The Big Picture: Gun Culture

This is the 30th installment of The Big Picture, a public symposium on what’s at stake in Trump’s America, co-organized by Public Books and NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. Read IPK Director Eric Klinenberg’s introduction here.
The day after the Las Vegas shooting, Mark Romano called me up to tell me that Donald Trump was bad for his business. “Don’t get me wrong, I love him,” Mark clarified, reiterating his earlier ...

The day after the Las Vegas shooting, Mark Romano called me up to tell me that Donald Trump was bad for his business. “Don’t get me wrong, I love him,” Mark clarified, reiterating his earlier comments about how Trump was “a genius,” and how Trump “gets the common man, people like me.” But for his business, Mark continued, “It sucks him being president.”

Mark’s business is teaching people how to use guns. And over the past three years I have spent time with people like Mark—talking to them, going to shooting ranges with them, and taking firearms classes with them—in order to understand the role that guns play in contemporary America.

I first met Mark nearly 15 years ago. Although we were both living in the Northeast at the time—myself in New York, and Mark in Philadelphia—we met in the middle of the Arizona desert. I was there as a graduate student doing research for my PhD dissertation on militia groups patrolling the border. Mark was there as a member of one of those militia groups. “I’m here because I love my country,” Mark told me back then, his patriotic project aligned with a xenophobic one. “I’m here to stop the illegals from invading my country,” he said. The threat the “illegals” posed was for Mark at once symbolic and actual. “No one speaks English in this country anymore,” he would often say, and then shift from this ostensible cultural assault to a physical one. “They are a bunch of hardened criminals who will slit your throat without thinking twice.”

For Mark, personal identity and national identity are enmeshed in each other; his sense of personal pride is always tied to his sense of national pride. I have come to learn that what unites these are the logics of racism, masculinity, and militarism: every time Mark retells a story of patriotic honor and personal self-worth, he is retelling a story in which he is inevitably either holding or shooting a gun. And most often, Mark’s gun is there to protect him and his country from people who do not look or think like him, a group of enemies that includes “illegals,” “communists,” “liberals,” and “gang bangers.”

Mark fired his first gun at the age of 18. He was completing basic training a few weeks after graduating high school in Philadelphia. From the get-go, Mark was an exceptional shooter. And shooting gave Mark an enormous sense of fulfillment. “I wasn’t sitting there pulling the trigger thinking, ‘Hey, one day I’m going to kill somebody,’” Mark told me. “I was thinking, ‘Hey, I’m good at this. And I’m wearing the uniform of my country so it’s giving me satisfaction. I can help defend this nation if I have to.’”

A self-described “small, skinny guy,” Mark says his friends laughed at him when he said he wanted to become a Marine. “They were like, ‘Look at you, you won’t make it through.’ And you know what?” he continued, “There were times where the bigger guys in the platoon were crying, and I would just lay there with a smile on my face.” As he has repeatedly pointed out to me in the 15 years that I have known him, when it came time for him to graduate, “I didn’t stand with my platoon because I got high shooter. I stood with three other guys that got high shooter in their platoon and four other guys that got the physical fitness award. … So that was a major accomplishment for me. Here I am getting recognized. Standing with a small group of guys that stood out from the rest.”

After leaving the Marine Corps shortly before the first Gulf War, Mark returned to Philadelphia, where he worked as an electrician, eventually starting his own company. He purchased his first gun shortly thereafter from a friend from the military. A few years later, through the same friend, Mark became involved in several paramilitary groups in Pennsylvania—a hodgepodge he describes as made up of “survivalists, militia guys, and people doing border operations.” It was around this time that Mark began making trips to Arizona, often spending weeks at a time patrolling the border.

In 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, Mark’s electrical repair company went under. Angry and in need of income, he turned to what he knew best: teaching people how to use guns.

Three years ago, Mark decided to return to Arizona. This time, it wasn’t to patrol the border, it was to settle down and develop his firearms business. “Back [in the Northeast], the rules were just too strict,” Mark told me. “It was too hard to start my business up there. Plus, I just got fed up with all the liberals.”

