For some people, the mere fact that someone has a gun means they must be conservative.
That’s an alarming statement on my part, so let me take some time to try and support it. First, I am not claiming that all liberals, or only liberals think this. There is an American culture that did not grow up with guns, and perhaps it was even communicated that guns were distasteful (something Other People Had, with the undercurrent that this was unfortunate). Or, whatever their upbringing was, they are now identifying with a culture that does not consider firearms proper dinner conversation.
I know at least one from that category. Myself. I make a good illustration, actually, because my second point is that this belief exists along a continuum. If I see a pro-gun bumpersticker or hear someone talking about guns, I automatically think there are at least some conservative tendencies in there. Yet for some, I think the association gun implies conservative is so strong that is not only the default position, but a nearly unmovable one.
Most people can be walked back from that generalisation, or walk themselves back from it. Ivy-covered gentlemen from earlier eras, even down to John Kerry, had private shooting clubs – partridge and quail, mostly, or skeet. A few of my friends have antique guns handed down. Then there’re those guys in the biathlon – Scandinavian, cross-country skiing, how conservative could they be? And the Swiss. They’re all right. Or Vermonters. Howard Dean said even liberals own guns up there. Minnesotans, maybe. At that point they begin to hesitate. And er, in some parts of the country it’s just part of the culture…and people grew up with it…farmers and other rural people…and those trade union guys…and…black people. Which means Not our tribe, not us, but we don’t dare say so.
Other exceptions occur to them: a Classics professor who likes target shooting; gays in the military must mean…; gentleman farmers; a practically-socialist nephew who does lots of outdoorsy and adventurous things and smokes a ton of dope; and heck, the mayor’s a Democrat, and he… Reasonable people can get off the default setting, but it pays to remember, it’s still their default setting. The association remains nearly automatic. Perhaps in this context, semi-automatic would be more appropriate. (But if you just file down one little part of that idea, it can become fully automatic, doncha know.)
Statistically, it’s probably not a bad bet. Not that all gun owners vote for Republicans, but that the 20% of Americans Pew identifies as true liberals are almost entirely not gun owners. I think there is probably another 20% of Americans from a wide range of groups who just don’t belong to a gun culture and find it worrisome. Confirmation bias being what it is, the presence of any other conservative clue pretty much seals the deal in a non-gunowner’s mind. Even mine. These ingrained associations just emerge unless you actively break them up. Left to themselves, every time you encounter an irritating or weird guy who owns a gun and says something vaguely conservative, your beliefs will be reinforced, but every weird leftist who uses vivid and threatening imagery will get stored in some other set of beliefs. Or disappear altogether from consideration. Let me drive that nail down, to the center of the earth if necessary: if you come from a non-gun culture and are not actively fighting against that stereotype in your evaluations, that prejudice owns you.
Maybe this is a good spot to just have everyone go read about confirmation bias from someone besides me. Someone nonpolitical. Either here or here.
Thus the recent political reaction. The idea is already preloaded (heh) that gun owners are more dangerous, and more often conservative, so it only stands to reason that if someone gets shot and it looks political in any way A) The shooter is probably conservative, and B) conservatives, what with their guns and dangerous atmosphere and all, are partly to blame. As no amount of data is able to dislodge this, from the time of Lee Harvey Oswald to Jared Loughner, I have to suspect that something more primitive, less rational is in play. If there is a gun, and any other scrap of info might confirm the bias, then the shooter was somehow influenced by conservatives. Especially as our journalist class is drawn almost entirely from the non-owning culture. All the tribal cues, blatant or subtle, become part of the landscape. Oswald had been a Marine, so you know…Jack Ruby had one of those Texas hats and came from Dallas… Columbine was on April 20th, so… All the Squeakys and Hinkleys and Carneals and Bishops and DC Snipers wash out of the memory as unimportant. In most cases, we are simply talking about brains that are broken, and no further explanation need be sought. Even when some political idea is present, so that if we were to squint we might sorta kinda put a partisan motive to it, it is usually a single fixation, not part of a whole political package – and as often leftist as rightist. Perhaps more often, though I haven’t seen a breakdown.
As to assumption B) that a violent culture (read guns, equals conservative) inspires such people to act, or at a minimum pushes vulnerable people that last bit over the edge, the evidence just isn’t there. These things happen in Finland and Sweden - and the UK and Canada - in states with low crime rates and high, strict gun control and permissive. In the age of increasingly graphic movies and games, the violent crime rate has gone down. We expect it to be otherwise. We intuitively expect that the availability of violent porn and first-person shooter games would tweak the vulnerable into sprees of raping and killing. We point to the retrospectives, that the perpetrators did avail themselves of these things as proof of our belief. But retrospectives aren’t evidence. Nor are they when conservatives deplore the godless, hypersexualised culture brought about by liberals. Sexual crime is also down. In both cases, if there’s an effect, it’s not general and it’s not powerful. An opposite conclusion has more to support it at present.
As to political rhetoric, the idea is absurd, and it takes very little effort to see this. Military and firearm rhetoric was more common in all earlier American political eras. The interconnectivity of the news culture and the instant fame and impact are far more likely culprits, as the perpetrators themselves often highlight notoriety as a motive.
The right blogosphere has made much of the hypocrisy and cynical manipulation by the left - that some conservatives (Palin, talk radio) have contributed to an assassination culture by their anger and imagery - by pointing out worse and more numerous examples from the left. Yet I am not sure that hypocrisy and manipulation are quite the right concepts. I think they really believe it in some vague and primitive way, these Olbermans and Krugmans and Milbanks, and are responding in genuine fear, not cynicism. We don’t have guns. We think guns are bad. Those People have guns. So when there’s a shooting, it must be Those People. Somehow. We have to keep warning Americans about how dangerous Those People are. They use terms like anti-government in tortured definitions that can’t hold up in an eighth-grade class, yet I think they really mean it. I believe they really haven’t examined for a minute what they actually mean by that, but are responding to something visceral and emotive. They aren't being cynical, I think they believe owning a gun makes you more violent. They believe that mere reference to firearms has an inciting effect on weaker minds. I conclude they really believe they are beleaguered innocents. (Note: Actual beleaguered innocents do feel this way. So do bullies and paranoids. The subjective impression, however decorated and rationalised with select data, gives us no clue whatsoever. Bullies and paranoids have select data too.) Damn, I hope they’re not projecting. Is there a fear of self nestled deeply in all this? Cynicism and hypocrisy would be less of a problem, frankly.