Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Assault Weapons as Symbols

I think human societies often underestimate the power that symbols have to shape the world around us. Too often, to call an act or gesture "purely symbolic" is to dismiss or trivialize it. But if there's anything that religion has taught us through the centuries, it's precisely this fact: symbolism matters.

I wrote a post awhile back reflecting on the importance and power of religious symbolism in light of the Sikh symbols of faith, or "kakars," that baptized Sikhs carry on their person at all times. There's no question that such symbols can have the capacity to shape our understanding of who we are and, by implication, how we live.

Or consider religious worship: rituals, images, songs, an arrangement of physical space, evocative stories and parables, physical gestures like kneeling or raising ones arms toward the sky, incense and candles--symbols designed to orient us towards a certain way of thinking about and living in the world. If you don't think symbols matter, then you don't think weekly worship can make a difference in a person's development, in their view of the world and their approach to life.

I've been thinking about this issue recently in connection with the "assault weapons" ban being considered as part of a more comprehensive public policy response to gun violence in America. The guns classified as assault weapons are functionally not much different from other semi-automatic rifles that no one is talking about banning. The differences are mainly historical and cosmetic: the former are civilian variants of weapons originally designed for military use and which retain a military styling that other rifles don't have.

Based on this fact--and the additional fact that assault weapons are implicated in a very small percentage of gun homicides in this country--there is some reason to think that a ban on these weapons would be itself a largely symbolic gesture. And in that case, an assessment of it needs to take into account what the symbolism means.
One might well worry that the symbolism of such a ban would appease the left and outrage the right without making any substantive dent in the problem of gun violence.

But even as we acknowledge that a ban on assault weapons has largely symbolic significance, we need to remember that a ban on these weapons is not the only thing with symbolic significance here. If there's a reason to pursue a ban on assault weapons while leaving functionally similar weapons untouched, it would be because of what these guns themselves symbolize.

And what do they symbolize? A gun with military styling could be used, I suppose, to keep coyotes from your livestock. But symbolically, we associate such weapons with shooting people as opposed to shooting coyotes.

You pick up an AR-15 (the civilian version of the M16) or a semi-automatic AK-47, and you think of Rambo. There's probably an instant testosterone dump in your system. Or maybe not. But if there's a reason people--mostly men--want these weapons, it isn't because they're functionally different from other rifles typically used in hunting or for other utilitarian purposes. They're not. It's because they're cool.

And by "cool" I mean cool in a fast-cars-Vin-Diesel-take-out-the-bad-guys kind of way. You hold one of these weapons, and you're badass. You're the man. No one messes with you.

In short, you are connected immediately to a wider array of symbols of aggression, stories of good guys and bad guys solving their problems with a spray of lead and blood splatter. You are attuned instantly to the violent us/them narratives that Hollywood has been pumping out for decades under the "action movie" label. You're Schwarzenegger in Commando. You're the viewpoint character in that violent computer game, but now you've emerged out of the virtual world still holding your gun.

Put simply, assault weapons resonate symbolically with a broader set of cultural tropes, ones which orient you into a way of thinking about human relations in which violence is a go-to strategy rather than a dreaded last resort (as it would be, say, for that saintly Charles Ingalls who takes down his rifle only rarely during a typical Little House on the Prairie season, and then only to regrettably put an injured horse out of its misery).

It is common, at this point, for people to roll their eyes. They underestimate the power of symbols. But think about it: You see a cross like the one in the church where you grew up, and you are reminded of Sunday worship as a child, and of the broader message that you heard there. You recall the resonance of the pastor's voice, and the wrinkled face of the organist. You hear a snippet of that old hymn. What happens if you buy that cross and take it home, put it on display, handle it on a regular basis? What you've done is taken into you present life an ongoing link to all of those other things, a link that may shape how you approach the world.

Take home an AR-15, handle it regularly, fire it at the gun range, and how does that shape your approach to the world? Part of the answer is a matter of idiosyncratic personal history; but much of it can be predicted by looking at dominant cultural narratives that feature weapons of this sort.