In today’s America, one of the best predictors of party affiliation is gun ownership. Consider the 2016 presidential election: 63 percent of voters living in gun-owning households backed Donald Trump, while 65 percent of those living in a house without a gun backed Hillary Clinton.1 While this polarization may seem commonsensical and intuitive to us today, recent research by political scientists at the University of Kansas suggests that this has not always been the case.2

Analyzing data from 1972 to 2012, Mark Joslyn and his colleagues show that the political divide between gun owners and non–gun owners has grown dramatically over time. Gun owners were 50 percent more likely to vote for a Republican in 2012 than they were in 1972. This suggests two important things: First, being a gun owner is about much more than owning a gun; rather, it is a complex political identity connected to attitudes and beliefs. Second, this political identity has developed and hardened over time. Indeed, as I have come to learn in my research, for people like Mark, owning a gun is as much about identifying in opposition to something as it is to identifying with something.

The liberals—or “they,” as Mark often labels people on the left—form one of Mark’s many enemies. When he was patrolling the border, he would tell me that “they” falsely accused him of racism and sexism: “They say that we’re the ones who are racist, that we hate women, when meanwhile all these backwards Mexicans with their machismo culture are going around raping their women. But they don’t like to talk about that.” And these days he tells me that “they” falsely accuse him of being the cause of gun violence in America while overlooking the true source:

There is no laws that could have been passed that would have stopped what the guy in Vegas did. And that’s the truth. … Millions of, tens of millions of semiautomatics are in American hands, and in any given year about three hundred rifles are used in crimes. That’s it. But I just find the hypocrisy amazing. Because now you got the Dems screaming about gun control again, but yet they don’t speak about the black-on-black crime in this country. They don’t scream about Chicago. The numbers in Chicago are higher than Iraq. It’s ridiculous.

There are some things I do not entirely know about Mark, but one thing I can tell you for certain: Mark could care less about the violence in Chicago. Rather, just as with the pundits on Fox News and the spokespeople for pro-gun organizations across the country, he calls attention to the violence in Chicago (which in reality has a homicide rate roughly a third of that of Iraq) to try to delegitimize any conversation about gun control. His concern is not the people in Chicago whose lives are being ruined by gun violence; it’s himself and his access to guns. And in these views, Mark has a spokesman in Donald Trump.

When I asked Mark to explain why Trump is bad for his business he told me, “Cause nobody is scared. I make money off peoples’ fear. When people are scared, that’s when they want to take classes.”

When Mark says that “nobody is scared” under Trump, he is thinking about people like himself—conservative white men, “gun people,” as he calls his tribe. Among the things that “gun people” like Mark are no longer scared of are laws regulating firearms. “Trump said from day one he was a gun guy,” Mark explained. “The federal government isn’t going to make gun laws, so people feel, ‘Oh, I can still go out and buy this stuff whenever I want. I don’t need to do a panic buy.’ Like they did when Obama first got elected, and then when he got elected again.”

The data suggest that Mark is right. While gun purchases have tended to spike after presidential elections, often fueled by the regulatory fears Mark referenced, there was no such spike when Trump was elected. Furthermore, although gun sales increased nearly every single month under Obama and are still higher in the United States than in any other country in the world, they have declined in all but one of the months that Trump has been in office.3

No movement over the past 50 years has made as significant gains as the gun rights movement.

Gun laws make up one important element in the matrix of things Mark is no longer worried about, but there are others. For one thing, Mark is no longer worried that one of his enemies is in power. Where Obama represented danger, Trump represents safety. “Trump is up there fighting for people like me,” Mark enthusiastically told me.

Just as Trump is fighting for Mark, so too is Mark fighting for Trump. “We had Trump here a few weeks ago,” Mark told me, referring to the rally Trump held in Phoenix in August. “I was there patrolling with a few guys.” In this iteration of patrolling, the enemy was not “illegals” but “communists.” “We have this club out here called the John Brown Gun Club,” Mark told me, referring to a local anti-fascist gun club named after the abolitionist who sought to initiate an armed slave revolt at Harpers Ferry in 1859. “They are communists, and you can tell they are communists because they wear the red bandanas, the same as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia did. So some people come to these protests wearing the gear, wearing rifles. And so we were there to offer extra security in case they started something.”

By complete coincidence, I happened to be writing this essay in Harpers Ferry, where I was attending a wedding. As I walked around the town I came across two memorials. The first was for John Brown and the 21 men who fought with him. The second was for Private Luke Quinn, a Marine just like Mark, who was killed in the process of participating in a raid, led by Robert E. Lee, to capture John Brown’s group. Two memorials; two divergent accounts of history.

