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Culture clash

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I had no idea this sort of thing even existed:

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I’m reminded of our discussion of Charles Murray’s recent book on social divisions among Americans. Murray talked about differences between upper and lower class, but I thought he was really talking more about differences between liberals and conservatives among the elite. (More discussion here.)

In this particular case, Murray’s story about irresponsible elites seems to fit pretty well. At the elite level, you have well-connected D.C. gun lobbyists opposing any restrictions on personal weapons. As Murray might put it, the elites (Phil Spector aside) may be able to handle their guns, but some lower-class Americans cannot—they do things like give real rifles to 5-year-olds (!). As Murray writes, it’s a combination of cultural ignorance and a permissive ideology: I assume the senators who voted against the recent gun control bill wouldn’t give live weapons to their kids (or live in neighborhoods in which kids have access to guns at home), but they don’t feel right about restricting the rights of others to do so.

P.S. After reading some comments, I thought it might help to clarify two points.

First, my main point here was, as is noted in the title of the post, this is a culture clash. In some parts of the country, people are giving real live guns to their 5-year-olds and teaching them the four rules of gun safety. Here where I live, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a company that sold children’s guns with cute little cartoon characters.

Second, I don’t mean to overrate Charles Murray’s ideas, which are more of a set of interesting speculations than an all-encompassing theory. (This is fine, speculations are important, I’m not knocking Murray here.) For example, consider elites’ reactions to proposed laws restricting cigarette smoking. If a group of elite Americans support such a law, Murray can argue that this represents their lack of understanding of ordinary American culture: elites mostly don’t smoke, and they can’t understand people who do. Conversely, if a group of elites oppose an anti-smoking law, Murray can argue that these elites are supporting a permissive, dangerous ideology that they do not themselves believe for their own lives. This is the tension that I noted in my review of Murray’s book, where elites are alternately urged to show understanding for the unfamiliar lifestyles of lower-class Americans, and to show moral leadership by criticizing the mistaken lifestyle choices of such people. Murray’s reasoning goes in these two opposite directions, so when I say that Murray’s story fits pretty well in this example, I can only really be referring to part of Murray’s argument, not all of it.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Well………. it seems like, for this specific example, it’d be hard to restrict people from letting their kids have live guns without preventing anyone *with* kids from having live guns. A parent is able to let their kid do pretty much whatever they feel like within the home, and I don’t see a lot of future in stationing supervisors everywhere to prevent it.

    What would the mechanism be for allowing parents to have guns while preventing their children from having access?

    I think it also bears pointing out that according to the quote, nobody intended for the 5-year-old to have access to a live gun — they just, unwisely, used a security system with a difficult-to-observe failure state (the gun was supposed to be unloaded).

    • Andrew says:


      There are two points.

      1. This is apparently a well-known company that sells guns to kids. This is not Junior playing with Daddy’s gun, it’s Daddy buying Junior a gun.

      2. I don’t know what the mechanism is. But lots of toys are illegal in this country because they have pieces a kid could swallow or get scratched on or they have lead paint or whatever. Following Charles Murray, I think it’s easier for a senator to think it’s ok to allow people to sell guns to kids if he (the senator) doesn’t think his own kid, or his neighbors’ kids, will be playing with guns in this way.

      There’s clearly a tradeoff here: on one hand, the right to sell guns to a 5-year-old; on the other hand, the occasional fatal accident. My point above (inspired by Murray) is that the lobbyists and senators might not see this tradeoff because they can’t imagine these fatal accidents affecting them. They’re happy to endorse freedom for the masses, in the belief that they themselves will not be suffering the consequences of that freedom.

      • Anonymous says:

        – No one is selling guns to a 5-year-old; they’re selling kid-sized guns to parents who then provide them to 5-year-olds.

        – The idea of teaching your kid to shoot with a kid-sized gun that he can call his own is not, on its face, ludicrous.

        – The idea of letting a 5-year-old have free access to a metal rod is also not ridiculous; this is routine in all kinds of households. Would it be safer to keep the gun locked up, regardless of whether it was loaded? Yes, because it’s very easy to see at a glance whether it’s out in the open.

        – Lots of toys are illegal because they have pieces which [are a danger to children]. But guns are not illegal, and barring a constitutional amendment will not be. As a society, we can protect children from shards-o-plastic brand imitation candy by preventing it from getting into the home in the first place, but we can’t do that with guns.

