Guns as technology, guns as culture

Debates about gun rights must acknowledge that guns are not only technology, they are culture and symbol.

Once a technology becomes ubiquitous, it ceases to be experienced as merely “technology”. It is now a part of culture.

Technology only exists as technology when we are forced to deal with an incomplete or buggy implementation — when the thingness of it gets in the way of the benefits it provides. Once a technology becomes stable and understood, it takes its place alongside other technologies that have become part of culture: hammers, running water, telephones, tractors, paved roads and so on. When ubiquitous technology becomes a part of culture, it also becomes a symbol. A symbol of mankind’s desire to transcend our limits, to master some part of the world that has previously overwhelmed us.

This perspective helps us untangle the complexities of gun control in America. Guns are not only technology, they are culture and symbol. Much unproductive debate is had when they are reduced to merely one or the other.

When viewed as dangerous technology, it is common sense to severely restrict access to guns. The Onion understands this.

When viewed as symbols, guns are a potent part of the American myth. They are synonymous with the desire to tame nature and prove oneself worthy of existing within it. They represent authenticity and self-sufficiency. For those who feel a cultural connection to them, gun laws control culture, not technology.

But in the time since guns were absorbed into American culture, their power to destroy has grown out of proportion to their benefits. Like fossil fuels, they are a technology whose profound consequences have taken hundreds of years to manifest.

Debate about guns in America must grapple with the need to regulate dangerous technology, while navigating the complicated relationship to the symbol. American gun laws will be a delicate surgery at the technological, societal and political level.