Rites of Gun Passage


Dear Gun Lovers:

We hear you: Guns are beloved custom and culture. They are rites of passage, in which 5-year-olds are given shotguns, along with bicycles with training wheels or tea sets, to bring them into adult culture through play. They are the means through which fathers (and likely mothers) inculcate their children into the wilderness. You carry this familial legacy next to your hearts, your security blanket as you walk around with guns in everyday spaces, in your homes and churches and schools. It becomes a language, the best way to communicate your anger and grief and contempt and paranoia: I am not even thinking here of mass shootings so much as this recent cuddly toy endorsed by the NRA—an ex-girlfriend who bleeds when shot over and over. And if, in the name of comfort and tradition, there is a little collateral damage in the form of a few tens of thousands dead in homes and workplaces, we anthropologists know that maintaining primitive customs is not for the fainthearted.

We hear you, but of course shake our heads with pity. We are sorry that you are unaware of the ways in which modern nations (pretty much most nations that are not active war zones) have been able to keep their citizens safe by limiting quotidian access to guns. Are there rapes, murders, domestic assaults, paranoid schizophrenics, gangs and serial killers in these countries? But of course. Do as many people die in these crimes? Of course not, because there are few if any guns in these countries. Because guns are not everywhere, children do not routinely shoot each other accidentally, rape survivors don’t typically fear death in addition to sexual assault and battered women can focus on economic problems rather than primarily hiding from slaughter.

So we want to help you, as you so often have tried to help us, with what you saw as problems of regressive cultural norms. I think here of the most common ways our students want to talk about the world, of the pity extended to female genital “mutilation” (or surgeries), to domestic violence deaths attributed to dowry practices, to compulsory veiling. They want feminists to eradicate these practices by using law to trump alleged custom and tradition. (I have suggested we start right here in the U.S. by standing guard over tanning salons and Botox clinics and picketing high heels.)

I draw your attention to the ways in which some of these customs have indeed been creatively transformed by communities, so that they retain their cultural value while losing the edge of harm and danger. Genital surgeries were part of adolescent rites of passage, setting girls up with an “age-set” that helped them socially and professionally; by implementing alternatives, from bonding through labor cooperatives to creating substitute songs and games to changing the mindsets and livelihoods of cutters, spaces of culture have been reimagined and rejuvenated to be consonant with the times.

We invite you to transform gun culture in this vein. What alternate rituals could replace bonding in the wilderness? What toys could you give a 5-year old that spoke of traditions in less lethal ways? Could we imagine a world in which rape is not a normal experience for students and soldiers? Could we end relationships with hurt and anger (or amiably) without seeking to annihilate the other person? Is social cohesion and honoring custom possible without violence?

Photo from Flickr user gagilas under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Dr David Bowman says:

    Let me start by admitting that I truly enjoy firearms , not so much the modern plastic stock crap as the firearms of antiquity. Beautifully crafted mechanisms of wood and steel. I have been fascinated by such devises from childhood. I grew up in a household where no guns were present but I still developed a sincere fascination and eventually brought real guns in to my life. My grandfather was a back woodsman and knew how to hunt in the old ways. Hunting has changed. Its become a cross format focused marketplace exploited by eager retailers. I love hunting the old way, but I don’t care to kill animals, I just like being out in the woods with a rifle on my arm. I haven’t shot an animal in 15 years. Likewise, I have little respect for people who think they need a loaded gun in the house. People who habituate themselves to loaded guns in the home often end up in the newspaper, think of all the cops who have shot themselves cleaning their guns. If there is an intruder you’re better off reaching for a cell phone than a gun. My brother walked in to my home once unannounced and unexpected and for some time I couldn’t recognize him until I had him cornered and he spoke to me. If I had gone for a gun he would have been shot. As a gun owner I have been sickened by the disgraceful dangerous and unnecessary gun laws being passed: concealed carry laws, Shoot first laws. There is no safe way to transport a firearm other than cased and unloaded, as has been the law since my childhood. Why have we exchanged safe practice for unnecessary risk to human life? If you’re so scared shitless of the world that you cannot set foot outside your home without a loaded gun then you’re the last person who should be trusted with deadly force for the simple reason that your judgment and perception of threat is skewed by your fearful world view. My children are 15 times more likely to be killed by a gun than children of any other developed nation. Yet we cannot even get a “throw us a bone” measure like increased background checks passed. Realistically the police don’t make use of the information they already have. How is giving them more information going to help? Any real solution must involve limiting the sorts of guns available to people, abolishing concealed carry and shoot first laws, scrupulous examination of a person’s fitness to own a gun, and mandatory safety training. If a real solution to gun violence in America were at hand and it required me to hand in all my firearms I would do so without hesitation. My children mean more to me than any gun could. That’s how much the children of Sandy Hook mean to their grieving parents.

  2. Dawn MxcInnes says:

    I grew up in a society in country Australia where most homes had a rifle. They were commonly used to shoot snakes , fruit bats [ yes , I know] etc. I have hunted rabbits as they were a really destructive pest and eaten them and fed then to my dogs. A friend was accidentally shot whilst playing with his father’s rifle but this was the only death that I heard of in my younger years. People respected and were careful with their guns. I’m afraid times have changed and the idea of freely available weapons now is terrifying. It is as unimaginable as leaving one’s home unlocked as we habitually did . Since John Howard tightened our gun laws over here we have not had one single gun massacre in over 15 years. I find that very convincing.

  3. An feminist aspect that is not covered in gun articles is the problem women face who own property in an around public land where hunting occurs. Often women are targeted by hunters for not allowing hunting on their land. Terrorist acts such as armed gatherings that must be driven through like threatening gauntlets for women to reach their homes. Dead dogs, soiling underwear, bloodied rags, body parts from wildlife are left at the homes and gates of women targeted by hunters. Authorities such as Wildlife Commissions, the US Forest Service, and local police and sheriffs offices being completely captured by the NRA, hunting lobbys, and good old boy relationships often prosecute the victims of this continual abuse rather than defending the rights of privacy and peace to those who live near hunting areas and have their homes invaded by hunters and their dogs.
    Hunting on public land takes public property away from any others who would use the land peacefully without guns. Over ninety percent of public land users are hikers, photographers, naturalists who do not use guns. Yet the majority of users are endangered by hunters and told they should purchase and wear orange vests to be more easily seen by hunters. What other activity requires non participants to purchase articles of clothing they otherwise would not wear in order to keep from being injured. Of course orange vests are not “invisible sheilds” and will not guarantee ones not being shot. Further as newer studies and reports on lead emerge it is clear that even the smallest lead exposures can lead to serious health damage. Repeated hunting and shooting ranges result in unacceptable lead contamination of air, water, and soil. No effort is being made to prevent this contamination and clean up later is too little too late. The NRA is contributing $25K per shooting range built on public land. Once on public land the liability is shifted to the public for lead contamination, accidents, suicides and deaths. The NRA also offers liability insurance to private shooting ranges which are being opposed for being a dangerous, toxic, noisy, high risk activity.
    The undefended injustices across the country against women opposed to hunting and trespassing on their land must be investigated and stopped.

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