The issue of the gun culture across the world has social, historical, and political implications. In the United States, the gun culture is a term used to refer to the Americans’ perception and affection for guns as tools for self-defense, recreation, and sports. The gun culture has different connotations depending on how people intend to use the guns. Conventional knowledge holds that masculinity commands a close relationship with guns and this perception is hinged on the reported cases on the issue. The relationship between men and guns has developed a bond that is evident on many platforms from advertising to the actual usage.
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For a long time, gun systems have created the impression that firearms are mostly suited for men while marketing has always targeted men, and apparently, guns are the major causes of deaths related to weapons amongst men. This article will argue that the society’s conviction about the threat or actual usage of guns is a constructed notion of masculinity and the message relayed to the public following the use of a firearm is dependent on historical, social, and cultural conditions. This assertion implies that gun use in the United States, is a masculine view linked to self-defense, violence, and force.
The phrase ‘gun culture’ developed from the proliferation of firearms since the early centuries and the association between private ownership of guns and the country’s decision about personal ownership of firearms.1 Cultural perceptions on firearms in the historical times and its evolution through time created the connotation that guns are designed for men. The American standpoint about the private acquisition of a gun can be traced back to the American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783.
From this times, guns’ usage gained momentum through hunting, sporting, and militia activities. During this time, men and women had clearly distinguished roles, with men taking roles outside homes such as participating in the battlefield and protecting the family. On the other hand, women were expected to stay at home and perform household chores, which alienated them from all activities involving firearms. Shooting precision in many rural American societies was not only a necessity, but also it served as a rite of passage for boys transitioning to manhood. With modernization, hunting and sporting using guns only survive due to the historical prestige associated with the gun culture.
As people grow, they learn how to react to different circumstances from those within their environment. In the Western culture, male roles are characterized by aggression, power, and dominance. On the other hand, women roles are linked to subordination, caring, and passivity. Studies have indicated that children start learning their roles as early as two years of age. Parents contribute to masculine development among boys by buying them gun toys and praising them for their ability to manifest their prowess to shoot.
The article by Claire Duncanson, Forces for good: narratives of military masculinity in peacekeeping operations, suggests that the use of the military in peacekeeping operations has been a pure display of masculinity.2 This assertion holds because the military has often embarked in sexual exploitation and suppression against civilians. The author shows that Western militaries have developed a sense of masculinity linked with the demonstration of power and authority over femininity. Duncanson argues that alternative masculinity is possible and it should aim at incorporating women to take military jobs in a bid to break the perceived bond between men and guns.3
Another study by Paul Hitage shows that cultural and economic inequalities compel women to engage in prostitution activities within the peacekeeping missions and the issue of military masculinity is misconstrued.4
The author claims that the environment that women find themselves in and the fact that the majority of them are economically disadvantaged compel them to solicit money from soldiers. From this perspective, sexual exploitation comes from socioeconomic situations, rather than the consequence of the gun culture and masculinity. A similar study on masculinities and child soldiers addresses the little concern awarded to masculinity studies and the claim that masculinity and the gun culture form the two sides of a same coin.5 The author shows that masculinity continues to affect the society negatively coupled with advancing modern violence against women.6
Since the early frontiersman spirit was bolstered by the use of guns to protect from hostile quarters, the Americans developed the image that men were capable of using a gun since survival at this time depended on every man being in a position to protect his people. Following the American Revolution and subsequent attacks by foreign armies, the US military was caught inadvertently in many cases, and due to its insufficiency in work force, untrained men were recruited to take the responsibility of the armed citizen soldiers7. Following the contribution of the armed men, there has been generational motivation to embrace gun use as a symbol of historical inheritance.
Despite the controversial use of guns in the current American society and even though private gun ownership has not been vital for daily survival, the American gun culture is firmly anchored into the Americans’ lifestyle. In addition, within the context of the World War II, the American literature, art, and film industries often produced morale-building themes that instilled a sense of patriotism.8 The films demonstrated the use of guns and the value of personal sacrifice for the larger benefit of the American society. The stories featured groups of men molded to suit the fighting scene and women got involved only in nursing activities.
Repeated behavior or rather socialization through time leads a society to a false conviction that it is behaving naturally, but not aping a socially misconstrued role. Apparently, the US military system is very elaborate and organized in well-defined units comprising trained soldiers both men and women. Despite the reduced role of men as the only protective agents of the society, there is still congruent evidence that men are highly involved in cases regarding gun violence.
The negative role of gun usage has opened up a debate to consider whether guns should be allowed in public domains for private use. The United States’ Constitution permits responsible adults to make own decisions about acquiring guns for self-defense. This aspect amounts to the wholesale prohibition of private ownership difficult in situations where some individuals fail to use their guns responsibly. The misconstrued conclusions that men should always assure safety have permeated the society to an extent that compels men to feel justified to use a gun even in situations that break the law. Unfortunately, by necessity rather than choice, the openness of the law has provided people with excessive authority to use guns even in situations that allow alternative measures.
