In the aftermath of a shooting, there’s always a heated debate about guns in our country—one often fraught with bombast and vitriol. The high tension and emotion make sense: shooter Devin Kelley’s attack on congregants at Sutherland Springs’ First Baptist Church this past Sunday ended with 26 dead and 20 wounded. But all too often, our debates following such carnage result in little other than deeper division and venom between left and right.
Much of this vitriol stems from widely differing perceptions of the gun between these two circles. On the right, a gun is not always viewed as just another weapon. It’s often seen as a symbol: of resistance to tyranny, of autonomy and self-sufficiency, and even of traditionalism or groundedness. A plethora of pro-gun, Second Amendment-touting bumper stickers abound on the internet, as well as t-shirts, hats, and mugs. All of them hint at a libertarian individualism, a savvy self-determination that transcends what’s popular or “safe.”
On the left, of course, such sentiments aren’t usually just confounding—they’re offensive. Guns are weapons of murder. They are lethal, dangerous, and uncontrollable. For most Democrats, the gun isn’t a symbol of liberty; it’s a toxic emblem of death. And people who oppose gun control with such arguments or appeals to the gun-as-symbol aren’t just being reckless; they’re putting countless lives on the line in order to perpetuate their Second Amendment fantasies.
It is true that the right can be reactionary, rather than reasonable, when it comes to guns. In recent years, the anti-government and anti-left rhetoric of the right has reached a fever pitch. One need only watch an NRA ad from earlier this year to see this potent, poisonous “us vs. them” oratory in real time. In practice, talking points like this don’t further debate or good governance. They foment hysteria, anger, and division. Instead of a pearl-clutching society, they’ve fostered a gun-clutching one.
This seems hardly beneficial, even to someone like me who supports gun ownership. Because while a gun can be an exceedingly useful tool (for hunting and providing food for one’s family, for instance), it is also an exceedingly dangerous one. People fear guns because they have a profound capability for slaughter. A gun is, in its very being, exponentially more deadly than a knife or bow and arrow.
I grew up in the incredibly pro-gun state of Idaho. Being pro-Second Amendment and pro-gun was part of being a conservative in this hunting and fishing state. Shrewd gun ownership and use was part of many families’ lives: fathers were proud of their ability to provide food for their families, and of their ability to protect them (whether from potential break-ins, from coyotes, or from dangerous wildlife while out camping). Teenagers practiced marksmanship shooting, helped hunt in the fall, and learned to cook with venison.
For these families, perhaps guns were a symbol of liberty and autonomy, but they were also a profoundly practical tool. Meat doesn’t just come from a grocery store. You don’t call the cops when a fox gets into your henhouse.
But these gun owners were also savvy and prudent. They knew just how dangerous these weapons were. Guns were locked away. They were never allowed around children. Pre-teens and teenagers learned how to use them only with the expert care and caution of their parents. There was never a scenario or time in which a gun was presented without extreme gravity, solemnity, or care.
It’s important to highlight such instances, because it’s easy for anti-gun advocates to see all gun owners through stereotypical lenses: perhaps they picture an apocalyptic prepper who has built up an arsenal of weapons in his basement, and is determined to stand his ground when the federal government comes for him and his property. Or perhaps they picture Instagram star Dan Bilzerian: a man for whom weaponry is more about macho manliness than it is about safety or sustenance. It’s important to remember that, while these people exist, they are not the average gun owner.
That said, many gun owners are careless. I have heard too many stories of toddlers who innocently plucked guns from their parents’ bedside table or car console, only to turn them toward their face or chest and accidentally pull the trigger. According to the CDC, 19 children die from or are treated for gunshot wounds every day. It’s difficult to know why such things happen—why gun owners so often forget the inherent lethality in their weapons. But perhaps it does not help that, when we turn tools into symbols, we can forget what they’re truly capable of.
Thus, even while I understand the gun-as-symbol argument, I believe guns are a rather inappropriate item to be touted, clutched, or worshiped. Any human construct—from a truck to a house, a guitar to a toolbox—can be beloved by its owner. We can attach an air of dignity or pride to these things, especially when we develop some skill and proficiency in their use. But these objects weren’t made to kill. Their chief end isn’t death. Even if we only use guns for target practice or shooting clay pigeons, we cannot ignore what a gun was made to do—what it is, in its very essence. Guns are not righteous objects to be protected at all costs, but rather (as many Democrats rightly point out) incredibly dangerous machines.
Those who view guns as symbols of resistance—to the state, to the left, to the “them” so menacingly described in that NRA ad—can no longer sympathize with those who look at a gun, and see only peril and death. They’ve cut themselves off from the other reality so many recognize when staring at a gun: the homicides of young men. Domestic violence that ends in murder. Thousands of suicides per year. The accidental deaths of children.
But we cannot cut ourselves off from this other reality. And we should not scoff at liberals who call for gun control, even if their hoped-for measures cannot drastically change gun violence in this country. Because the plain, simple truth that they point out is both unavoidable and important: without a gun, Kelley could not have sprayed the side of First Baptist Church with bullets. Without a gun, he could not have killed so many in so little time. Without a gun, the life of an 18-month-old baby might have been saved.
In our hesitancy to endorse exhaustive gun control measures, we must not negate or ignore the lethality of the gun. Because some tools are too deadly to be taken lightly.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.