One of the more well-known/cited passages of Latour’s work is on the subject of gun control and the quip “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” In recognizable Latourian fashion, he argues that agency (and responsibility) arises across a network of actants. This is not an argument about legal responsibility, which is a different “mode of existence” as Latour would later put it. Instead it is an approach to describing what is happening. If human subjectivity emerges through exposure, as an exteriority as well as interiority, then the person with the gun, the gun-man, is an emergent subject. And it is not just the gun and it is not just the one person or even just the people who have guns in their homes.
By way of recognizing that the US is multicultural, we can see that there is a particular culture (or set of cultures) where owning and using guns are an integral part of the formation of subjectivities and the perpetuation of cultural institutions, practices, and values. Here are some statistics on gun ownership from the Pew Research Center. And here are some more. When one looks at the demographics in the links above, one can see a few trends. Gun owners tend to be white, not live in the Northeast, live in rural areas, and vote republican. Is anyone surprised by that? Not all gun owners, of course, but it is quite evident that the cultural-political discourse on guns is primarily shaped by this demographic. Over time gun ownership has become a partisan subject with 62% of gun owners voting for Trump. As the WAPO article linked here shows, gun owners have long voted republican (though given that they are primarily white and male it’s hard to tell if that’s correlation or cause) but the gap has widened since 2008.
As Josyln and Haider-Markel (authors of the WAPO article) conclude, just as gun ownership has become a partiasn right issue
not owning guns has also become a politicized identity, with gun-control groups expecting candidates to take particular positions. Sizable majorities of non-gun owners consistently vote for Democratic candidates, expanding during the Obama years – which, clearly, helps expand the “gun gap.”
In our highly polarized and partisan climate, gun-rights groups increasingly advocate owning guns to stay safe, while gun-control groups advocate regulation and restriction for the same reason. Watch for the “gun gap” to continue to expand and become ideologically even more rigid.
Cleary the issue of safety begs the question of what is being saved.
For the partisan gun owners these authors describe, gun ownership is an integral part of identity. Indeed, the prospect of losing those guns is equivalent to the prospect of having their culture and self-identity attacked. I would suggest that for this population, this community, the whole mainstream discourse about gun control makes little sense. For them gun control cannot be about safety; for them, limiting their access to guns is the opposite of being safe. There are a 1000 everyday things in your house that could kill you, and a gun is just one of them. They say owning a gun makes them safer, and I would not dispute the legitimacy of that claim on its own terms. And perhaps they have good reason to feel that their culture is threatened (though maybe not by the kind of intruder who breaks into one’s home). Equally, those who are not gun owners express the exact opposite view.
For gun owners–and for many on the other side of the argument–conflicts over gun control are primarily a struggle over the kind of people, the kind of nation, we want to be. You could imagine that gun control is a kind of symbolic argument, a stand-in for a larger set of differences, but I think it’s more than that. To return to Latour (somewhat), these are ontological questions. People with guns are different from people without guns; cultures with widespread gun ownership are different from those where guns are far less common. This is not technological determinism. That’s not how Latour works. It’s guns-plus: guns plus many other actors, but guns are a kind of lynchpin.
I am not a gun-man. I’ve never owned a gun. I’ve never held a gun. I do not believe doing so would make me safer. I do not want to participate in the culture of gun ownership, and I do not share in the partisan politics it represents. Inasmuch as we live in a partisan and agonistic political environment, I will likely pursue my own political views as others do the same. For me, gun ownership and control is just one of many partisan differences. We can undertake efforts at rational argumentation believing such approaches can lead to compromise and some resolution. And hopefully small steps can be agreed upon. Obviously no one wants another horrific mass shooting, but, for good or bad, that’s not the issue here. And I think that mistakes the nature of the deeper divide at stake here.
I think a better description of recent political history would recognize that over the last few decades cultural differences have been identified, activated, and intensified as political differences. Those cultural differences now signify something that they didn’t for previous generations. Some of shift is the result of political strategy and some is likely a product of larger cultural-historical forces not easily attributed to individuals or political parties. Maybe its fair to say that in the past there was an opposite strategy in place, one that sought to prevent cultural differences from organizing into strong political struggles. Can we unwind those intensifications? Do we want to? Would it be ethical to? Or are increasingly hostile partisan conflicts necessary?