Once word got out that the AR-15, a consumer-grade knockoff of the M-16, was used to carry out the massacre in Newtown, it didn’t take long for someone to find the “Man Card” ad campaign.
Concocted two years ago for Bushmaster, the rifle's North Carolina-based maker, the web ads offer various tests of manliness — Do you "think tofu is an acceptable meat substitute"? Avoid eye contact with "tough-looking 5th graders?" — and suggest that a "Man Card" can be revoked, then reissued with the purchase of a gun.
It's easy to blast Bushmaster for its bottom-feeding ways, but it's also a little too pat. The ad campaign didn't invent anything new; it's just a tongue-in-cheek riff on the well-known connection between masculinity and guns.
As cultural ideas go, you can't get much more universal; the gun-as-manhood link applies to young male gang members who terrorize urban streets, and to profoundly disturbed 20-somethings in the suburbs who channel their demons into mass slaughter. We'll never get inside Adam Lanza's mind, but whatever the proximate causes of his horrifying act — whether he felt bullied or abandoned or misunderstood — they lead back to the unavoidable fact that guns made him feel strong.
"If he was wanting to make a particularly violent and masculine statement, he's got easy access to one of the symbols we most closely associate with powerful masculinity," says Jimmy Taylor, a sociologist at the University of Ohio-Zanesville and the author of "American Gun Culture."
In the coming months, if most of us are lucky and some of us are brave, our nation's leaders will take important steps to limit access to guns and increase access to mental health services. But as Taylor and others have pointed out, it will be hard to change the future without also changing the culture.
And if it's hard to imagine successful gun control, a cultural change seems near-impossible — partly because so many of us are complicit in the problem, without much apparent consequence. Plenty of teenagers play warmongering video games and lionize "The Dark Knight" without resorting to violence. Still, there's something wrong about the way we teach kids to glorify weapons, from startlingly young ages. For his fourth birthday, someone gave my son a "Cars 2"-themed toy: the friendly tow truck Mater, whose hood opened up to reveal military weapons. (I don't think the gift-givers had any idea the guns were there.)
Keeping a toy like that off store shelves will come down to two factors: money and shame. Money comes first. Cerberus, the private equity firm, is selling Bushmaster's parent company because a major client, The California State Teachers Retirement System, had threatened to pull its business.
Likewise, if we want to really convince the toy-and-entertainment-industrial-complex to end its glorification of guns, we'll have to deal with money, in the form of demand.
That's where the shame comes in.
Taylor suggests beginning with public service announcements, maybe modeled on the recent "Fighting Words" campaign aimed at stopping slurs against gay teens. The messsage would have to be short and simple, he says, something like "Guns don't make you a man — it's your actions."
It's a quixotic idea, but it's not a bad start. I have strong memories of the "Don't be a Draggin' Lady" anti-smoking campaign launched by the American Cancer Society in the '80s: the chain-smoking woman who grosses out her friends with her bad-smelling "dragon breath." One thing that has helped reduce smoking rate in the United States is a growing social stigma: the notion that smoking isn't just unhealthy, but also kind of pathetic.
There is already a stigma against guns, Taylor says. When he interviewed gun owners for his book, they'd often start out with disclaimers: I'm a veteran, I'm not violent, I'm not crazy.
So imagine if they also had to say, "I'm not weak." Imagine if wielding a gun wasn't seen as an act of power, but the opposite: a pathetic crutch, used only by someone who needed to overcompensate.
Maybe it's a pipe dream. I wouldn't expect much support from Hollywood or the video gaming industry. But if someone wants to come up with an ad campaign — some inversion of the "Man Card" — I'll bet it would go viral. I'll tweet first.