America needs to come together around this anti-BS movement. It's good to see the outdoor industry becoming a part of it.
A lot has been happening in our lives in recent weeks - we've been on the road for events, and for my mom's wedding in Las Vegas, and this week's podcast on Mental Health and the Outdoors focuses on two themes that are among the most important in my life, as a psychiatric nurse and of course partner with Angel on this outdoor adventure business.
But like so much of the country, a lot of my energy in the last few weeks has been going towards a topic that's only peripherally connected to all of that - the proper societal response to America's gun problem following the Parkland shooting
If you haven't watched student Emma Gonzalez's speech after the shooting, just do it. I'm embedding it here to make it easy.
As far as political speeches go, I can't think of many in my lifetime that were as powerful or timely as hers. And in the aftermath, I really think those Parkland kids are going to drive change, because I think they're prescribing exactly the right intervention in our situation.
In mental health therapy, we call a direct and uncompromising statement of truth in the face of delusion, lies or enabling behavior a reality check. It's an intervention you don't use all of the time, but which can be effective when the central therapeutic need is to set a boundary and insist that lies or self-deception aren't an option in a situation.
A reality check is what Emma's talking about when she talks about "calling BS." And whatever term you use, there's nothing America needs more right now than a real life Stranger Things crew mobilized and speaking truth to power at politicians who pretend to be stumped about what possibly could be done while mass murderers go on purchasing semi-automatics online without background checks. I wish America, 2018, didn't require children screaming at the rest of us to deal with our reality like adults, but here we are.
The idea that gun proliferation has anything to do with hunting and sporting interests is BS.
In the aftermath of the shooting, it's been heartening to see large businesses like Dick's and REI taking stands, removing assault weapons from their shelves, and dropping products made by companies that support the NRA and the gun lobby. From my perspective as a member of the outdoor community and someone who grew up shooting recreationally, a major point of BS that needs to be called is on the idea that the proliferation of America's main problem weapons (assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns) have anything at all to do with hunting or sporting interests.
The NRA claims to be the nation’s largest advocate for hunters and sports shooters, but the places they devote their energy and money have very little to do with benefiting those groups. In fact, much of the NRA's lobbying has been directed towards goals that are directly opposed to these groups' interests, including the opening of public lands to oil and gas drilling and the privatization of areas that are currently reserved for hunting and recreation.
Rather, NRA and gun lobby leadership have embraced and driven a shift in the last few decades towards a culture of gun ownership that is motivated by fear and a desire for protection from other humans, rather than recreation purposes or utility.
In a kind of dry but super interesting academic article, David Yamane notes that in 1999, gun owners were polled about their reasons for gun ownership, and 62% reported that their primary motives were sporting or pragmatic: for hunting, collecting or recreational shooting. At the time, about 26% cited “protection” as a primary reason to own a gun. In 2015, when the same questions were asked, those numbers had essentially flipped, and 63% of gun owners said that “protection against people” was a primary reason they owned a gun.
Yamane refers to this shift as the development of “Gun Culture 2.0,” and he notes that it has accompanied a corresponding increase in national anxieties about crime and police inefficacy, as well as the rise of the concept of the “citizen soldier” - an individual prepared to protect themselves and their family using weapons as necessary. And it's true - other studies note that American levels of trust in their neighbors, and in institutions in general, have been tanking for decades. In 2017, Americans reported trust in government hit an all time low, with only 2/10 people expressing confidence that government could be trusted to make the right decision, or act in good faith even “most of the time.”
The NRA and gun lobby didn't create this situation. And there’s likely no single reason that fear and mistrust have become fundamental elements of the American consciousness across the last few decades. Blame 9/11, the influence of the Vietnam generation, the internet, Black Lives Matter's successful campaign to spotlight police brutality, rapid social changes, an increasingly diverse society, Citizens United and the intentional stoking of fear as a political tool, an increasingly significant urban/rural divide where rural areas are losing social and economic influence to growing urban cultures.
But the NRA and gun lobby's influence strategy is best understood as a leaning into this fear and animosity actively. Perhaps most illustrative for our purposes is the messaging on the NRAs hunting page, whose first sentence at the time I'm writing is:
"To save hunting, you must understand the terms of the battle. Because the animal rights extremists fighting to destroy hunting have an even more destructive goal: the systematic diminishment of humanity itself."
But it's not just the overwhelming evil of PETA supporters like Moby and Alicia Silverstone that the NRA wants us to see as an existential threat. This type of messaging is consistent in their voice to the public. Most recently in a speech at the 2018 CPAC conference, NRA head Wayne LaPierre characterized people calling for stricter gun laws after Parkland as part of a “socialist wave” out to “eliminate all individual freedoms", and they've been producing media that amounts to anti-gun control, emotion fueled propaganda for decades.
I don't know if they buy their own messaging, or if this is a cynical money making strategy, but whatever the case, it's worked to great success as a sales approach. Despite the fact that the number of hunters has been decreasing across the last several decades, as has the overall number of gun owners, the number of guns sold and available has hit an all time high in the last few years.
There's a lot more that can and should be said about all of this (and Outside Magazine put out a somewhat helpful, somewhat problematic article about the NRA from the perspective of a hunter and gun enthusiast that's a functional place to start), but the point here is that it's BS to claim that the NRA, as an organization, and the gun lobby that supports it, is particularly supportive or representative of hunters or the sporting community. It's representative of people who want to sell more weapons, and of the type of gun culture that believes all Americans should be armed in order to protect against the government, their neighbors, and the overwhelming all powerful terror that is the animal rights movement.
