Yes, this is a post about gun shows, but first
I’ll write a bit about my values when it comes to guns. If you like and use guns, then you probably don’t share my values. Still, I hope you’ll read past the beginning to see my sociological reflection on gun shows that I think treats a different set of values fairly.
I don’t like guns. I know and respect people who like, own, and shoot guns. I assume that most gun owners are responsible, and most guns are not used to hurt people. Realistically, I would be very happy with restrictions that forbid private ownership of guns and ammo that are designed so that relatively unskilled shooters can shoot and kill a lot of people very quickly. I’d like gun laws that protect recreational use. I know the second amendment isn’t about recreational use, but the “security of a free state.” I’m not scared of our government, and instead I’ll use the rest of the U.S. Constitution that allows me to participate in governing my free state. After all, we are that government of which so many of us are afraid. Some might call me naïve for believing that, but if you think you can use the current individual gun ownership rights reading of the second amendment to maintain a militia that would be effective against the U.S. government’s historically unmatched war machine, then you are the naïve one.
I also know that many gun owners are not motivated by fear of government. You like guns for target shooting? There are other ways to practice that skill, and you certainly don’t need an AR-15 for target shooting. You like hunting wildlife? I can’t understand killing animals for sport. You can commune with and get to know about nature without killing what makes nature so wondrous. No, I’m not a member of PETA, and I’m not vegan. I live my contradictions, just like most (all?) of us, and my own ‘good intention’ is to go back to my former vegetarian ways. You appreciate guns for their technology? I doubt that their destructive power isn’t tightly coupled with that fetishization. You could admire their technological sophistication without owning or using them, anyway, right? That would be sort of like the way I feel about the F-22 (seriously, that’s cool jet full of mind blowing technology, even if it’s a pretty much useless waste of taxpayer money). These values influence what I’m about to write, so I thought it best to put them up front. Now, onto my gun show post.
Why would anybody go to a gun show, anyway?
There was some media attention given to a gun show in Saratoga Springs, NY this weekend (1/11-13/2013). The shootings in Newtown, CT were less than a month prior, and Saratoga Springs isn’t all that far from Newtown, so some protestors thought it was inappropriate to hold this gun show. In the end, the gun show went on, and with more attendance than normal. Increased attendance at gun shows and increased gun sales appear to be common across the country since the Newtown shootings. I’m sure that gun show attendance, and the tenor of the gun shows, has been affected by these and other recent shootings. But, gun shows have been going on for a long time, and there is little reason to think they’ll end soon.
Reading about all of this, I wondered why anyone would go to a gun show. I have no interest in going to a gun show. I am as little interested in attending a gun show as I am in attending church. Still, I wonder why some people go to these places so regularly. Among many other reasons, people go to church as family tradition, to commune with others who share their interests and beliefs, to find social support and camaraderie, and to celebrate sacred symbols of that community and the values they cherish. It seems reasonable to expect that many people go to gun shows for the same reasons.
I know gun sales go on at gun shows, but I’d not be surprised if it’s a minority of those who attend the average gun show (i.e., pre-Newtown) who actually buy a gun. Many people, I’d guess, are not going to buy a gun, but rather to look at a variety of guns they can rarely see in one place. As sociologist David Yamane says in an essay about gun shows, many go to the shows to window shop, or they go because they enjoy guns and gun shows. Plus, here they can enjoy the guns with a bunch of other people who like guns as much as they do, and probably can teach them things about this hobby they enjoy. So, I can imagine people attending a gun show to meet others who share their interests and beliefs, and for the camaraderie and social support.You wouldn’t really need to talk to the other people there, but just to know there are others who value what you do is probably a good feeling. I know that plenty of people go to their churches without becoming friends with the others there, but like that the others are there to help create the experience. So, one might enjoy a gun show for reasons relatively independent of liking guns, but instead because of the very normal enjoyment of social gatherings.
Some of the guns that are for sale at gun shows are reasonably understood as collectibles. These are guns that are valuable not because they might be used for protection or sport, but because they are a part of gun history, and human history more generally, or maybe even personal biography. The collectible gun is valuable because of what it represents, not because of what it does. It might be a gun that has been passed through generations of family, or maybe it represent the development of ‘the gun’ as a weapon and tool. For those with knowledge about guns and gun history, a gun collection might be like a museum exhibit – a shrine to their biography, social history, and human achievement. In some respects, it’s not any different than a baseball fan with a display of autographed balls and cards, some they caught themselves at a game when they were younger.
At gun shows like the one in Saratoga Springs, the collectible gun, and really any gun, also represents the place of ‘the gun’ in American history. The gun, at least for some who value them, represents freedom and individuality. From this perspective, the gun is part of an American narrative of self government, self defense, and self reliance. It is less a weapon than a tool used to resist tyranny, or to put food on the table. Those who own these guns, then, can take home an artifact that symbolizes the core values of their community. They can look at the guns in private and relive some of the emotional power of being part of that community.
For many who attend, then, gun shows are probably about celebrating sacred symbols that in their community represent the very common values of expertise, freedom, and individuality. The guns at a gun show are sacred artifacts. They are made sacred by the community of gun users, fans, and experts who enjoy them. They are made sacred by a narrative of history that gives them an important role in liberating Americans from tyranny, and allowing us to achieve our manifest destiny. A lot of people, myself included, don’t share the values that make one go to a gun show, just like a lot of people, myself included, don’t share the values that make one go to church.