It was clear to many of us that the terrorist shooting at San Bernardino would not persuade the public to support additional gun control measures. Americans have historically regarded private gun ownership as a last-ditch defense against political movements that would undermine democratic government. The sense that the United States was under attack from ISIS, therefore, seemed likely to make Americans more protective of gun rights, not less.
To many liberals, however, this understanding of the Second Amendment is simply incomprehensible. Opposition to gun control must flow out of ignorance, prejudice, and bitterness. Vox‘s David Roberts, in a particularly vivid demonstration of this view, explained to his readers that “over the past few decades, gun ownership in the US has evolved from a practical issue for rural homeowners and hunters to a kind of gesture of tribal solidarity, an act of defiance toward Obama, the left, and all the changes they represent.” He continued:
Let us imagine, then, a conservative gun owner — an older white gentleman, let’s say, in his 50s, living in the Rust Belt somewhere. When he was growing up, there was living memory of a familiar order: men working in honorable trade or manufacturing jobs, women tending home and children, Sundays at church, hard work yielding a steady rise up the ladder to a well-earned house, yard, and car.
That order was crumbling just as our gun owner inherited it. The honorable jobs are gone, or going. It’s hell to find work, benefits are for shit, and there isn’t much put aside for retirement. The kids are struggling with debt and low-paying jobs. They know, and our gun owner knows, that they probably aren’t going to have a better life than he did — that the very core of the American promise has proven false for them, for the first time in generations.
It’s a bitter, helpless feeling. And for someone naturally attuned to “order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity,” it’s scary. The role he thought he was meant to play in the world, the privileges and respect that came along with it, have been thrown into doubt.
Putting aside the cringeworthy condescension (masquerading, as it so often does at Vox, as neutral “explanation”), a new ABC News/Washington Post poll suggests that Roberts’ understanding is, quite simply, wrong. Support for gun rights is not confined to a declining cadre of “bitter” old white men. Rather, it is widespread and growing in the general population. According to the poll, more Americans (53 percent) oppose an assault weapons ban than ever before. Millennials—the most liberal, diverse, and tolerant generation in American history—are even more strongly opposed, at 59 percent. And contrary to Roberts’ narrative of the gun fight as an expression of white resentment, there is not even majority support for an assault weapons ban among non-whites.
The truth is that support for gun rights is the product of rising individualism and a declining faith in the government’s ability to solve problems. After the attacks in San Bernardino, Americans’ Jacksonian impulses were amplified further—not because of the decline of “manufacturing jobs” or “familiar order”—but because they felt that their country was under attack by jihadists. Contrary to Roberts, gun rights have never simply been “a practical issue for rural homeowners and hunters.” Since the founding, the idea of an armed citizenry as a safeguard against tyranny has been hardwired into our national character. And that is precisely the impulse that appears to be animating such strong opposition to gun control in the wake of San Bernardino: According to the poll, those Americans who are most worried about terrorism are also most opposed to gun control.
Gun controllers will never be able to convince America to cut back gun ownership if they don’t understand why Americans want to own guns in the first place.