The gun debate may be the crispest demonstration of America's city-country split. Our political divide is starkly geographical, in a way that's true on a micro level in Knox County, precinct by precinct, and on a national level, state by state: population density may be the single strongest predictor of whether you vote for Republicans or Democrats. It's so strong it often looks like the main determinant.
Blue vs. Red is City vs. Suburb and Countryside. The most Republican counties and states are the least densely populated ones, and vice versa. The closer you live to your neighbors, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. The farther away, the more likely you are to vote Republican.
I don't know which comes first. But guns, in particular, make some things clear. Guns make much more sense when you live far away from your neighbors.
I've been working downtown for 30 years, and have known lots of different kinds of people in lots of different circumstances. Here's a list of all the categories of guns I've ever seen in downtown Knoxville: 1. Pistols in holsters of police officers and security guards. 2. Rifles, presumably unloaded, carried by soldiers in parades. 3. Guns presented in court as evidence in murder trials.
I handled some of those in the last category, because I worked for a couple of years as an investigator for a criminal-defense attorney. I once walked down Union Avenue and Gay carrying a shotgun and a revolver found at a murder scene. It was after the trial, and the guns, never proven to have been murder weapons, had been released back to the defendant. (I worked for a very good lawyer.) Carrying those guns without a carry permit, I worried I was doing something illegal. I kept the breeches open so as not to alarm the authorities.
I have never seen a loaded gun in a civilian's hand downtown, and that's no cause for regret. In the city, a gun in the hands of a civilian is rarely a good sign.
In the country, it's different. I grew up with guns. When I was 10 years old, I had a couple of shotguns hanging on my bedroom wall. I knew how to take them apart and clean them. I knew how to load them and shoot them. I never did so in or near any city.
In a city neighborhood, you can hardly even learn how to use a gun. You need a big field, or some woods. I learned to shoot a gun shooting skeet in the countryside, on a farm with no other farmhouses visible. The first thing I ever learned was A.) Don't aim it at the neighbors' house, B.) Don't aim it at the neighbors' car, and C.) Don't aim it at the neighbors.
People in the country grow up respecting guns, indispensable on most farms. In some families, hunting deer or doves or turkeys is as routine as going to the grocery, and serves the same purpose. And there are varmints: rats and groundhogs and foxes and, lately, coyotes that can do real damage to a farm. Most country people have guns. Most live long lives without ever aiming a gun at a human being, but defense is always in the back of their minds. People who live in remote places can never expect any sheriff's deputy to get there in time to fend off an intruder.
The phenomenon is true to some extent across the world, not just in America. One of Europe's more rural countries, with a lower number of people per square mile, is Switzerland. Its cities are small. Geneva is famous, but smaller than Knoxville. And naturally, Switzerland is one country in Europe where gun ownership is common and respected.
To some country folks, guns are nearly as much a part of everyday life as shoes. Maybe they don't have assault rifles, and certainly don't need them for hunting or rat control. They don't need them for self-defense, unless they fear their farm being invaded by the Medellin Cartel. The idea that private guns are relevant to national defense was plausible in the 1700s, when a well-armed farmer might hold off a column of His Majesty's Finest for a few minutes. In an era of cruise missiles and F-35s, the prospect of a well-armed civilian helping repel an invasion, even with an assault rifle, is only a sweet fantasy.
Still, some dove hunters look at assault rifles admiringly, and some have thought it might be interesting to own something like what our soldiers carry overseas, forming a kind of solidarity with our men in uniform. Up until sometime in the 20th century, the best guns that soldiers used were not necessarily much different from the best guns that farmers used.
But even if they don't care about assault rifles at all, gun owners believe there's a war between the gun and anti-gun people. Comfortable with guns, they're on the pro-gun side. They don't trust the other side. They see an assault-rifle ban, or just universal background checks, as a loss for the pro-gun side, and possibly a beachhead for more invasive gun control. The only way to prevent that is to nip it in the bud.
That argument, known to logicians as the slippery-slope fallacy, is familiar to liberals, too. Abortion-rights rhetoric, for example, is similar; substitute a few nouns, and you've got the same e-mail. Both gun-rights and abortion-rights activists are concerned with the integrity of the individual, and a determination to resist every federal infringement of liberty. "A ban on assault rifles is a threat to your gun rights!" "A ban on late-term abortions is a threat to your reproductive rights!"
Maybe I'm just a cynical reporter, but I tend to suspect both sides are naive, and, to varying degrees, wrong. Still, you'd think the question of whether arming everybody would make society more peaceful was settled a long time ago, during the saloon era.