This post was intended to go up on the previous Monday but due to election interference in the United States, I've been very distracted. Back to normal next week.
This post may be a bit irregular in timing, but I feel that it is very appropriate today to talk about. The United States is an odd place, when it comes to guns. It's objectively true that the majority (*the vast majority*) of guns are owned by a very small group of people. What I think is interesting to talk about here isn't what guns these people own, or how many they own, or what they are used for; rather, what I want to discuss is the why behind that.
I think it's a both an interesting topic, and can be used as a framework for further discussion elsewhere. So in this article, I'm going to give a brief explanation of semiotics, and then discuss how the relationship between guns and the Americans who own them operate within that pattern of critique.
Chicken, or egg?
An addendum: this discussion is not going to be particularly broad, or have a lot of background to it. Sorry, I don't have the space (and you don't have the patience) for a deep dive into semiotics and how the field was influenced by – and influenced – the development of critical theory in the aftermath of WW2.
A sign is anything that stands in for something else in our mind. It's straightforward enough, I think; an American of driving age sees a red octagon, they immediately think 'STOP'. The sign in this case is the symbol, the red octagon, while the signified is what we intrerpet the sign to represent, not only the word 'STOP', but the idea of stopping our cars quickly.
That is a fairly simple relationship. How about we go into something a bit more complex? Again, driving age Americans see flashing blue and red lights of high intensity. The relationship here is the sign: the flashing blue and red lights, and the signified: a policeman is pulling you over, which leads immediately to anger, frustration, self-loathing, fear. In this way, a fairly simple sign carries a very dense message for its audience.
A semiotic analysis of gun control arguments in America is nothing new, I'm sure. However, I think that novelty isn't something we should consider as the only virtue of scholarship or discussion. Sometimes, it's important to restate the obvious.
Using our understanding of signs, guns become the stand-in for something else divorced form their function. That is, someone buys a gun, and brandishes it, in the United States to function as a totem: a way to signal power and control over their own lives. And here's the reason that gun control is such a thorny issue for Democrats and liberals: many people – completely absent of whether they like the function of guns or not – do not want to give up even the illusion of control over their own lives and realities.
This is a curious thing when looking at the function of guns, but when looking at them through the lens of a totem a universal language becomes clear. People in every society seek out ways to assert their control and independence of fate; travel is usually a more obvious connection, be it a fast car in rural Italy or a ship in England. America, for cultural reasons, found its totem in firearms.
I think that if we recast gun ctonrol debates in this way, instead of focusing solely on the function of a gun (which is, objectively, to kill and maim), the United States would have a much more straightforward fight to help address the one of the most egregious and violent symptoms of an atomized and broken society.