On the one hand, the Trump administration needs to be understood as something new. On the other hand, it needs to be understood as an extension of our past ways. What Mark can teach us is the extent to which the Trump presidency represents at once a change and, importantly, a continuation of a longer history. It is a history whose pillars are racism, militarization, and working-class economic decline.


John Brown’s Body

By Matthew Karp

It was not Trump who waged a war on communism in the Far East, but rather Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. It was not Trump who launched the first war in Iraq, but rather George H. W. Bush. It was not Trump who began to militarize the border and speak of illegal immigration as a national security threat, but rather Bill Clinton. And it was not Trump who helped destroy the stability of working-class employment in America, but rather a long list of our presidents, not least of whom was Barack Obama.

Yes, Trump expresses stronger support for gun rights than we have heard from presidents before. But we have been on this road for many years. Mark is emblematic of a society that has long addressed its fears by turning to the militarization of everyday life.

No movement over the past 50 years has made as significant gains as the gun rights movement. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights—these all pale in comparison to what the gun rights movement has accomplished. From “shall-issue” laws, which make it much easier for a person to obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun with them nearly everywhere they go, to stand-your-ground laws, which make it much easier for a person to legally kill someone, to more recent legislation like “campus carry” laws, which allow people to bring guns into the classrooms of college campuses, the past few decades have witnessed the steady proliferation of not only guns in American society, but also of laws and ideas that support the ability of people like Mark to access, carry, and use those guns.

In some ways both Mark and America have changed over the past 15 years. But in many ways both have merely extended their former ways. Fifteen years ago, Mark was in Arizona arming himself against “illegals” and al-Qaeda; today he is there arming himself against Antifa and ISIS.

Antifa said November 4th is when they are starting the civil war. Did you hear about this? In LA or Chicago, I can’t remember. About 12 of them were on a highway holding up signs that said,“Nov 4th It Begins.” And they are calling for violence. Antifa already claimed that the Vegas shooter was one of theirs so that they could take out Trump supporters. And ISIS claimed this guy as one of theirs. So I’m part of a team that’s going to be monitoring Antifa out here come November 4th.

“Antifa claimed that the Vegas shooter was one of theirs.” “ISIS claimed he was one of theirs.” And, just moments before making these contradictory and, in part, false declarations, Mark told me he was certain the Vegas shooter was “mentally ill … and probably on some kinds of drugs.” What do we do with these inconsistent statements? How are we to make sense of the fact that, on the one hand, Mark says that people like him feel less scared today than ever before, while, on the other hand, they walk around armed and speak about a new set of dangers—Antifa, ISIS, the John Brown Gun Club?

I am, frankly, unsure as to whether Mark truly believes all of what he says about the Las Vegas shooter. But what I am certain about is that these ideas, which circulate in the social and political communities he traverses, matter to Mark because they are working in the service of his identity—his identity as an armed American. Mark needs to think the world is dangerous because he needs his gun, not the other way around. Indeed, the foundation of Mark’s identity, from the age of 18, when he fired that first gun and received accolades for his marksmanship, is not the establishment of a secure America, but rather an insecure one.

It has gotten to the point where Mark cannot even imagine what the world would look like without his sense of insecurity. And in this, Mark is not alone. Unfortunately, it seems that in the current political moment, Donald Trump is driving us further and further into identities that emerge not through consensus but through opposition, not in the interest of working toward establishing safety, but rather in producing danger. icon

  1. Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy, “Nothing Divides Voters Like Owning a Gun,” New York Times, October 5, 2017.
  2. Mark R. Joslyn, Donald P. Haider-Markel, Michael Baggs, and Andrew Bilbo, “Emerging Political Identities? Gun Ownership and Voting in Presidential Elections,” Social Science Quarterly, vol. 98, no. 2 (2017), pp. 382–396.
  3. Sy Mukherjee, “Why Donald Trump Is Bad for Gun Sales,” Fortune, September 11, 2017. See also David Sherfinski, “Under Trump, Gun Sales Fall Dramatically,” Washington Times, August 8, 2017.
Featured image: Henry H. Kitson, The Lexington Minute Man (1899) detail). Photograph by James Walsh / Flickr