Guns and the Rural Vote | Opinion

Guns may be the most polarizing issue in America. While some progressives dismiss calls for "understanding" gun owners as a Trojan horse, there is a purely pragmatic reason for them to care: gun lovers are voting against them. They don't have to be. And the changes it would take to reach them are nearly costless.

When it comes to political partisanship, America is divided largely along geographical lines. Democrats tend to dominate the coasts and upper Midwest, and Republicans control the South, plains and Mountain West region. But more specifically, and as anyone who watched the election night newscasts could observe, the partisan divide is between urban and rural America. Rural areas vote red, and cities vote blue. Rural voters turned out overwhelmingly for Trump.

What's going on? How has the GOP consolidated rural voters within its coalition? The issue of gun rights provides one piece of the puzzle, and a window into the larger issue of partisanship. The NRA is weaker than ever, but rural Americans don't care any less about guns.

We care about what guns mean to us. In rural communities, gun-related activities are the center of life. If you don't see eye to eye with your family on other issues, or if they don't approve of the paths you've taken in life, none of it matters if you can still shoot or hunt together. Growing up in my family, the calendar was marked not by the list of traditional holidays, but by the opening days of various hunting seasons and the associated family trips. Guns are a marker of shared identity. They confer a sense of belonging and status. As an acquaintance in Wyoming once said to me, "There are three seasons: hunting season; planning-the-hunt season; and remembering-the-hunt season." It's no exaggeration to say that guns help orient one's life as an agent extended across time.

gun store
A customer looks at long guns at Coliseum Gun Traders Ltd. in Uniondale, New York on September 25, 2020. TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP/Getty

Nothing else can play the role of guns. Hunting together demands a very specific mix of trust, endurance, skill and coordination. It confers status and prestige in groups where those honors might otherwise be hard to come by. Carrying a gun shows to others—and to yourself—that you're fully a part. In psychologists' terms, guns provide a way of self-symbolizing. Earlier I said we care about what guns mean to us, but that isn't quite right. We care about what guns mean about us.

Some folks look down their noses at symbolic values. I've tried to argue that's a mistake. No one lives a symbol-free life. Wanting to choose your career, or life partner, or to have your vote counted or religious traditions respected—all of these matter as ways of showing (to ourselves, as much as anyone) that we're full members of our social world.

You might think, "Fine, but progressives don't want to take away people's guns. That's just gun-lobby fearmongering." But this response misunderstands the conflict. When symbolic values get involved, it's not about policy disagreement anymore. There's no paradox in thinking that people shouldn't have high-capacity magazines, but still voting against politicians who say as much. Consider: you might criticize your family, but still burn with resentment when overhearing an outsider's critique. The bad news is that no amount of policy fine-tuning will do, as long as you sound like a contemptuous outsider. The good news is that changing how you sound is easier than changing policy. When symbolic issues are at stake, compromise takes symbolic—not material—concessions.

What would this look like in the case of guns? Though he was criticized for saying it, President Barack Obama was exactly right when he compared guns to religion. Guns are—for some—what religion aspires to be: a real source of meaning in life. Politicians should talk about guns the way they talk about religion, with appreciation for their distinctive value. Imagine a politician saying, "Look, we don't want to ban your religion—we just want to curb its most dangerous excesses." Maybe have a government-determined waiting period to make sure you really want to join. Or consider a politician's reassurance that, "Look, we don't want to take away your right to vote—we just want to make sure all of the voters are appropriately credentialed so there won't be voter fraud." People find these statements threatening, and it's easy to see why. They take something that many hold sacred, and treat its regulation as a matter of mere policy. The offense is in what is said; not what is planned.

It's hard to really get in the mind of the person with the relevant value when you don't happen to share it yourself. But we all have values which, if they went out of existence, would bring on a kind of personal apocalypse. Their loss would compromise our ability to make sense of our plans, our histories, relationships—even our selves. Guns matter like that. And whenever we talk about other peoples' values, it helps to start with understanding what's at stake—to them.

Ryan W. Davis is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.