U.S. Shootings: A Cultural Perspective

Less than two weeks ago, we had another mass shooting in the U.S.

That’s right: Another.

To understand what I mean by “another,” consider these grim statistics:

  • According to ABC News, this was the 15th time that President Obama has been called to speak out after a mass shooting.
  • The Guardian reports that this was the 45th school shooting this year.
  • The same Guardian article also notes that there have been 993 mass shootings since Obama’s reelection in 2012; 300 of those have occurred in 2015.
  • According to the Washington Post, there’s been no calendar week without a mass shooting during President Obama’s second term.
  • The L.A. Times reports that mass shootings are becoming both more frequent and more deadly.
  • The Gun Violence Archive reports that there were almost 50,000 gun violence incidences this year, resulting in almost 10,000 estimated deaths.
By any stretch of the imagination and from any political standpoint, we have a serious crisis on our hands. As an American, I feel sickened. Disgusted. Angry. Scared. Outraged. Sad. Defeated. Resolved. And I’m not alone in this cascade of emotion. As News.Mic shows via a collection of tweets, many of us feel absolutely exasperated and aggrieved that our country is like this. (It’s so bad that I can’t even get an article written before more shots ring out; last Friday morning as I was editing this, there were shootings at both Northern Arizona University and Texas Southern University).
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A Cultural Perspective
But I’m not only a citizen, I am also an intercultural professional. I don’t know that I can change the world on my own, but what I can offer is a cultural perspective on this painful reality in America.
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When interculturalists speak of culture, we are referring to the values and behaviors in a society. Values represent our ideals, or the way we think the world should be. In the U.S., these include individualism, egalitarianism, achievement, a strong work ethic, a preference for action and initiative, and a belief that we should control the environment and our destiny. Behaviors are the way we actually are – how we arrange our lives, build relationships, make decisions, spend our time, communicate, etc. In every country, there is a gap between what we say and what we do, but even behaviors that seem counter to our ideals are often still linked to them. (For an introduction to American culture, see Geert Hofstede‘s helpful website).
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Let’s take a look at some of these and explore how they are related to our gun violence crisis.
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Individualism
In the U.S., the individual is supreme. On the plus side, this means we value individual life and liberty. We believe that each person is special with a unique combination of gifts and personality traits – and we think it is important that they have the chance to cultivate those talents and build a life that resonates with who they really are. We say things like, “to each his own” and “it’s your life.” We also recognize the importance of individual effort and responsibility; we don’t sentence entire families to prison when an uncle commits a crime, but we also don’t believe in giving students an A because they have important parents.
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The covered wagon symbolizes our myth of the pioneer carving out a new life in a new land. Copyright 2015 Michael Hahn.
The covered wagon remains a potent symbol of rugged individualism. Here I’m at a gas station in Benson, AZ. Copyright 2015 Michael Hahn.
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When it comes to guns and gun violence, the individual is also paramount. The media tells us who the individual shooter is/was, profiles the individual victims, and extols any individuals perceived to have done something heroic. We want to go beyond the numbers and get the individual stories to see if we can fully understand the chronology and reasons behind the shooter’s decision, mourn for the promising lives cut short, and build a narrative of the hero’s resume that culminates in the moment of self sacrifice.
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Many Americans also view gun ownership as an extension of individual liberty, inextricably linked to the right to protect themselves and their families. Amid errant assumptions that crime is constantly rising (it’s actually at its lowest level since the 1970s) many Americans seem to believe unfettered access to whatever weapon they need, whenever they need it, is more important than ever. In fact, the Pew Research Center reported last December that for the first time in two decades there is more support for gun rights than gun control. So on a psychological level, you could say that the resistance to gun control is partly born out of fear for the thing every individual holds most dear: Our own lives.
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Yet it goes deeper than this, with roots in our nation’s independence movement more than 200 years ago. Many interpret our revolution as an uprising by defenders of individual liberty against a despotic king. Indeed, one of the first books I ever read on my own was Sam the Minuteman, a story of how a son joined his father’s ragtag militia in fighting the British using muskets they kept hung above the front door. The message of this beginning-reader story was clear: The rebel heroes not only had the will to fight, but the means. Upon winning the war, they enshrined the right to bear arms in the Bill of Rights – the first ten amendments to our Constitution which outline the basic civil rights to which every citizen is entitled. Because these are cast as unalienable liberties from the government, any effort to regulate gun ownership quickly gets tripped up in a broader debate of the individual’s relationship to the state.