        – We could punish negligently allowing children to access guns legally kept in the home, but I don’t think it would be a popular approach. The White family has already suffered a penalty much harsher than any sentence our justice system will hand down. And throwing them in jail and/or slapping them with thousands of dollars in fines would be a horrific miscarriage of justice; ‘kicking them while they’re down’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. As a matter of pragmatics, you can’t deter someone from letting their 5-year-old kill their two-year-old with one of the house guns because they already don’t want to do that, and they don’t want to do that *really powerfully*.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It might also bear pointing out that as long as a kid stays on private property, it’s perfectly OK for his parents to let him drive drunk, no matter his age.

    • Andrew says:


      I don’t think so. From a quick google search I found this from New York State law: “Parents who provide alcohol to their own children are responsible for their well-being, and must consider the consequences to their children’s health as well as their future attitudes toward alcohol consumption. . . . Parents can also be subject to criminal liability for knowingly providing unreasonable and injurious amounts of alcohol to a child under the age of 17.”

      So if you give your 5-year-old a beer and the keys to the lawnmower, and he drives it into the wall of your house and gets a concussion, I suspect you’re in trouble. Even if the entire event happened on private property. It also says you can’t give your kid alcohol in a restaurant, and that’s private property too.

      • Nameless says:

        In California, giving alcohol to a person under 21 (whether or not he/she is your child) is a misdemeanor punishable by a $1000 fine and 24 hours of community service.

  3. Nameless says:

    If anything, it’s a counterexample to Murray.

    Gun control is one of the areas where liberal elites aren’t afraid to preach what they practice (have you seen many anti-gun-control liberals in Northeast?)

    Conservative elites wouldn’t have a problem with the idea of “guns for kids” in general. The senator voting against gun control might buy a Crickett rifle for his 8 or 10 year old son and then take him hunting. The same senator would see a 5 year old kid as obviously too young for a gun, but he would see this (5 vs. 8 year olds) as a personal responsibility aspect that can’t be regulated by the government.

    Also, gun ownership is primarily an elite thing anyway. In case you didn’t know, guns are expensive. A midrange “adult” hunting rifle without any accessories might retail for $600. Add some optics ($200), some ammo ($50 for 100 rounds), carrying case, gun safe, etc. etc. It’s a pretty expensive hobby.

    • Andrew says:


      You write, “The same senator would see a 5 year old kid as obviously too young for a gun, but he would see this (5 vs. 8 year olds) as a personal responsibility aspect that can’t be regulated by the government.” But that’s the point, and it’s how it fits into Murray’s story: the senator can’t imagine that this sort of thing would ever happen to his child or grandchild, hence he can go with the abstract principle of freedom. The senator and the lobbyist get to support a general principle, the company gets to sell guns to 5-year-olds, and other people pay the consequences.

      • Anonymous says:

        I think you’re giving Murray way too much credit. Of course people’s viewpoints are informed, biased, and limited by their own experiences and concerns more so than others. This leads to a lack of understanding between people with different experiences and concerns. This doesn’t seem like a particularly novel insight to me.

      • Nameless says:

        This seems generally correct, but I don’t see how this fits into Murray’s story. The one discussed on 4/23 was about elites unwilling to express disapproval (or not feeling disapproval, depending on point of view) of things like unwed parenting and slothfulness. Here we have no shortage of disapproval, only some differences in scope – with people on the left expressing general disapproval of the existence of guns for kids, and with people on the right expressing specific disapproval of parents who leave unattended loaded guns where 5 year old kids might find them.

        Conservative elites own guns at a greater rate than lower class conservatives. If they refuse to pass gun control laws which primarily hurt them but have the potential to help some lower class conservatives, it’s not culture clash, it’s basic self interest.

  4. Roger says:

    Bad analogy. The liberal elites favor those gun control laws. Even the NRA pro-gun folks have no problem expressing disapproval of unsafe practices in the home.

    • Andrew says:


      Murray gives examples of liberal elites but in his book he speaks of elites more generally. I doubt the senators who voted against gun control could imagine their own small children or grandchildren playing with dangerous guns in this way. Thus I suspect they do not see the tradeoff. This is the way this is similar to Murray’s story: these senators are supporting a right that is risky to others but that they do not see applying to them.

  5. FMark says:

    I’m not sure that conservative elites do know how to handle guns. You give the example of Phil Spector. What about Dick Cheney? Or even Al Capone?

    More to the point, has anyone seen data on gun accidents and class?

  6. dmk38 says:

    Background check might have prevented this.

    The obligatory swimming pool comparison:

    3,500 accidental drowning deaths in US per yr, about 500 of which are kids 5 or under (about 300 in pools)

    I don’t like guns much. I also hate to get wet.

    But what I like is to think about is why stories of accidental shootings of children (a) get as much attention as they do relative to other things that kill kids & others; & (b) are or are understood to be such an effective way to dramatize the consequences of insufficient gun control in US.

