They changed into they world. I was what, I was in the, um, we was in the seventh grade.  We used to mess with the eighth and ninth graders. It was like everybody was scared of us 'cause everybody knew we had guns."             

We should realize that even in a neighborhood where there are a lot of armed gang members, most of the time nobody gets shot. If we estimate half of all murders are done by gangs (an exaggeration), and compare total numbers of murders with numbers of gang members, only 1 out of 88 gang members commits a murder during the year.  If we add other kinds of non-lethal shootings, the proportion rises to about 3-4%. [Collins, Violence: 372-73]  And this is averaged over a year. Even the ones who do the shooting only shoot occasionally. If you are one of the violent elite who shoots someone once, what do you do the other 364 days of the year? You show off your guns, you talk tough, you hang out with your counterparts and keep an uneasy peace with your enemies. Here, at the heart of the violent gun-users, the gun cult consists more of dramatizing how tough you are, than actually firing guns.

Solitary ritual in gun cults

Gun cults are social. They are created and sustained by groups carrying out some kind of gun ritual, which can include talking about them and fantasizing about situations when they would use their guns. This social activity can spill over into behavior while an individual is alone. This is parallel to religious rituals, which are learned and emotionally charged in group ceremonies, but individualized in activities like praying alone.
Solitary practice of a gun cult can consist in paying a lot of attention to one's guns. Some of the people one sees at gun shows are rather ordinary, harmless citizens who spend their time holding guns, taking them apart, cleaning and reassembling, looking at and admiring them.  Many individuals spend much of their leisure time reloading ammunition; much of the display at gun shows are equipment and supplies for reloading spent shells with live charges.  There is some utilitarian element in this, insofar as reloading one’s own ammunition is cheaper than buying it; but the long hours that gun cultists spend on reloading ammunition suggests that this is a ritualistic affirmation of their membership,  something like a member of a religious cult engaging in private prayer.

A solitary gun cult turns dangerously intense, when the individual becomes obsessed with guns and what he/she will do with it in some situation imagined in fantasy.  Which people's gun thoughts remain harmless flickers? and whose obsessive gun fantasies emerge into action? An extreme instance would be the brooding of the teenager who takes guns to school to avenge an insult, acting out the fantasies that he has repeated in the privacy of his own mind and bedroom.

The rampage shooter almost always has created a private gun cult and raised it to the  level of intensity where it takes over his life. Virtually all rampage shooters are over-armed; they carry more guns to the attack site than they actually use, they bring a range of military paraphernalia, and far more ammunition than they actually expend. They often dress themselves in quasi-military garb that provides a cocoon to shut out the world of ordinary people. They are acting out a costume drama that they have prepared by many imaginary rehearsals.  When their home lair is discovered after the shooting, it is usually full of weapons, scenarios, information about previous rampages, and plans for their own.

The most important feature is that this backstage world is kept in secrecy. This is the dividing line between the millions of people who own guns but do not obsess and brood over them, and the individual who goes off the deep end. A secret arsenal is an emotional home base, a comfort zone of living surrounded by weapons of great symbolic power, even if in action they almost always end up in a losing battle and oneself as either dead or the most hated member of society. Living a clandestine life gives a feeling of excitement, a sense of purpose in a life that may otherwise feel shameful or depressed.  "This was the only adventure I’ve ever had,” a 14-year-old boy said about the period leading up to shooting 8 students at his high school in Paducah, Kentucky. (Newman 2004: 26)  Just keeping one's parents, or other outsiders, from seeing how many weapons one has, stealing guns or keys to gun cabinets, gives a purposeful trajectory that makes one's life seem like high adventure. The weeks or months while an individual creates a symbol-filled clandestine secret life is the emotional launching platform that creates a mass shooting rampage.

And this gives us a practical take-away. The point where the rampage shooting can be headed off is also the place where the strongest clues are found that a rampage is coming.
Treating youths for bullying, low social esteem, or mental illness nets far too large a population; they may be in a weak statistical sense "at risk," but they comprise millions, whereas the number of rampage shooters is in the low double digits. Similarly, millions of people own guns harmlessly; but building a clandestine arsenal and obsessing about it is far more unusual. This is the big warning sign that merits active intervention.

The single most effective legal measure than can be taken now is to enable authorities to seize arms collections from individuals who are making threats and showing fantasies of violent action.

Gun cults, from weak to strong

At the weak end of the continuum are games with toy guns. Also in the atmosphere of explicit make-believe, not-for-real, are entertainment shows featuring guns for dramatic excitement.

Low-moderate gun cults include hunting, which is mostly about elite prestige (upper class hunting ritual) or male bonding (present-day hunting). But the hunting cult can ratchet up a few notches into a symbolic cult of guns, when hunters insist of their rights to carry automatic weapons and machine guns, which are too powerful to be suitable for hunting.

Moderate-to-strong gun cults are found at gun shows, gun shops and target ranges. Here the hardware feeds fantasies of historic violence as well as scenarios in which you, the gun owner, defend one's home and defeat the bad guys. Statistically more likely real-life scenarios seldom enter such conversations, such as accidentally shooting a family member, using the gun to commit suicide, having the gun stolen and enter the criminal gun market. Nor is the likelihood mentioned that in a real criminal threat (a robber, a rampage shooter) you will not actually perform like a movie star, but could quite likely miss your target or hit the wrong person. These realities have no place in the fantasy and ideology that fills the mind of gun cultists. --- Still, most of these people do no harm. Their guns stay in their cases or go to the range. Their effect on gun violence is largely indirect-- providing the ideological cover and the political vehemence of the gun lobby that protects gun-obsessed killers.

Extreme gun cultists include paramilitaries-- although as noted, they spend most of their time preparing for Armageddon rather than shooting real people. Sometimes it spills over into political violence.  The most violence is produced by gangs and street tough guys whose lives and identities as revolve around guns; even if they don't use them very effectively or very often, this is where the homicide numbers add up.  And at the apex of gun-cult obsession is the rampage shooter, collecting a clandestine arsenal and fantasizing scenarios for revenge over ethnic, religious, or social injuries that kill anonymous strangers in clumps. These last capture the public attention more than all the other gun cultists because this is where gun violence intrudes into our middle-class world.

If we can head off the worst gun cultists, we may also raise our consciousness about gun cults across the spectrum. One need not push for drastic measures, such as banning toy guns, violent films and games, or hunting and target shooting, in order to stop gun cults from overreaching.

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Civil War Two, Part 1 by Randall Collins

Civil War Two, Part 1

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Clues to Mass Rampage Killers: Deep Backstage, Hidden Arsenal, Clandestine Excitement. posted Sept. 1, 2012

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Joseph Krupnick and Christopher Winship.  2015. "Keeping Up the Front: How Young Black Men Avoid Street Violence in the Inner  City." In Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse (eds.), The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.  Harvard Univ. Press.
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Alessandro Orsini. 2011. Anatomy of the Red Brigades. The Religious Mind-set of Modern Terrorists. Cornell Univ. Press.
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