The symbols we surround ourselves with--the ones we handle and look at regularly--feed us in various ways, shaping which parts of our character come to dominate us, which stories we believe, which ones we live out with our neighbors and our friends.

How much does widespread access to the symbolism embodied in an AR-15 affect the overall aggressiveness of a society (beyond what guns themselves produce, given their inherent destructive power)? How often does access to such a weapon fuel a disturbed imagination, leading a troubled person to act on violent fantasies that might otherwise have remained safely in the realm of imagination?

Probably not often. But it doesn't follow that there are no effects of this sort. This sort of subtle symbolic impact on psychological dispositions is not just something that religious communities have known about and harnessed for generations. It's also what drives the advertising industry. Most of us don't pay much attention to the psychological effect of commercials, let alone give much credence to the idea that our buying behaviors might be shaped by them. But companies spend loads of money on advertising precisely because this sort of influence is real--even if it will never make someone who hates carbonated beverages buy Coke. Advertising can't control you. It doesn't determine your behavior. But it can nudge you in certain direction.

Nudge a million people, and a few hundred may be nudged that crucial distance, that last step that leads them to finally put the product in the shopping cart...or, in the case of assault weapons, finally act out a violent fantasy in a moment of rage.

Of course, there are other symbols that feed our aggression. And no symbol works in isolation. A cross means nothing without the gospel story. If AR-15's have a negative effect on our society's propensity for civil discourse and nonviolent problem-solving, it's not the AR-15's that are doing it all by themselves. Rather, they tap into something fueled by deeper and more pervasive cultural forces. Without that cultural context, the AR-15 won't carry the symbolic weight that it does.

And there is a problem for a proposed assault weapons ban that springs from the very fact that they're symbols--and that their symbolic link to broader cultural tropes is the clearest thing distinguishing them from other weapons that wouldn't be banned. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: Symbols express ideas and ways of thinking. If the reason we want to ban assault weapons is because of their symbolic meaning rather than their functionality, then how is that different from outlawing flag-burning or other symbolic acts just because we don't like the message being communicated?

Consider someone who gets a violent or frightening image tattooed on their arm. What effect would that have on the person who gets the tattoo? To have a symbol of violence inked into your very flesh may do more to fuel one's identification with violent narratives than having an AR-15 in a gun safe. Should the government regulate what kinds of tattoos people can get?

Surely not. Opponents of assault weapons bans routinely invoke the Second Amendment. Maybe what they should be invoking is the First.

But, of course, you can't kill someone with your tattoo. The assault weapon is not merely a symbol linked to aggressive ideas and narratives. It is a killing device, a means of acting on those very same aggressive ideas and narratives. In a sense, an assault weapon is not merely a tool that can be misused, but a tool whose symbolic meaning could help to motivate its own misuse.

Consider a rather extreme analogy. Imagine a society in which a subculture has the horrific practice of "punishing" assertive and independent women by targeting them for a ritualistic kind of rape/murder. The practice has been outlawed and condemned but still happens. Suppose there's a distinctive kind of knife used for these attacks, but that this kind of knife also has more utilitarian purposes--say, cutting meat. Now imagine that someone sets up shop selling knives of this kind, but with a difference: the blades are adorned with full color bloody images of women gutted in the ritualistic way that the cultural practice dictates, and the hilt is etched with words announcing the proper response to women who don't remember "their place."

Functionally speaking, of course, these knives work the same as other knives that no one wants to ban. But is this functional equivalence a reason not to ban such knives? Or is it, rather, the reverse? Given that there are functional equivalents which don't, in effect, encourage the owner to use the knife for ritual rape and murder, mightn't the government be justified in saying, "Nobody needs to be buying or selling knives like these"?

