I started writing this after a casual invite from another blog to write an article of my choosing for them. What it ended up becoming is something I’m not sure is appropriate for their site, so I thought I’d put it here. If you guys are reading it, feel free to repost it. This is a rather lengthy post, and hopefully the first of a series of posts about improving our shooting culture. I may not be the most gifted shooter in the world, but I do have a knack for reading an analyzing people and behavior. These are just some of my thoughts that I wanted to share.
Defining the Problem
Let’s be clear about what I mean by, “Building a better gun culture” as well as what I mean by “tribes.” In the last several years, we’ve seen repeated instances of conflict between various groups of gun owners over a variety of subjects. These conflicts are happening in a public manner at the very moment that we should be taking advantage of the incredible amount of attention we receive from the media (a media that wants to know what we have to say) and spreading a positive message and image that resonates with the fence sitters. We should be reaching out to the incredible number of new shooters joining our ranks in the last few years, who right now may be discouraged by the level of discourse that the various groups of enthusiasts are having. In short, most of our culture right now is “good,” but could be great. All it would take is a bit of introspection, and some time spent networking and communicating.
So what do I mean when I talk about tribes? From a pure social science perspective, a tribe is a relatively small group of people, 20-150 individuals, who share a common set of values and norms. Nearly every gathering of humans is comprised of a mix of these tribes, some of which operate more cooperatively with other tribes than others. In most cases, very large organizations are comprised of many sub-tribes. You can see a great example of this if you take a critical eye to your average gun enthusiast message board with all sorts of sub factions competing with one another. From the outside, an individual unfamiliar with a group’s intricacies may only identify one massive monolithic culture or tribe, such as “gun culture.” But naturally, the more you learn about and participate in a group, the more you begin to subdivide its members into their smaller tribes.
I tried for quite a while to list out all the various tribes that we have under the “gun culture” banner, and it simply grew too numerous. We have hunters/outdoorsmen who shoot maybe thirty rounds per year around hunting season; the casual gun owner who bought a .38 revolver and never practices with it; the various competitive shooting tribes (High power/USPSA/IDPA/F-Class/etc); the training certificate collecting “tactical” tribe; the professional users (military/LEO); the survivalists; the collectors (both casual and serious) who don’t really shoot but like to show off their collections; the hardcore 2A fundamentalists; and many more. Many shooters will likely fall into several categories. If, like me, you spend any time reading message boards populated by “antis” to see what is on their minds, you would find that they have just as many smaller competing groups ranging from the hardcore “grab’em all” types to the “we should do something, but I don’t know what” crowd. As I have grown and developed as a gun owner and shooting enthusiast, I have belonged to several of these various groups along the way. I have clear memories of how one some groups view the others.
The problems begin to arise when one tribe makes a public statement representing the overall “gun culture” that conflicts with the values and norms of another tribe. For instance, there the infamous Jim Zumbo incident where a writer from the hunting/outdoorsmen tribe made statements about the perceived lack of utility of the AR and AK platform, further calling them “terrorist weapons.” This argument made sense to many in the hunter/outdoorsmen culture who would just as happily carry a bow instead of an old lever or bolt action, and have never really thought much about the utility of modern sporting weapons for roles other than self defense. More recently, we saw the ousting of long-time gun writer Dick Metcalf over his public statements regarding regulation of firearms. Similarly, Jerry Tsai was forced out of Recoil Magazine over a statement that the HK MP-7. Today, there are regular clashes between open carry demonstrators and other gun enthusiasts who prefer a more subtle approach to promoting our 2A rights. In a recent Facebook post, a prominent firearms blogger, instructor, and Marine veteran, criticized the activities of open carry activists as being counterproductive, and highlighted several pieces of evidence to support his assertion. A member of the open carry movement stated, “I hope in the coming revolution those of you that wiped your ass with the flag and the Constitution get what’s coming to you or at the very least evicted from the USA with extreme prejudice.”
All of these incidents have garnered copious media attention and provide ample “evidence” of the unreasonableness of “2A Extremists” to the anti side. The various anti-2A factions love it when this kind of airing of dirty laundry occurs, as they feel it provides legitimacy to their positions. So what do we do about it?
Understanding Our Tribe(s)
In truth, it is this squabbling and ambivalence between the various tribes of gun own that has really prevented widespread success of the pro 2A movement. While we have won some significant court rulings, they are not enough in of themselves to guarantee the future of the gun culture in the United States. Judges can, and will, be replaced by idealistic politicians subject to a fickle public that is informed by a biased media. For any real long-term success, you must have public opinion on your side. You must have a public that will write their representatives about their pro 2A views, and even get out to vote on the issues. I would posit that the only reason that our side has been winning these short-term battles is that the “anti” side is even more disjointed by the various “anti” factions than the pro 2A side, which at least has an effective lobbying arm through the NRA. But if we really want to succeed, to really grow our shooting culture, then we should be looking at other successful tribes.
Much has been written in the business world regarding organizational culture. Dave Logan, the preeminent author on the “tribes” idea, has broken down five basic phases of tribe development:
Stage 1: “Life Sucks”
This type of tribe is comprised of individuals that approach the world is if it is perpetually out to get them. They feel that their rights and safety are always in danger of being compromised, and their actions are distinguished by hostility and despair.
Stage 2: “My Life Sucks”
Individuals in this group have evolved to believe that the world is not necessarily out to get them, but they acknowledge that they are not in a good position. As a group, this type of tribe is characterized by apathy and futility. They don’t try, care, innovate, or hold each other accountable. They complain about their position, but are utterly disengaged from fixing it.
Stage 3: “I’m great…you’re not”
Individuals in this tribe are selfish. They are out to help and promote themselves and their beliefs at the expense of others, if necessary. They are averse to collaboration and compromise. Most successful organizations are operating at this stage.