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Egalitarianism
In hierarchical countries, people more or less accept that some people have more power than others, they use titles and formal language, and look for their cozy spot within the overall network of relationships. Communication tends to be delivered from the top down, and subordinates are expected to implement instructions more or less as they are told, because their boss or leader said so. In return for loyalty, underlings can expect to be looked after – not only in the professional realm but in the personal one, too.
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You might have guessed it: The U.S. is not a hierarchical country. While by necessity we do have roles and titles in organizations, we are intrinsically uncomfortable with these divisions. For example, we take pains to put people at ease and downplay differences in rank by referring to professors, bosses, and most family members by their first names. Not only do we chaff under supervisors who lord it over us, but the growing perception that social mobility has stalled has become a major issue as we head into an election year.
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Egalitarianism has a close cousin in anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, populism, and the belief that ordinary people know best how to live their lives. (We see this outside the gun control debate in everything from local control of schools and anti-vaccine hysteria to the Occupy Movement and its rallying cry of “We are the 99%.”) This everyman ethos is intermixed with our frontier spirit – the feeling that it is you versus the wilderness and the federal government is very far away in Washington, D.C. There is also a stark rural-urban divide:  Conservative “red states” see themselves as the wellspring of true American values, under siege by an alien agenda advanced by hipsters, immigrants, and gay families on the liberal coasts.
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Chiricahua National Monument felt very far away to the Swedish settlers who tried to build a life in Apache territory. Copyright Melissa Hahn 2015.
Chiricahua National Monument felt very far away to the Swedish settlers who tried to build a life in Apache territory. Copyright Melissa Hahn 2015.
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So what does this have to do with gun control? One way it plays out is that both sides frame themselves as the underdog in a David vs. Goliath showdown. Gun owners, represented by the National Rifle Association (which bills itself as the nation’s largest civil rights organization) allege that the government wants to take their guns. This hasn’t happened, but other kinds of sweeping legislation from “No Child Left Behind” in education standards to The Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) hit a raw nerve. If Big Government could infringe on their liberties and make them attain academic competence or carry health insurance, what will be next? A spike in “just in case” weapons purchasing after Obama’s 2008 election highlights this mindset: In a CNN article, buyers spoke of “hedging their bets” by buying today in case their liberties were taken tomorrow. People feel powerless amid sweeping cultural and economic changes (to the extent that they are even questioning the American Dream), and gun rights have become a line in the sand: Maybe we can’t stop immigration or bring back manufacturing jobs, but by God, they aren’t going to take our guns.
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Yet proponents of increased gun control also use the egalitarian argument. Many citizens feel oppressed and hamstrung by powerful lobbying groups (specifically the NRA) which they see as having a stranglehold over government policy. They view their leaders as being either impotent or implicated; either way, each tragedy serves as a reminder that the majority of ordinary, common-sense Americans are outmaneuvered by elitist corporate money and special interests. As the father of a victim said after the Isla Vista, CA shootings in 2014, “Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians, and the NRA. They talk about gun rights; what about Chris’s right to live?” As the right to live and to see your children grow up is the ultimate egalitarian value, many conclude that in today’s society, they don’t matter – which calls into question the very principles of democracy.
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At the same time, one reason that gun violence has become a national issue – besides the appalling statistics – is that it has become a kind of equal opportunity crime. No longer can white people of means flee to the suburbs and reassure themselves that they are safe from street crime. Quite the opposite: Many of the atrocities in recent years, from Columbine and Tucson to Newtown and Aurora have taken place in upscale enclaves. So, we now experience a grotesque equality in that any of us could be killed any time in the line of living our daily lives – but sense that we are unfairly stymied by greater powers (either the government or interest groups) in achieving the right to protect ourselves.
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Taking Action
The U.S. is an action and results-oriented society. Consider that one of our main criticisms of soccer is that “nothing happens.” By “nothing happening” American anti-fans mean that nobody scores, or that the scores are not very high. By contrast, scores in more popular U.S. sports like basketball and football are much higher. Every time someone dunks a ball or scores a touchdown, Americans feel exhilarated that they have witnessed “something happening.” Perhaps this is tied to our belief that “time is money” and our deep frustration anytime we feel like we are forced to “hurry up and wait” or “just stand around.”
