Tread around—not on—supporters of excessive gun ownership and masculinity

If we want to understand the way people think about and react to discussions about gun control, we also have to simultaneously address our ideas of masculinity. As the dangers of our irresponsible gun laws are being challenged today, so are the vices of hyper masculinity. However, before exploring the relationship between the defense of our nation’s gun laws and masculinity, we need to understand the way people organize their thoughts on both issues.

The human brain has many distinct parts, the frontal lobe and the amygdala being two of them. The frontal lobe is, in a sense, responsible for rational, calculated thought. The amygdala handles our emotional and fast-acting thoughts. The amygdala is roughly the size of an almond, and is considerably smaller than the frontal lobe. Thus, it has been hypothesized that when we are in a state of fear or stress, our amygdala takes over and constricts the scope of our thoughts, actions and motivation.

While this is not a scientific analogy but a symbolic one, “amygdala thoughts” and “frontal-lobe thoughts” can help explain the way people think about gun control, masculinity and how discussions of the two affect us. The thoughts that come from our amygdala are constricted, irrational and uncontrollable. Our frontal-lobe thoughts take longer to assemble, but are also more rational.

The second amendment, which gives us the right to bear arms and establish a well-regulated militia, was a rational extension of the type of rights that needed to be afforded to the states in the founding era. Attacks from the British, Native Americans and shoulder-checks with the Spanish in the American Southeast were all very real and present threats. Defense was a much more pressing issue in our nation’s infancy than it is today.

Our traditional notion of masculinity is also borne out of the context of our nation’s early history. Self-reliance, the defense of the family, personal honor and grit were in a sense borne out of the same conditions that the second amendment was. The world was a dangerous and sparsely populated place. Individual families did not enjoy the safety net that society provides us today. So, our ideas of masculinity are also carefully constructed around the conditions of life in early America.

Guns and masculinity are glorified by our films, video games, music and national folklore. In a sense, guns and masculinity are closely tied in American society. So, by challenging one, it is hard to avoid a conversation that leads to the other.

People that are challenging both our gun laws and our ideas of masculinity are not calling for the total annihilation of either. Even though many social progressives are simply calling for tighter regulations and healthier cultural ideas of masculinity, social conservatives feel as though there is a philosophical war being waged against them. Although our frontal lobe processes our logic and our reasoning, it seems that our amygdala is as readily equipped to respond to ideological attacks as it is to respond to physical threats.

By challenging gun laws and hyper-masculinity, the collective amygdala of social conservatism kicks in and shuts down any possibility for calm and rational conversations about either idea. However, that is not to say that social progressives are accountable for the overly emotional response of social conservatives. Regardless, it is important to understand why it is so difficult to have a productive conversation about gun laws and masculinity in the country.

In a perfect world, social conservatives should bear the responsibility of addressing their critics in a calm and constructed manner. However, those of us that call for a safer and healthier country need to consider the possibility that our own rhetoric further entrenches social conservatives and intensifies the amygdala response that shuts down rational debate.

The key to mitigating the stress response and achieving lasting change is to control our rhetoric in a way that critically engages with the arguments that social conservatives provide for their stances on gun laws and traditional notions of masculinity. Being able to respect the legitimate reasons for gun ownership, and separating the virtues and vices of traditional masculinity help us to build bridges of respect for those across the aisle and make compromises to create a safer, healthier nation.