It’s Time to Take Up Arms

To attract more rural voters, progressives need to understand their relationship with guns

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Paul Hostetler / www.phostetler.com

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Guns. You already know the right opinion to have on that topic, right? Well, maybe this is something you’ve not considered before: Guns are the biggest reason a good portion of country folks vote Republican, even when it may be the Democrats who best serve them in the end.

Until urban liberals understand the roots of this seeming contradiction, until they begin to actively grapple with how they’re perceived by rural moderates, this voting pattern will not change—and progressives will always struggle to hold on to power for any extended period of time.

Now, sit down and drink your tea. I’m not trying to change your opinion about guns in your own neighborhood—or about the National Rifle Association. And you can make all the laws you want. But you need to understand these basic facts:

Urban people are correct in believing that a gun is a good way to get mugged. Rural people are correct in believing that a gun is a good way to hunt down some food when they’re out of work and the kids are hungry.

That’s a simplified version of the situation, obviously. Yet feeding one’s family is a primal issue. And for many, guns are about protecting the family, not from the threat of crime, but from starving. (Or from the unspoken fear—passed down in your heritage—of starving.) If you have a hard time understanding such a perspective, think of people in your family who suffered during the Great Depression and how it affected them—and how it may still affect you. 

Starving gets in your bones. You pass it down to your kids and often they pass it down to their kids. Rural folks who may have always had “enough” still know deep down that any day, as the old saying goes, the creek can rise.

Now, most rural citizens don’t want 1,400 assault rifles any more than you do. But here’s the thing: Telling someone you’re afraid that one day you may not be able to feed your kids without hunting down their next meal can be embarrassing, especially if you’re admitting that fear to someone who’s never had a similar experience. So instead of ’fessing up to that fear, some people choose macho posturing and defensiveness.

Until recently, people who produce their own food have been stigmatized. True, in the past few years backyard chickens and urban farms have taken off and are seen as a forward-thinking answer to industrialized agriculture. But, in the end, an urbanite with a pitchfork is a radical and a country person is still a country person.

I worry that a lot of people who could join the Democrats are driven off by these spoken and unspoken attitudes. When I told a wonderfully progressive friend I was writing this piece, she confided in me about her boyfriend. Even though he has 30 years of progressive credentials on his side, she is scared to tell her other friends that he hunts and fishes.

Because, of course, they just wouldn’t understand.

They’d start testing everything she says about him for some hint of reactionary politics, some sense of his being a traitor to the cause—because, of course, rednecks just aren’t progressive. The thing is, though, rural America is full of people with a class consciousness and a liberal bent. We just call them leftnecks.

Even if you hate guns and would never let your kids play with toy ones, even if you despise factory farming, don’t mix up your legitimate beliefs and concerns with fellow citizens who are trying to support their families. They are not the enemy. Hunting and fishing are how more of them than you probably realize make it through each year. Take the trophy hunter out of your mind for a moment. He is a very different character from the people I’m speaking about.

Folks who hunt often count on it feeding them for the next six months. If they can afford a big enough freezer, for the next year, that is. Seen this way, it becomes more apparent that some of us have very real survival (not survivalist) issues attached to guns.

Even if they do not hunt themselves, they’ve been raised knowing that Grandma got through one winter just on squirrel meat and boiled water from the creek. It’s still part of their heritage. They know that a gun may one be the only thing between them and actual starvation.

With all the poverty programs that we progressives work so hard to put in place, you might still be wondering why such a food-obsessed set of folks often swings Republican. Well, here’s how it is.

Republicans, as they see it, protect their family’s right to supply their own food. That’s it. If you can understand that, you will have the key to understanding much of what you may find incomprehensible about the voting patterns of rural America.

Since most Americans (no matter where they live) consider politicians to be bozos, it’s basically the bozo who will feed you now, or the bozo who will make sure you can feed yourself later. As a result they choose bozo number two, because, as you may have figured by now, rural folks are proud of their ability to be self-sufficient.

The next time you start to write people off because they mention that they hunt (or they look like people who might hunt), consider instead just talking about food with them.

You might make a new friend. Or, at the least, find out where to get camo pants at a discount.

L.H. O’Connor is a staff writer for RootHogRadio.com. Excerpted from Counterpunch (July 29, 2011), a gathering place for bold, unorthodox thinkers that Out of Bounds magazine dubbed “America’s best political newsletter.” www.counterpunch.org 

168-cover-thumb.jpgHave something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.