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This value is related to the gun control debate in that Americans who desire more gun control feel like insufficient action is being taken. They wonder how much longer they have to wait, and ask what it is going to take to make a change. They are tired of the routine of hand wringing; what they want now is decisive action in the form of new laws, increased enforcement – anything that will interrupt the status quo.
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Gun proponents are concerned that “knee-jerk” actions will constrict their rights without meaningfully improving the situation. In other words, they question the efficacy of potential changes. They also fear that new laws may inhibit their own ability to take future action at a critical moment. Specifically, they worry that if law-abiding citizens have reduced access to guns while criminals flaunt the laws, we will invite a situation where there is nobody available to stop an active shooter. Despite the fact that very few, if any, shooters have been disarmed by a civilian with a weapon, this narrative remains powerful because nobody wants to be a helpless bystander in an unfolding drama. Viewed this way, you could say that our debate over gun control also gets bogged down in questions of what actions will lead to desirable outcomes.
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Gun control is shaping up to be an issue in the 2016 presidential election - but will anything change? Copyright 2015, Melissa Hahn.
Gun control is shaping up to be an issue in the 2016 presidential election – but will anything change? Copyright 2015, Melissa Hahn.
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Controlling our Environment
A related American value is the belief that we can control our environment and our fate. We conquered the wilderness – and entire peoples – as we expanded westward. We were (in our interpretation), the official heroes of both World Wars. Most of our ancestors were immigrants, which is perhaps one of the greatest embodiments of believing that you can exert some influence over your future. You don’t board a rickety ship or cross a scorching desert if you think your fate is completely predetermined and that your actions will have no impact on the outcome. On a smaller scale, we are also a nation of goal-setters – something else you don’t bother with if you don’t think anything can change.
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So how does this relate to gun violence? One way is that many of these crimes appear to be premeditated. Afterwards, it is not uncommon to learn that the perpetrator had told friends of his plans (it is almost always a male), had made posts on social media, and had otherwise set his intention before putting everything in order for the day of destruction. They also seem to choose settings that are familiar to them, places that are either easily controlled or can at least provide the shooter with a feeling of being in control.
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Those who are against any gun regulation sense that the government and liberals are driven by a mistaken belief that they can make the world a better place by removing guns. They see themselves as realists, and think gun control proponents are delusional. By contrast, they want to keep control in their own hands. They argue that they can’t prevent people from becoming criminals and invading their home, but they want to keep the element of control that they do have: A gun in their handbag or waistband.
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Americans in favor of increased gun control also desperately want to exert agency on their environment and their fates. They find it incredibly frightening to read stories about a toddler accidentally killing its mother in Walmart in Idaho and a woman dying in San Francisco after a bullet purportedly ricocheted off of the sidewalk into her back. They also know that no legislation can stop all gun fatalities, but they want to exert some modicum of control by reducing the volume and type that are currently in circulation. Because of this deeply held American value, it is inconceivable to many people that nobody seems to be trying – that instead we just offer our thoughts and prayers to victims while resigning ourselves to a terrible fate.
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Conclusion
Why are Americans killing each other at levels only seen in war zones? I honestly don’t know – and I don’t think most Americans can say that they do, either. Culture is part of the equation, but it can’t explain everything, and can’t wholly account for the moment an individual decides to take another life. At best it is a framework for understanding how these episodes and our responses to them are embedded in who we are and how we live as a society. By examining this crisis through the cultural values of individualism, egalitarianism, action, and control over our environment, I have striven to illuminate the deeper motivations and sentiments that motivate both sides of the debate. I have also tried to situated the issue of gun control within our nation’s history and our contemporary political and social climate. I hope that it will round out my international colleagues’ understanding of this troubling issue in my country, and most of all, I hope that we Americans can draw on our values and make meaningful changes to stop the madness.
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This article is dedicated to the people in my life who were killed by guns, including two cousins who took their own lives and a former classmate who was killed during an attempted robbery. 

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