Philadelphia Gun Culture vs. Kansas Gun Culture

In favor of localizing the gun control debate.

Here’s a big problem with the Second Amendment—or, at least, the way we interpret it these days: It presumes that guns are always and everywhere a good thing. In truth: Guns are good in some places and bad in others.

My home state of Kansas? Not so bad. Guns are used mostly for hunting there, and if some folks keep (ahem) an extra large supply of arms on hand for self-defense purposes, the truth is that it’s been more than a century since actual gun battles were a regular sight on the streets of Dodge City.

In Philadelphia? A plague. We’re ending a year in which one person was murdered in this city every 26 hours or so—and 84 percent of those murders were committed with firearms.

But because gun ownership is protected by the U.S. Constitution, the law treats a gun in Kansas and a gun in Philadelphia as being more or less the same thing: Equally valid, equally useful, equally protected.

That’s probably the wrong approach to take.

What the gun debate needs is a healthy dose of federalism and local control—to transform the “gun debate” into a series of smaller “gun debates” in which reasonable, appropriate policies could be fashioned at the state and local levels. We’d be able to stop asking President Obama to come up with a solution to a problem that exists only in some areas of the country, and instead pressure the Gov. Corbetts and Mayor Nutters of the world to act in a substantive way.

As it stands, our gun debates—in the aftermath of Newtown, Aurora, Virginia Tech, and a host of other massacre sites—tend to break down along rural-urban divides, barely differentiating between the two experiences. The people most passionate in their defenses of gun rights tend not to be the same folks whose communities tally up the body counts every weekend. Those two groups describe the world differently in large part because they live in entirely separate worlds, and each views the other with suspicion. And the debate is further complicated by race, and how the words “rural” and “urban” are often euphemisms for “white” and “black.”

In fact, the difference between Kansas and Philadelphia on guns seems to be more cultural than racial. Where I grew up, guns were passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms. Most of the junior-high boys I knew—as well as one or two tough-minded young women—took “hunter safety” classes in the public schools. Young people learned to respect guns, as well as what guns could do.

(Similarly, Switzerland has one of the highest gun-ownership rates in the world—but nearly everybody there has been through military training, in which respect for firearms is also taught and deeply felt: When gun ownership really is dependent upon the existence of a “well-regulated militia,” it can be a positive thing!)

To the extent there’s a gun culture in Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C. and other murder-plagued big cities, it’s not really a culture of responsibility. Guns tend to be disposed of instead of preserved for the next generation; gun-safety classes in the junior-high schools would probably attract widespread protests. The result? Guns aren’t treated with respect here, so much as they’re treated as a means of gaining respect. Given the capacity of firearms to deal quick, efficient, easy death, the difference in attitude is quite literally fatal for big-city residents.

Different places. Different attitudes. Different results. To a large extent, however, the Second Amendment ignores those differences in favor of a one-size-fits-all rule: Guns, you can have them.

Bringing gun regulation to cities and states wouldn’t fix everything—we’ve seen how Pennsylvania legislators regularly move to block and circumvent the modest regulations implemented by authorities in Philadelphia and other cities across the state. The gun debate would still be a political debate, filled with passion and partisanship.

But localizing the debate would probably make it easier to acknowledge that gun advocates might be right about some things—including uncomfortable historical truths, like the origins of gun-control as a means of keeping African-Americans defenseless—while giving opponents better room to make their case.

Kansas is not Philadelphia. Neither of them are Newtown. For many people, the Second Amendment protects a cherished and valued civil liberty. But the Second Amendment is not always and everywhere a good thing.