Analysis & Comment

Opinion | This Is What the Mainstreaming of Militia Culture Looks Like

In addition to the horrifying security camera footage of the shooter who killed six people, including three children, at the Covenant School in Nashville last week, there emerged some less publicized but no less disconcerting images: photos, apparently obtained from social media, of assault-style weapons belonging to the shooter. These guns were emblazoned with adolescent slogans (“hellfire”) and decorated with stickers that might have appeared on the deck of a skateboard: the logo of the fashion house Stüssy, a blue-and-red illustration similar to work by the graphic artist known as Kaws, a maroon globe of uncertain provenance.

These weapons did not call to mind the .30-06 rifle I use for deer hunting in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan or any other gun I have ever handled. At first I did not even register them as belonging to the same category of object. They reminded me of the guitar I owned as an angsty ninth-grader, with its Ralph Nader campaign sticker and the phrase “This machine kills fascists” written in permanent marker in imitation of Woody Guthrie. These guns were lethal weapons, yes. But much as my guitar was not only a musical instrument but also a medium for (dorky and clichéd) personal expression, the guns were acts of and occasions for speech.

Understanding the cultural appeal of AR-15-style semiautomatic rifles like those used in Nashville may not be as urgent a matter as the policy question concerning their availability. Indeed, though I generally support gun rights, I favor imposing restrictions on the manufacture and ownership of AR-15-style weapons. But the problem is deeper than the guns themselves — not just the existence of the evil people who pull the triggers but also the specific place these weapons occupy in American life and the logic by which their ownership seems justifiable to enthusiasts.

The AR-15 is situated at the intersection of a relatively innocent hobbyism and the sinister mainstreaming of features of the militia culture of the 1990s, even among people who lead law-abiding lives. The primary selling point of the AR-15 is that it can be endlessly modified, configured, reimagined. It can become louder or quieter, easier to carry, wield, fire and reload, or more lethal. It is meant to be combined with a seemingly endless array of customizable stocks and grips, blast mitigation devices, piston uppers and conversion kits. These components are themselves paired with a vast assortment of accessories — vests, helmets, straps and other gear unfailingly designated as “tactical.”

It is this adjective, and the ubiquity of references to “tacticians” in advertising copy, review sites and hobby forums, that suggests the baleful aspect of AR-15 culture. Who exactly is practicing these tactics, and where and for what purpose? What this “tactics” business signals is not so much a commitment to action (the overwhelming majority of those who own AR-15s are law-abiding) as a general frame of mind. To the would-be tactician, every place that humans inhabit — housing developments, apartment complexes, stores, strip malls, hotels, churches, hospitals and, yes, schools — is another opportunity to imagine oneself taking part in military-style maneuvers. Where would you go for cover if you were here? How would you hold this position? What weapons and gear would you use?

Such mental habits may be usefully cultivated in the training of U.S. Special Forces. But at a time of social atomization, racial unrest, increased crime rates and widespread drug abuse, it is harder to see the upside of instilling this paranoid attitude among millions of ordinary Americans who otherwise show no indication of moving to remote Montana and stocking ammo for the day the black helicopters arrive.

I am an enthusiastic if undistinguished hunter for whom the most enjoyable time of the year is the long Thanksgiving weekend, when I emerge from the deer blind only for the Michigan-Ohio State football game. My earliest memory of using a gun is at age 6, when I shot at and missed a cloud of bats flocked above an old barn on the edge of our property. But the world of bump stocks and blast mitigation devices is as remote from my experience as is hang gliding. For AR-15 enthusiasts, the gun is not a means to an end — a tool with which you hunt, a weapon with which you protect your family and property — but rather the end itself, a site of fantasy and meaning making.

I suspect that part of the reason for the rise of AR-15 fandom is the decline of other American hobby cultures: auto repair, darkroom photography, ham radio operation and the like. Automobiles have become hulking mobile computers that often can be repaired only by manufacturer-approved dealerships; anyone with a smartphone can now take high-quality pictures; no one needs limited-frequency radio bands anymore to talk with people on the other side of the world. Gun ownership is among the last preserves of community for those who might once have enjoyed the opportunities for the innocent pursuit of mastery and refinement afforded by those innocuous pastimes.

But for all the amateur tinkering, the reality is that these fetishized murder weapons, so often treated by their owners as if they were indistinguishable from model ships or Pokémon cards, have been used repeatedly in incidents like the recent one in Nashville. The pervasiveness of these guns — made possible by the end of the federal ban on assault weapons in 2004 — has led to the creation of social and cultural conditions in which such shootings have become a familiar fact of American life. In that sense, even “harmless” AR-15 fandom belongs somewhere on a continuum with our uncritical attitude toward violent video games, our blithe acceptance of the legalization of cannabis and online gambling and our casual indifference to the weakest and most vulnerable Americans.

In a Christmas card from December 2021, Representative Andy Ogles of Tennessee, a Republican whose district includes Nashville, commemorated the birth of Christ by posing alongside his family with their collection of assault rifles. That same month, Representative Thomas Massie, a Republican from Kentucky, posted a photo on Twitter of his wife and children in front of their Christmas tree in which everyone was holding an assault weapon. My opposition to what the AR-15 represents is not a methodologically rigorous attempt to identify the primary cause of what social scientists call mass shootings. In some ways it is simply an expression of hope for a saner culture, a plea for something other than hypothetical terrorism to form the basis of our leisure time and family memories.

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