You might think that after mass shootings like the recent ones in Texas, Arizona, and Oregon, the American public would turn away from guns, embracing gun control as a way to reduce gun violence. But you would be wrong.
In 2013, year after a gunman killed 20 first graders in Newtown, Connecticut, the opposite occurred: those in favor of controlling gun ownership remained relatively steady, while those who supported gun rights increased by six percent. Less than a year after the shooting, Congress failed to pass national gun law reforms despite the increased media attention on gun violence. And today, gun control advocates are the minority, as 52 percent of Americans either support looser gun laws or would like to keep current laws in place. Last month’s shootings are unlikely to change this perception.
Why, then, are gun-control advocates unable to sustain their momentum when media attention surrounding mass shootings dies out? Why do mass shootings not change public opinion on gun ownership? The answer lies in a simple yet persuasive American narrative, an ideology championed by the ruling majority and embraced by the general public: that the ability to bear arms exists as a fundamental, American right.
Examining the gun-control debate as one obfuscated by ideology allows us to see through public opinion and understand why increasingly publicized mass shootings fail to permanently change attitudes towards gun control. One way of understanding ideology, according to the cultural critic Raymond Williams’ reading of Karl Marx, is as “a system of illusory beliefs — false ideas or false consciousness — which can be contrasted with true scientific knowledge.” The illusions perpetuated by ideology hide an empirical reality that, in Marxist philosophy, serves the interests of the dominant group.
Historian Richard Slotkin adds another layer to this idea of ideology with his conception of myth. Slotkin posits that myths represent a “falsification of history,” a fictional narrative both in their human construction and incorrect presentation of the past. As they utilize a singular metaphor to embody history’s complexities, myths “invoke the authority of the dominant ideology” and, in fact, come to “exemplify” that ideology. The myth, and the ideology it supports, become almost axiomatic, beyond deconstruction as they are ingrained in a public consciousness and accepted as truth.
The right to bear arms has reached this realm of myth and ideology. Former National Rifle Association (NRA) president Charlton Heston’s ability to evoke the fears and triumphs associated with threats to the American homeland and its liberty — from the Revolutionary War to Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor — and re-appropriate their significance to a “struggle” over gun rights reflects the power of the American myth that connects guns and freedom. Heston’s rallying cry, “From my cold dead hands,” is nothing more than a dogmatic expression of this ideology. The phrase successfully captures the American narrative of freedom from government intrusion and is reminiscent of Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.” By linking guns to American freedom, Heston’s remarks neatly encapsulate the ideology of gun ownership and its connection to fundamental — and uniquely American — rights. Public opinion among moderates and conservatives consistently identifies with these ideals of “gun rights.”
This ideology is so persuasive that even though research shows that the presence of firearms increases the likelihood of gun-related deaths, 63 percent of Americans think “having a gun in the house makes it a safe place.” Polls like these indicate an ideology devoid of empirical realities, one grounded in the American ideals of protection and freedom. It is an ideology that supports the maintenance of a status quo, shifting the focus away from gun violence and towards an infringement on national rights.
Mass shootings ultimately fail to affect this ideology because the attention that mass shootings receive presents a convenient picture of gun violence in the United States. It allows the dominant culture to obscure the true issue with guns: that their violent use is mainly exhibited within communities of color, while their use within white communities remains overwhelmingly for suicide. Violence in minority communities exposes the divide between the white, dominant class and its underclass of color — addressing this divide would involve confronting a history of discriminatory policy, residential segregation, and economic exploitation. Suicide, on the other hand, reflects a social failure to integrate an individual into the social order and suggests that something may be deeply wrong with society. Suicide’s prevalence within white communities makes it even more problematic and more convenient to leave unaddressed.
But these realities are lost in the discussion of gun violence that follows mass shootings. Instead, debate often centers on mental illness, despite the fact that mental illness does not correlate with violent crimes or crimes involving guns. In the process, the dominant culture creates an out-group, developing a false dichotomy between a “crazy” person with a gun and a “normal” person with one. The dichotomy allows people to rally around a dominant ideology of gun ownership, as statements like those by the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre present gun ownership as the only safeguard from a violent society.
In the discussions following mass shootings, the true meaning of gun control is lost. Instead of finding a balance between public safety and constitutional rights, the ideology of gun ownership, freedom, and protection from public enemies overpowers all reason. In the end, public opinion fails to shift towards gun control, even in the face of horrendous tragedy. America’s gun-wielding ideology prevails.