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The cultural politics of guns

With so many other pressing problems vying for top billing, gun issues will not decide this presidential election.

Nonetheless, gun control has helped Democrats win in places like California and New Jersey, as well as in less obvious spots like Michigan. At the same time, advocating gun regulations has cost Democrats dearly in the South, the West and in rural areas.

Perhaps paradoxically, most voters in the places Democrats lost on guns agreed with us on policy, making guns an interesting prism through which to examine the cultural concerns that have bedeviled Democrats in some areas.

Most Americans oppose a handgun ban like the one struck down by the Supreme Court last week.

Over two-thirds recognize in the language of the Second Amendment a right to bear arms. At the same time, by 56 percent to 37, people believe controlling gun ownership is “more important” than the right to own guns.

As a result, most Americans — including Southerners, Westerners and rural voters — support a series of common-sense guns laws like banning military-style assault weapons, outlawing cop-killer bullets and using background checks and waiting periods to keep guns out of the hands of kids and criminals.

Many pointed to the assault weapons ban as a central cause of Democrats’ 1994 debacle. Yet 64 percent of gun-owning households nationwide favored banning assault weapons, as did 68 percent of West Virginians and South Dakotans, 71 percent of Arizonans and 65 percent of North Carolinians.

During the debate on the so-called “gun show loophole,” our own work revealed 82 percent of South Dakotans favored closing it by requiring “everyone who buys a gun at a gun show to undergo a background check.” Eighty-seven percent of Iowans and 83 percent of North Dakotans agreed.

If gun owners, rural residents, Southerners and Westerners support so many reasonable gun safety regulations, why do Democrats seem to suffer so much for advocating them?

The answer lies not in the laws but in culture and the psychology of group identity — gun control policies traditionally have come packaged with a set of messages, implicit and explicit, that create a profound cultural distance.

At the simplest level, rural voters fear that urban gun control advocates “don’t get” their way of life. As one focus group participant told me, “They [gun control supporters] don’t understand that I live far out of town on a ranch. The last time I called the police it took them 45 minutes to get there and they called me twice on the way for directions. If I’d had a criminal in the house I never would have made it.”

Much more pernicious, though, are the negative stereotypes of gun owners purveyed by gun controllers. Too often, we caricature gun owners as homicidal maniacs who, at any moment, might take a break from their immoral hobbies to shoot up a school.

I won’t embarrass guilty Democrats by dissecting their words, but irrespective of intent, recognize that this is certainly how we make gun owners feel. As one told The New York Times, “We’re in the midst of a concerted assault on gun owners. We’re always being described as crazies. But look at me. I don’t walk around with a gun in my hand and a knife in my teeth.’’

That is certainly the sentiment the NRA exploits — the cover of its magazine in 2000 featured a drawing of Al Gore headlined, ‘’He’s Clinton to the Gore: The Face of Gun Hatred in America.’’

Hatred is what gun owners sense and what angers them most.

Gun owners do not detest the policy, but rather the culture of gun controllers, which, they believe diminishes, belittles and stigmatizes them.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.