The Semiotics of the Gun Debate

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I realize that I may be accused of simply trying to attract attention to my blog with a title like this (no, really, after seeing a gun ownership debate spring up on Inside Higher Education of all places—see Nate Kreuter’s blog “On Guns in My Classroom” —I could swear that America’s passionate gun rights defenders spend their not-buying-guns-right-now time surfing the Internet for any possible opportunity to weigh in on the subject), but the topic really does call for semiotic analysis.  It will not be my purpose to make an argument for my own position on the controversy (though that position is probably already clear enough), but, rather, to point out and interpret a significant new twist on this old debate. As I cannot repeat often enough in instructing students how to perform a semiotic analysis, it all begins with the apprehension of a significant difference.  In the case of the debate over gun control, this difference lies in the way that gun rights are now defended when compared to defenses from the past.  In the past, the key arguments for gun ownership included appeals to tradition (especially the rituals of male initiation rites whereby fathers and grandfathers passed on to their sons and grandsons the traditions of gun ownership as a kind of rite of passage—have a look at an Orvis catalog for an example of a continuation of this tradition) and to the needs of hunters and those living in rural areas.  But while these arguments are still made, a whole new argument has entered the picture, and it is obscuring the traditional one.  For in the current debate, the dominant arguments one hears include an insistence on the need to own guns in order to defend oneself against other gun slingers, and, in an even more extreme version, in the need to own guns in order to resist governmental authority (the worst of which, to such gun owners, being any attempt to confiscate their guns—which leads to an interestingly vicious circle: one needs guns to defend against the government taking away one’s guns, which requires more and more purchases of guns any time gun control is allowed to reenter the national discussion). Now this is a difference, and with an enormous significance.  It is one thing to argue on behalf of tradition, family continuity, and the formation of masculine character (though if I had my druthers, shooting animals wouldn’t be necessary for male initiation); but it is quite another to argue on behalf of personal defense and resistance to all forms of governmental authority.  The question is: what does this difference signify? As I have explained before, in order to interpret a cultural sign, one must also situate it within a larger system within which its meaning can be determined.  Differences alone, while necessary, are not sufficient in finding a meaning.  And it is not at all difficult to find a relevant system within which the contemporary pro-gun argument can be situated: all we need to do is look at the manifold of signs betokening Americans' hostility towards each other, along with a concomitant movement of what were once regarded as fringe beliefs (especially forms of extreme libertarianism) to the political main stage.  Back in the sixties, certain factions of the New Left armed themselves in the name of revolution, now it's what I'll call the "New Right" talking revolution.  And when the Republican party makes opposition to governmental authority a bedrock ideology, while practically any discussion about anything on the Internet can (and will) turn into a vicious dog fight ultimately reflecting the extreme divide between what can be roughly called Red and Blue Americans, it should not be so surprising to see guns defended as weapons to be used against other people and against the government.  Indeed, I see the new terms for the defense of gun ownership rights as the most potent of a host of signifiers betokening a society that is falling apart.  Call it social anomie, or alienation, or whatever you like, but when our own college students are being widely encouraged to bring guns onto campus, and we as educators are being forced to consider whether we want to be packing ourselves, and a fight breaks out on Inside Higher Education about the need to pack heat on campus, the moon, as Bruce Catton used to say, is in a new phase.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.