Gun Empathy: Or, How I Understood How to Love my Dad

This weekend I join close friends and family in a celebration of my dad, who died on June 3 from ALS. I’m posting this as I think through him and the impacts he had–intentional and unintentional–on my life and career. 

I first realized my own interest in studying guns when I was at the University of California, Berkeley,  looking for a dissertation topic that would be novel, timely, and sociologically interesting. Never would I have guessed that sociologists had largely ignored the phenomenon of gun culture, although I wasn’t surprised at its treatment outside of sociology. Scholars denounced the “paranoid style” of American politics and saw gun culture as one of its manifestations (e.g., historian Richard Hofstadter) and they reified, rather than dismantled, the divisions within American society and, in doing so, deepening the very cultural divides they purported to simply diagnosis (e.g., historian B. Bruce-Briggs). Such “critical” voices most certainly highlighted how power and inequality reproduce and are reproduced by the terms of American gun culture. And that is useful—as a first step.  But on the whole, I can’t say that “the experts” have done a better job than everyday Americans—oftentimes reproducing the intractable terms of political division rather than helping them see a way out of them.

My own approach to gun culture, however, was shaped less by the zany political insularity of the Left Coast’s Bay Area and more by the smorgasbord of cultural and political experiences that defined my upbringing. My parents hailed from the working class suburbs of Chicago, and they were blessed with that weird blend of traditionalist respect for authority, work ethic, egalitarian generosity, political incorrectness, and future-looking curiosity that defines the Midwestern strain of US conservatism. By virtue of their smarts, grit and a lot of good timing, my parents rode the wave of prosperity and upward mobility of the second half of the 20th century, starting with my dad’s matriculation at West Point Military Academy in 1969. His senior yearbook described him as “a political philosopher a la William Buckley.”

My dad enjoyed thumbing his nose up at the liberal establishment, but it was never clear to me whether he was more driven by conservatism or a penchant for bucking authority. Days from taking his last breath in June of this year, he still managed to crack jokes about San Francisco liberals, yet only on his death bed did I learn that he defied lingering Jim Crow racism to de-segregate one of his corporate offices in the early 1980s in Southeastern Texas. And he was, ironically, the reason I first made it to University of California, Berkeley: eager to see the world beyond the Midwest, my dad took a job in the Bay Area shortly after I was born, kissing the ground in California as soon as he made it there and making sure I became a California Bears fan early on in life. California, of course, meant something a little different in those days—Reagan had just been elected president—but the moment in our family’s history captured a tension my dad sustained throughout my childhood and into adulthood: He was a fanatic for capitalism, an avid proponent of party over politics (the Republican Party, that is), and an emotional stoic (exceptions made for Sean Hannity and the Chicago Cubs), but he also took in my gay best friends, made sure every member of my family understood the world was bigger than the Midwest (even as he remained a Midwesterner in attitude and style), and he always made it possible for me to pursue my dreams—dreams that he also made sure I knew were antithetical to his own political convictions. One of his last political acts was to vote Trump into office (months after he was diagnosed with ALS, he was one of the absentee Michigan votes that turned the state red in 2016), but he could still love me. This book is my way, in a way, of figuring out how to return the favor.

After all, he made it so that, no matter how hard I or my education might try, I could never quite wrap my head around the cliche stereotypes of dumb, close-minded conservatives that a Berkeley-educated PhD in Sociology was stereotypically trained to embrace. Because of my dad, I always knew instinctively that there was always something more to the story. There had to be—because we are all human. My approach to guns, I think, can only be described as following in my father’s image—but in reverse. He came from the right, I came from the left, but both of us were—and are— delighted by the surprising interstices of history and the counterintuitive minutia of politics. When I look at my bookshelves full of tomes on the American Right, I can’t help but think so much of my own intellectual drive came down to wanting to understand him, humanize him, and, in my own way, be like him.

Like many men, my dad gravitated toward work, politics and sports. As he did, though, my family could sense—and, ultimately, we learned—that he was hiding a whole lot of pain he had picked up and carried with him his whole life. Its valence was psychological, emotional, social, even political: from very personal experiences of loss and abuse to all-too-cliched, but no less impactful, encounters with the social demands surrounding what it means to be a man in American society. From one angle, my dad was the quintessential white straight man of privilege—a raging Republican, no less. But from another vantage point, he was like anyone else trying to navigate the American landscape that sets up most to lose even as they feel like they should win: vulnerable, persevering, scared, courageous. Even though he largely won, he wasn’t immune.

My dad made it not just easier but imperative that I looked deeper for vulnerability where others accepted surface-level angst. In my own research on guns, that meant leaving open the question of whether a concealed carried firearm is an admission of dominance or vulnerability. It meant interrogating the blurry territory between what we want and what we must do, where choice dissolves into circumstance, and where a gun is less an option and more a compulsion and even a desperation. White men are often seen as too privileged to take seriously the cost of gun rights they disproportionately defend—but they are also the ones most likely to turn those very guns against themselves as they deal with social isolation and despair. Gun owners and African Americans are often seen as being on opposite divides of the gun debate—one community defending gun access, the other community suffering from its collateral damage—yet both share similarly elevated risks of gunshots. And the line between victim and victimizer—whether we are talking about active shootings or urban gun violence—is often both arbitrary and spontaneous. After all, much of the time what leads us to violence isn’t guns themselves; they just are really good at facilitating it. But whether its “guns that kill people” or “people with guns that kill people,” tens of thousands of people die every year in the US from gun violence. Which is why, regardless of which side of the gun debate we are on, we have something in common, something that can provide a foundation for a better gun debate: our vulnerability.

Let me say it again.

Our gun debate is united by a simple commonality: we are all deeply, and understandably, afraid. We shouldn’t be afraid to admit that—and we most certainly should not walk away from the mutual challenge that our fears provide us. That challenge is to overcome our crises of connection—whether they play out socially, economically, politically, racially or otherwise—by embracing empathy. It’s the answer both to my own very personal wrestling with political divides in the US—and, I believe, to our current climate regarding guns.

One Comment

  1. pankr003

    “Our gun debate is united by a simple commonality: we are all deeply, and understandably, afraid”. Afraid of what? The book ”The Worm at the Core’ by one of your colleagues out there I think has the answer. Perhaps too simple but I wish more people wpuld talk about Terror Management theory when talking about the problems caused by the existence of firearms.

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