Transition to manhood
Men’s link to weapons appears to be branded at the initial stage of boys’ development. The toy industry has played a huge role in branding boys as young warriors by producing replica gun toys, which give boys an image close to that of real warriors, soldiers, thieves, or cowboys. By aping the characteristics of armed role models, boys gain the interest to use weapons, and since they can access the video games, they engage in competitive activities that affirm their interests in the use of weapons. Unfortunately, the video games and handgun toys do not come with manuals educating the young boys of the negative role of these weapons when used in real-life scenarios. This aspect influences young men in pro-gun communities such as the US to pursue the real gun experiences by accessing their parents’ arms or purchasing illegal guns from the backstreets.9
In societies enshrined in civil conflicts like the US, young boys often engage in gun confrontations. In contrast, young women are highly discouraged to engage in any activities involving gun violence and they are advised to stay close to their young brothers for protection purposes when they feel insecure.
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Gun as a symbol of man’s status
With the proliferation of guns and the continued appreciation of the rich heritage associated with them, the bond between men and gun is exceedingly strengthening. Some societies have openly come out as violent and possessing a gun legally or illegally is socially acceptable or regarded in their cultures. Just like in the previous generations, the status of men as being superior to women persists. Guns continue to be used to build social and economic status amongst men in the contemporary times. The show of a gun in public acts as a key via which a man demonstrates his masculinity and describes his role in the community as a symbol of security.
However, the implication displayed by the bearer of the gun is influenced by his culture coupled with what it means to that society. For instance, in some societies in Brazil and Somalia, a gun may mean rebellion to genuine activities of the mainstream society such as diversity in religion or drug dealing10. In these societies, it seems acceptable for a man to possess a gun even without the consent of the law system. In most parts of the world, gun use may symbolize masculine retaliation to social disorder.
In social studies about gender, there has developed a tendency towards constructivism, which entails viewing gender as a self-perceived aspect to explain masculinity and femininity. Gender roles entail the people’s conceptions of how men and women are supposed to behave and how cultural norms help to mold this behavior. The issue of gender roles, in this case masculine, has gained a widespread perception that men and guns enjoy a special relationship.
Guns for a long time continue to be used as tools to attain social and economic significance. The use of guns has been identified to act as a means to intervene for men when there is a threat of loss of authority and privilege. The social perception of men as warriors compels them to act so and in the case where they are pressed beyond the limits, they retaliate by using guns. The usage of guns by men displays masculinity socially, but tragically, it also undermines it in cases where the gun is misused. Masculinity is not only associated with intentional and accidental perpetuations of violence, but also men are the usual victims. Despite the new trends in military training that incorporate women in all units, the concept of the armed male is still portrayed as a protector of the helpless women11.
Interestingly, guns take a shape that resembles male sexualized characteristics. The impression that a gun shape appears more of a penile extension has turned out as a stereotype to ward off women from associating with guns. This misconstrued connection has been applied by the arms industry to market its products to men and other products such as cars feature guns in their designs to depict the symbol of superiority.
Consequently, the fetish image of weapons and the subsequent perception of violent masculinity are affirmed by the voluntary withdrawal of women from gun use and the film industry. Moreover, gun bearers from either training or intuition learn to feminize guns and see their guns as female companions that they are obligated to care for in the process of usage and ownership. Riffles are given female names’ nicknames and men are expected to use these guns to display their masculinity the same way they act when protecting women.
The US has been saturated with firearms held within the public domain either legal or illegally. The rising claim that banning all private gun use would save lives has been highly disputed by the pro-gun activists who uphold that private gun ownership is inevitable for self-defense12.
This move in turn has a wide political implication since the decision-making process regarding this issue is subject to the legislators who have the mandate to make or amend the law. World politics are viewed as pure struggle for power and dominance. As a result, politicians in the US and beyond are vindicated as self-centered beings who seek glory at the peril of the weak and the poor. However, legalizing private ownership of guns is necessary to keep off physical threats from political foes and angry citizens. Gun bearers in the US particularly politicians know that they are a bête noire to mainstream groups that fight violently for the rights of the minority and marginalized.
However, banning private gun ownership might be a rational move, but repealing this law is hard since those it protects view the anti-gun attacks to be driven by hatred and disapproval that they have genuine grievances to be addressed by the law.
Women have flooded the current political system in the United States, which has fueled the fear for western feminism. These neo-traditionalist perspectives are becoming evident in all sectors that had previously enjoyed male dominance. The displays of female independence are seen as disrupting socio-political order due to the increased opening of modern gender roles and systems that favor women. In a bid to derail the process of female independence, the idea of constructing white militarized men enjoys political backup through legislation.