It's just BS. The NRA is at some level symbolic, but it’s also absolutely appropriate that they are being called out and people and businesses of good faith are boycotting.
The idea that you're likely to need to kill your neighbor at some point: also BS.
The other point of BS is probably more important in the long run, and definitely more hopeful, because the fear that is driving gun proliferation in the United States is largely irrational. That is, it isn't based in reality.
The number, frequency, and deadliness of mass shootings is on the rise in the US, and this fact requires some kind of serious intervention, and is almost definitely part of the reason everyone is feeling anxious these days.
But whatever the reasons behind the fear driving record gun purchases among our citizen soldiers, it isn't happening because things are less safe than they used to be over all. On the whole, across the same time period that gun sales have exploded, crime in general and homicide in particular has been on the decline. (And I know that sentence is going to tempt you to thank the guns. But don't, because the same trend has been occurring around the world. Check out that link - it's great.) So, despite the fact that some percentage of Americans are more convinced than ever that they they need to own guns to protect themselves against other humans, their likelihood of needing to use them is actually at a historic low.
As with gun proliferation (and the increase in the number of mass shootings for that matter), there are likely a variety of reasons behind this overall decline in violent crime. But we’re willing to wager that part of it is because there has been, to some degree, an opposing force to the fear that's been driving gun proliferation - a developing sense of interconnectedness in the world.
And for us, it’s one of the reasons we think what we’re doing is meaningful. The spirit of our business has been shaped heavily by the humanizing experiences of travel, where meeting and hearing stories from people from a variety of backgrounds develops trust and good feels between people who would instinctively view each other as strangers to be feared. It’s a small and amorphous contribution we’re making, but we think the most important process in the long term is breaking down the type of fear that opens people to the corrosive idea that they have to be on the ready at all times to kill another human being.
We're in this together, whether we like it or not.
That brings us to the third point of BS, which is that we don’t need each other. The main problem with the NRA is not that they hold a different political position or see a different solution to social problems. It’s that they’re pushing the idea that the world is made up of warring factions, and that the people on the opposite side of issues are enemies. They’re by no means the only group pushing this type of ideology, but in all of its expressions, it’s BS.
I’m not taking a Polyanna stance here, that everyone’s opinion is great, that "all people are good", or that everyone should be given equal influence in democracy. I'm a cynic who believes the opposite actually - I think all people are, at some level, dangerous animals, that some ideas are BS, and the people who hold those BS ideas shouldn’t get to make decisions for the rest of us. But the point is that - whether we like it or not - we’re all in this together, and the only routes forward that will ultimately be productive in breaking the cycle of violence will be reflective of that.
And (hear me out), in this regard I’m actually a little bit hopeful. While the revival of white supremacy and Alt Right extremism and internet trolls and the idea that Americans are all so freaked out about each other they feel like they need guns to protect themselves are hard to reconcile with the idea that people are starting to develop a broader sense of connectedness, I think there are reasons to believe that those are reactionary responses to a strengthening social trend that’s ultimately going to win - the human animal's tendency towards cooperation. The major social movements of the last several years - the Gay Marriage movement, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo - are all, in their ways, a rejection of the idea that one group of people should be allowed to dominate others with impunity, and a push towards a more equal sharing of power. They’re all anti-corruption, anti-authoritarian movements pushing against abuse of power and towards egalitarianism. (Again, hear me out.) Even some degree of the support behind the Trump movement was driven by a desire to clean up a government that is, in fact, corrupt and abusing power - however misguided the solution.
And now, Never Again is taking shape, I think, as a movement focused on the assertion that the financially motivated gun lobby and a small, ideological percentage of the population should not be able to determine the shape of gun regulation in America at the expense of children who are literally being shot in schools and the majority of the population (including gun owners) that favors, and would benefit from, stricter controls and background check processes.
I'm glad that the Parkland kids are calling BS on the idea that America can't do better and that school shootings are inevitable. The problem is complicated, but people deal with complicated problems all the time. If the politicians in power can't or won't figure it out, those kids are right. Vote them out.
I'm also glad that the outdoor industry is starting to call BS on the idea that the gun lobby has anything to do with outdoor community. It's one thing to be interested in protecting the rights of responsible hunters and gun owners. It's another to push fear and division in order to sell weapons that are a public safety hazard. The NRA and gun lobby have veered into the latter, and they don't represent the actual gun owning population any more than pharmaceutical and insurance lobbies represent doctors, nurses or patients.
And I'm hopeful that the project we're working on here together is some humble part of the solution - tying together people who otherwise wouldn't meet, developing a sense of connection between people who would otherwise feel disconnected, and that this is part of a bigger trend towards connectivity evidenced in the major social movements of the last decades. While segments of society are rebelling against the idea that we can figure out how to live together safely and productively, the rest of us will ultimately continue pushing the world forward.
Gun law reform, like every political push that involves big money is going to be long, frustrating, and complicated, but for those looking for action steps, The Cut has a good list of places to start.
And if you want to be part of the Boldly Went community and work with us to figure our how to live together safely and productively join us on Patreon.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.