The right-wing mind seems impervious to tragedy. This week’s brutal violation of social peace at UNC has not shaken the conservative commitment to maximal gun rights, despite a death on campus and a wave of trauma devastating the university and the state. These people have proven to be extremely stubborn in their insistence on defending gun ownership from gun safety, and Americans who wish to change this rotten dynamic must appreciate the deep sources of conservative intransigence if they are to save the lives of future generations.
The response among Republicans to the UNC travesty has comported perfectly with the evasions we’ve come to expect. Invoking the specter of crazed maniacs, nearly every Republican in North Carolina has deflected blame to the abstraction of “mental health.” To be clear, we still know almost nothing about the killer, let alone whether he had been diagnosed with mental illness, but the scapegoating of mentally ill people for an epidemic of carnage is practically second nature to conservatives after all these years of bloodshed. On an even more outrageous note, more than one conservative has attempted to connect this tragedy with Chinese malfeasance on COVID-19. This reflects a bizarre blending of right-wing ideological pathologies and little else.
The gun faction has grown so inventive in devising excuses for their demented worldview because their motivations for clinging to this twisted logic run so deeply. These potent psychological imperatives touch on some of the core elements of conservative thinking in the Trump era. First among these, as ever, is MAGA’s fundamental commitment to white-male supremacy. Many people do not often associate gun culture with identitarian hegemony, but the connection is fundamental and explains part of the emotionality with which Republican base voters respond to any perceived threat to the Second Amendment.
In conservative America, few archetypes are more venerated than the self-reliant white patriarch. Studies of cultural cognition have found that people with conservative psychological makeups tend to recall the mythology of armed pioneers when a researcher asks them to associate guns with history. In this worldview guns represent independence and–it cannot be denied–the ability of white men to conquer their environments. Almost all gun ownership is reserved to men and whites, and this unbroken chain of cultural associations continues to hold in the minds of conservative white males who cherish guns as an instrument of control over their worlds.
Consider the nomenclature of red-state gun laws. “Castle doctrine.” “Stand your ground.” These phrases drip with machismo and assertiveness. The white male is the authority figure and his power is ensured by his firearm ownership. With historic dominance by white males beginning to tremble under challenges from feminists and Black Lives Matter, gun culture looms more potently than ever as a symbol of a dying hegemony.
White masculinity is intertwined with traditional rurality, and it is at the juxtaposition of these red-state tropes that gun culture is at its strongest. As white-male privilege has begun to wane, the traditional cultural pedestal on which rural culture has always rested has also lost some of its staying power. Going back to the earliest days of urbanization, even American city-dwellers have looked outward to the countryside for ideas of what the “real America” should represent. Wholesomeness and purity reside in the country. In the cities, squalidness. But this flattering dichotomy has lost a bit of its force in an America where rural areas are struggling and more people than ever live in suburbs and cities. Defending guns against an onslaught of metropolitan outrage is a way for conservatives to defend the primacy of rural life.
There’s precedent for a white sectional tribe growing more belligerent as its cherished pathologies fall victim to a moral revolution. By the eve of the Civil War, the white South had been under withering criticism from the entire Western world for nearly three decades. Southerners, though, responded obstreperously. They literally went to war with the United States rather than accept the end of the peculiar institution. Today a civil war is not in the offing, but a vicious backlash against gun safety is likely to rage for years and years to come.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.