Guns and White Identity

What motivates the gun movement in the United States? To me, the answer has always seemed obvious—the legacy of a “primitive liberalism” that exalts the autonomy of each individual over the idea of a common good that ties people together through reciprocal rights and responsibilities. This comes not only in a Lockean flavor, which celebrates each individual as king of his castle, but also in a darker, stronger Hobbesian flavor—whereby social interaction takes the form of a war of all against all.  

But recent events have convinced me that the original sin of racism also plays a role. What’s clear is that the US gun movement has become a movement centered around white identity. Studies do show a correlation between gun zealotry and white racial resentment. It is no surprise that gun crackdowns tend to come in response to black men owning and wielding firearms. It is no surprise that both gun sales and pro-gun rhetoric rose dramatically upon the election of Barack Obama. And it is no surprise that the NRA gets uncharacteristically tongue-tied when a black man is killed by police for carrying a legal firearm.

Part of this is straightforward: if you refuse to accept a whole race as full and equal members of the community, and you are habituated by centuries of racism to think of this race as particularly prone to violence and criminality, then arming yourself doesn’t seem too strange. And because you don’t feel like you belong to a shared community, you are more willing to tolerate the destruction of black lives that comes from the toxic admixture of a mountain of guns combined with a deep legacy of institutional racism and social exclusion.

But there’s more to it. It is now abundantly clear that owning and brandishing a legal gun is something a white person can do with impunity, but a black person cannot. The tragic death of Philandro Castile really brings this home. As does the well-document different reactions to white men and black men who “open carry” in the same area. Thus guns become a way of displaying racial superiority, especially at a time when more “traditional” displays are no longer an option.

Guns therefore seem to serve a two-fold purpose for white identity—modulating fear and magnifying privilege. The answer is course is to end both racism and the scourge of guns. 

Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

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