Stage 4: “We’re great…they’re not”
Individuals in this group have banded together under a common sense of value, but are highly competitive against other groups. Rather than focusing on what they can do as a group to better themselves and “change the world.” They are still primarily focusing on outdoing other groups. This stage is still highly effective, though. Business studies show that organizations operating at Stage 4 are nearly 3000% more competitive than those at Stage 3.
Stage 5: “Life is great”
Less than 2% reach this level of performance. Organizations at this level are no longer focused on outcompeting their opponents, but are rather focused on changing the world for the better. Individuals share a common vision and apply themselves to the creation of new things that nobody has considered before. This stage is extremely difficult to achieve and maintain, but can happen with the proper application of leadership.
Looking at these stages, where do you think we are? In truth, we are probably scattered across the board. The most disgruntled are probably operating at Stages 1 and 2. These are the groups that are perpetually agitating anyone that does not agree with them. These individuals are the ones attempting to “silence” any opposition through underhanded tactics rather than rational debate. Most groups are probably at Stage 3, where they think their way of approaching 2A rights is the right way. To them, the other groups are well meaning, but are ultimately counterproductive idiots that just need to keep their mouths shut. There are probably a few groups operating at Stage 4, these are the ones winning court victories and motivating politicians. I don’t think there is anyone operating at Stage 5.
As I said earlier, I believe the only reason that we have had the short-term successes that we’ve had is because we have more organizations and people operating at Stage 3 and 4 than the other side. And even that is mostly due to the passion that most gun enthusiasts feel for supporting the issue. In contrast, the other side is mostly comprised of perpetual malcontents whose dislike of firearms, and “gun culture,” is but one many things that they are angry about. This works in our favor for the time being, but it shouldn’t be enough for us.
If we really want to build a better gun culture, we have to begin by acknowledging the differences and common ground between the various gun-owning tribes. The greatest tools we have in this regard are the many members of gun culture who participate in multiple disciplines. For example, a hunter who also enjoys studying the tactical application of weapons helps bridge the gap between the groups and is very effective at connecting the two together. A competition shooter who helps a friend buy their first home defense handgun has an opportunity to introduce that person, and their family, to the wide world of shooting sports and disciplines. We, as members of 2A culture, have the obligation to respectfully bring others into the fold and build up their appreciation for shooting. With the proper application of leadership, those new shooters will recruit other shooters and do the same for them, thus growing our movement from the bottom up.
We cannot do this without a vision to follow. Without a long-term strategic goal, how will we know what we are trying to achieve? I think this is where many open carry advocate groups have run awry. What is it exactly that they are trying to achieve? I understand that the strategic end goal for many of these groups is to affect change by pointing out the ridiculousness of state laws that allow concealed carry of handguns with permit, but outlaws open carry of handguns. Others want to desensitize the public to the presence of long arms. Yet others wish to dispel the widely held perception that handguns are weapons of personal defense and long arms are weapons of aggression. However, since there is no established cohesive vision for what the open carry groups are attempting to do, the other side has seized the narrative. Now, to the outside observer, it appears as if open carry advocates are agitators who enjoy taking selfies while brandishing long arms in public places with the intent of intimidating bystanders. I don’t mean to pick on the open carry groups, but they do serve as a timely example of what can go wrong when the initiative is lost.
Hopefully, you have a vague understanding about the importance of establishing a strategic vision and narrative. With a comprehensive strategic vision, and leaders who take the time to carefully build tribes supportive of that vision, there would be no need for open carry groups to “agitate.” As more people get brought into the culture, the discussion naturally changes to become more supportive of 2A civil rights without the need for overt conflict.
So where are we going to get this strategic vision? With all the disparate tribes that comprise “gun culture” competing for different end goals, that’s a challenging question. The NRA is the obvious first answer, but they have become too divisive an organization for many. Groups like Project Appleseed and Modern Musket have great appeal at a lot of levels, but they aren’t well known. In truth, the kind of vision that I’m talking about isn’t going to come from any one place. The “gun culture” is too wide and varied for that. But you and I can do something.
I have a vision for a national culture that looks at safe firearms ownership with a proud sense of heritage; that respects the rights and preferences of others, and does it with dignity and respect even if those “others” hold opposing views; appreciates and defends the natural right to own weapons for a variety of legal reasons. I want to build a culture that is respectful, helpful, and open to teaching others the safe and effective usage of arms. This should be a universal goal, and one that I think that vanishingly few will find fault with. Through venues like this blog, message boards, my local range, shooting clubs, Appleseed shoots, my friends and coworkers, and other social groups, I want to reach out to other new shooters and bring them in line with my vision; and I want them to do the same in turn.
This is how we are going to win in the end. It won’t be through Internet activism, the comments section of the New York Times, or long debates with antis in Facebook. It is true that those are all useful tools, as the proper use of those venues can help sway fence sitters to at least consider our point of view (or, inversely, drive them to the opposition), but to really succeed means connecting to people, and networking with those who think like you (and even a few that don’t). But to do this successfully, we have to do it with charisma. Be that leader who says, “We are awesome” when talking about all the varieties of gun owners and inspires others to follow you. Don’t disparage other groups needlessly, but do hold others accountable when they negatively affect the rest of us. Go out and meet members of other tribes, and introduce them to yours. Uplift those who may be operating at lower stages, and bring in new shooters as often as you can.
This brings me back to the opening statement about gun owning “tribes.” We have to start by dispelling the idea that one tribe is better than the other. All groups have a legitimate point of view, even if you disagree with it. Every time we “silence” points of views like Dick Metcalf rather than engage in debate, we grow weaker. Mind your tribe, your values and point of view, but respect others. Work to establish a common vision between you and your peers, and slowly merge those tribes together.