Changing the Gun Culture

America is awash in guns.  With a little over 4 percent of the world’s population, Americans own 42 percent of the world’s guns.  Gun purchases across the country have skyrocketed.  Restrictions on the carrying and permitting of firearms have eased in many states; making it almost commonplace in some areas to see people sporting handguns in holsters or rifles slung over shoulders.

America is awash in guns.  Which means there is a greater likelihood of guns getting into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them (so many of the recent mass shooters hadn’t yet reached the legal drinking age, or had a record of mental health challenges).  Which means there is an increasing risk of accidents by guns  (too many children are wounding or killing one another with unsecured weapons at home).  Which means that there is a strong profit incentive for gun manufacturers to make weapons that are more accurate, efficient and user friendly for people who are seeking to buy the latest model.

All of which means that more people die.  As reported in the New York Times, the incidence of death by guns is 33 per million people in the United States.  In Canada the rate is 5 per million; and in the United Kingdom it is .7 per million inhabitants.

In the several podcasts I have done with gun rights owners, they bring a consistent message:  that the second amendment is under siege; that the media exploit and exaggerate the issue; that the mental health system in our country is woefully inadequate; that a correlation of certain data (which is usually challenged)  does not mean causation– and that most gun owners are highly disciplined in the storage and use of firearms; in short, that they are deeply committed to gun safety.

We invariably disagree on the second amendment, the media, mental health, and data– but I have found there is an opportunity to build on our mutually expressed interest in enhancing safety.  How to do that is a source of endless debate and, in some quarters, a fool’s errand.

What I have learned in my engagements with people in the gun rights arena is that there is, in fact, a gun culture.  A culture that goes back to the founding of the United States, and has continued unabated since.   Efforts to reform gun laws, ban assault weapons and restrict gun ownership is perceived to be an assault on the culture itself; which then causes the gun rights advocates to double down in their resistance.  As this happens, I find that more and more people in the gun violence prevention space become more indignant and intentional about erasing the gun culture.

Which won’t work.

Instead of trying to upend or even destroy culture, there is another way:  it is called the diffusion of innovation.  Introduced in 1962 in a book by the same name, Everett Rogers, then a professor of communication at Ohio State, suggested that changing a culture requires 18-21 percent of that culture who are committed to bring about lasting transformation.  Short of that level of support, the overriding culture swallows up the proposed change and the system reverts back to its original homeostasis.  He outlines a Bell curve:  moving from innovators (2.5%) to early adopters (13.5%) to early majority (34) to late majority (34% ) to laggards (16%).  Getting a slice of early majority is critical to effecting lasting change.Distribution.png

It is well known that the majority of people in the gun rights world are interested in gun reform, in enhancing gun safety.  But the laggards – led by the NRA, the National Shooting Sports Federation (NSSF) and others, have thwarted most every effort to change.

Those of us who live and operate in the gun violence prevention space can and should work for more sensible gun laws and restrict the manufacture of certain weapons.  But what is perhaps more important – and potentially more effective, is to encourage, support and guide people whose lives are embedded in one of the many gun cultures – Hollywood, hunters, gangs, target shooters, gun instructors, public safety officials (including the police), to join with innovators and early adopters to bring about change in the gun culture.   Those of us who live outside those many gun cultures would do well to tone down our arrogance, righteousness, and tendency to engaging in shaming – and acknowledge that gun cultures exist, that we can’t wish them away;  and instead to find opportunities to build relationships across the gun divide.  To help change the culture.




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