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


I live in Lexington, KY, and teach in the Gender & Women's Studies Department at the University of Kentucky.