I'm not suggesting that the knives in the above example are analogous to AR-15's. What I'm saying is that when potential tools for committing horrific crimes become symbolically laden with ideas and patterns of thinking that may actually encourage the commission of such crimes, one is dealing with something more than just a free speech issue. There's surely a big difference in degree between the way that my imaginary knives are symbolically bound up with their misuse and the way in which assault weapons are. And unlike the knives, which are symbolically linked to acts that I hope we'll all agree are seriously immoral, AR-15's are bound up with war. And while war is not morally innocuous, many (in fact, most) thoughtful and decent people think it is sometimes justified.

But what is called for in war--the level of aggressiveness, the us/them thinking, the willingness to resort to violence--is not something we want to bring home to civilian life. When the symbols of war proliferate in civilized society, there is a danger of it becoming progressively less civilized. More people start to adopt a war footing in their approach to, say, government administrations they didn't vote for and don't like. Partisan politics becomes increasingly polarized, acquiring an almost war-like animosity. The notion that some conflicts can't be resolved nonviolently, that resort to violence is essential, starts to expand over a broader range of conflicts. As the symbols of war proliferate, the rhetoric of war ramps up--until some disturbed person somewhere snatches hold of one of those symbols of war, goes where a politician is making a public appearance, and turns rhetoric into bloody reality.

Given that no ordinary citizen actually needs assault weapons--precisely because there are other weapons that are functionally comparable but carry different symbolic significance--the symbolic associations of these weapons may be a reason to single them out for distinctive legislative constraints.

But then again, maybe not. As I've said, symbolism matters. It matters much more than most people realize. But even if the symbolic meaning of assault weapons, imported into civilian life, is quite problematic, the symbolic effect of a ban on them might be equally problematic.

Such a ban might come to symbolize victory for those demanding a legislative response to gun violence, leading them into a false complacency. What if the energy for change motivated by Sandy Hook would be dissipated by the re-implementation of an assault weapons ban? Such a ban would only target one symbol in a broad array of cultural symbols and narratives and patterns of thinking that fuel violence. And the means available for killing people would hardly be dented. If we want to reduce gun violence in America, we need a comprehensive approach that looks at all the cultural forces that magnify violence, and that looks for ways beyond mere regulation to move away from such a culture. An assault weapons ban is symbolic--and I've just finished arguing that symbolism matters. But unless part of something far more comprehensive, such a ban would be rendered merely symbolic.

Similarly, the effect of an assault weapons ban would be quite problematic if it were to become, among those on the political right, a symbol of government tyranny, of intrusive government assaults on liberty, thereby mobilizing forces to oppose all efforts to reduce gun violence, even those that most of us might otherwise support.

The effort to ban assault weapons may, in other words, be a dangerous misuse of political capital--capital that could be employed to achieve gun regulations that do a better job of making it harder for those who shouldn't have guns to get their hands on them. What if we treated gun sales the way we do car sales, and the right to use a gun the way we do the right to drive? There are sensible measures for enabling legitimate use of automobiles while managing the inherent risks associated with the widespread use of these large, expensive, and dangerous machines. Following a similar template with respect to guns seems like something we should all be able to get behind--and something that might actually do some real good.

We don't want an assault weapons ban if its symbolic significance will be a rallying cry for opposition to these sensible measures.

In a society where guns are out there in large numbers, where a thriving gun culture is in place, where debates about the meaning of the second amendment still rage, we aren't going to see any sort of comprehensive gun ban. It's not politically feasible even if it were socially wise. Since "assault weapons" are functionally similar to guns that won't be banned in any plausible scenario, a ban on them will be largely symbolic. The question is what kind of symbolism will be at work, and how that symbolism will affect our capacity to pursue broader and more comprehensive approaches to addressing the problem of gun violence in America.

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you on the symbolic power of assault weapons. I've never thought of it that way. The effect of the ban could never be quantified in that sense, but hopefully it would say something substantial. BTW, I think you may have the initial idea for your next book (a novel this time) in that extreme analogy. Pretty creepy, but with a relevant, contemporary social message.