Labelling a particular behavior by men as masculine risks strengthening violent deeds that males do by arguing that they are responsible bearers of guns. This perception wards off alternative forms of male behavior and those who fail to react violently are viewed as being unmanly. This aspect further reinforces the conviction that being a man one should always retaliate violently. Some women are inherently fascinated and obsessed with guns, but they keep in mind that their guns are primarily meant for self-protection from male-orchestrated violence13. This aspect depicts females as responsible gun bearers and peaceful, while males are viewed as violent and dominant. In many societies where gun violence has permeated extensively, people argue that they are obsessed with the guns primarily to respond to the gun culture.
Masculinity and gun relationship is not a natural implication of being a male neither do all men have the obsession for guns. While there is an evident bond between masculinity and the gun culture in the United States, the underlying question is not on the proper usage of the weapon, but the negative role that it continues to perpetuate. Armed masculinity is in many situations retaliations to possible threats to patriarchy.
Anti-gun debates have always been met with contempt by the pro-gun campaigns, thus making it hard to establish successful and sustainable criteria of disarmament. The claim that guns are not useful for private ownership and not properly used for safe-defense should be emphasized. Guns have been used to advance crimes, pose threats to authorities, and rarely to repel crime. Possession of a gun creates the urge to use it, not only motivated by its design, but also via accident, agitation, emotions, fear, or mental incapacitation. Due to improved technology and advanced training of the police force, private gun ownership for self-defense is gradually losing meaning. For the last one decade, the United States has bolstered its security system with professional police units sending the message to the public that they do not need guns for own defense.14
When examining criminal violence between spouses, most family-related homicides are initiated by men. The act of husbands shooting their wives amounts to a murder motivated by the feeling of superiority while women happen to use guns against their husbands when protecting themselves or the children. Pro-gun activists claim that private gun ownership is the only way to reduce crimes because responsible gun owners ward of threats without killing. In a bid to achieve sustainable disarmament process, one has to consider the traits of the unarmed population, non-violent trends of masculinity, as well as femininity, which are evident issues in society. By doing so, it would be easy to establish why some societies regard armed men as protective, while others have successfully protected their people without weapons.
The issue of the gun culture and masculinity is undeniably deep-rooted in the United States. The issue of masculinity and gun fascination is not a natural problem, but a mindset of the society tracing its source to socioeconomic, cultural, or historical factors. The mainstream media in the US has played a key role in the coverage of school shootings, homicide, gang attacks, and advertising male products with gun-related themes.
Media present such events as tragedies, but fail to address the factors that lead to the shootings. Media and legal structures are yet to succeed in debates about the crisis in masculinity or a structured discourse on the ill-fated gun culture. However, globalization and neo-traditionalist approaches have led to a decline in socioeconomic places for men, which in turn result in masculinity crisis.
Baum, Dan. Gun Guys: A Road Trip. New York: Vintage, 2013.
Burbick, Joan. Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy. New York, N.Y: New Press, 2006.
Chenoy, Anuradha. “Gender and International Politics: The Intersections of Patriarchy and Militarization.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies 11, no. 1 (2004): 27-42.
Collins, Craig. Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture. Guilford: Lyons press, 2014.
Duncanson, Claire. “Forces for Good? Narratives of Military Masculinity in Peacekeeping Operations.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 11, no. 1 (2009): 63-80.
Evans, Mary. Gender. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Higate, Paul. “Peacekeepers, Masculinities, and Sexual Exploitation.” Men and Masculinities 19, no. 1 (2007): 99-119.
Kohn, Abigail. Shooters: Myths and Realities of America’s Gun Cultures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Melzer, Scott. Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
Pauly, Louis, and Bruce Jentleson. Power in a Complex Global System. London: Routledge, 2014.
- Craig Collins, Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture (Guilford: Lyons press, 2014), 54.
- Claire Duncanson, “Forces for Good? Narratives of Military Masculinity in Peacekeeping Operations,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 11, no. 1 (2009): 63-80.
- Ibid, 74.
- Paul Higate, “Peacekeepers, Masculinities, and Sexual Exploitation,” Men and Masculinities 19, no. 1 (2007): 99-119.
- Anuradha Chenoy, “Gender and International Politics: The Intersections of Patriarchy and Militarization,” Indian Journal of Gender Studies 11, no. 1 (2004): 27-42.
- Ibid, 39.
- Dan Baum, Gun Guys: A Road Trip (New York: Vintage, 2013), 57.
- Joan Burbick, Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy (New York, N.Y.: New Press, 2006), 32.
- Mary Evans, Gender (New York: Routledge, 2011), 23.
- Abigail Kohn, Shooters: Myths and Realities of America’s Gun Cultures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 36.
- Scott Melzer, Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 76.
- Louis Pauly and Bruce Jentleson. Power in a Complex Global System (London: Routledge, 2014), 86.
- Kohn, 12.
- Collins, 44.