    These are cultural issues too — cultural cognition issues, essentially

    • dmk38 says:

      Oops — I forgot the guns! < 800 "unitentional" gun homicides per yr. About 30 for kids under 5.

      You can figure (most of) this sort of thing out at

      see also, among other things

    • Andrew says:


      I agree, there are many risks out there, and any laws have to respect tradeoffs. In this case, there is a tradeoff: on the one hand, the right to sell guns to a 5-year-old; on the other hand, the occasional fatal accident. The fatal accidents are rare, and I suspect the lobbyists and senators don’t even see it as any sort of tradeoff at all because they can’t imagine these fatal accidents affecting them. The issue is not quite “cultural cognition” but some other sort of perceptual bias.

  7. Jeff Zanooda says:

    The fact that this tragic story is in the news is an indication that such cases are extremely rare. Kids are drowning in pools or driven over by cars more often, we just don’t hear about it. You can confirm that by dividing the number from CDC by approximately 3*10^8 guns in the US and get a ridiculously small probability.

    I blame the parents here. They made the gun available to the kid, failed to unload the gun, and did not teach the kid the four rules of guns safety. There is not much that can be done to outlaw stupid parents.

    • Jay says:

      I like to imagine that mandatory gun safety courses may have made them think about locking up the guns, but I doubt that’s true.

      I see two arguments to be made on the child specific gun issue. Argument 1 is that child sized guns probably lower accident rates. If you are going to give a 5 year old a gun, it might as well be adequately sized for them. Having to reach too far to pull a trigger on a rifle could lead to injuries to the child or those standing near by. Argument 2 is that child sized guns lead to more injuries (if not properly stored by the parents) because the child sees the weapon as their property (toy) and can play with it whenever they want. If it wasn’t specifically made for them, I’d see it as similar to when I was a child and wanted to play with my fathers train set. Since it was his, I made sure to ask before using.

  8. John Dickey says:

    People do make mistakes, even with firearms. I was taught at a young age how to shoot. Its what you do in rural Tennessee. It seems that these parents did not do a good job of training their child to respect guns. The first 2 things I was taught about guns is first that I needed permission (from my dad) if I was going to handle one and second to check and see if its loaded. Those things are not that hard to teach and are not that hard for a child to do. Also, the parents should have exercised more care in insuring the gun was safe. Lock it up in a closet, gun cabinet, or safe, use a gun lock, or at least make sure its not loaded.

    I don’t know what you are suggesting about “elites.” That part of your statement seems completely unclear.

    • John Dickey says:

      I guess the part that confuses me about the elite problem is that there has been no policy presented recently that would have prevented this incident. There was no law that people with children of a certain age couldn’t own guns or requirements that people use gun locks. There used to be requirements about guns sold in the US having to be sold with a gun lock but that has not been law for some time. The issue that I have is that the elites have not been presented with an option to prevent children from having access to guns. You made the statement “I assume the senators who voted against the recent gun control bill wouldn’t give live weapons to their kids (or live in neighborhoods in which kids have access to guns at home), but they don’t feel right about restricting the rights of others to do so.” The recent gun bill would have done nothing to prevent this or other accidental shootings. All it would have done is prevent people with a criminal background from using legal channels to get guns. While that law has its merits, it has no bearing on this particular case or even cases of a similar nature.

      • Nameless says:

        I think that, when Andrew mentions gun control, he uses it very generally as the choice between “having guns” and “not having guns”. In essence, “there are so many guns and so few restrictions that there are even guns for 5 year olds. And conservative elites oppose attempts to limit the availability of guns because risks associated with this large number of guns – like, for example, incidents of 5 year olds killing their little sisters – don’t apply in their own households.”

        The missing link in this logic chain is that conservative elites might oppose gun control because they support a general principle of freedom, or because they like having guns themselves. Permissive, dangerous ideology vs. self interest. It could be a combination of both, depending on the situation. The fact that there is a company that makes rifles for kids – primarily self interest (though a liberal Northeastern professor may not realize that right away.) The fact that Kentucky does not require have any mandatory gun storage laws – mixed (there is a rational argument that a gun that is stored with a trigger lock, or worse, in a gun safe, is not suitable for self defense purposes.) The fact that Kentucky (unlike most states) does not impose criminal liability on the parents of a child that kills someone with an unattended rifle – mostly ideology.

    • Bill Jefferys says:

      Checking to see that a gun is unloaded, while useful, is not sufficient. I was taught that EVERY gun is ALWAYS loaded, even if you’ve personally checked it to see that it was unloaded. That is the reason for Rule #1: Never point a gun at anything (including people) unless you intend to shoot it.

      • Same thing here. And I was taught this at age 8 after being given a child size .22 cal bolt action rifle (that it was made clear to me would be kept for me by my father and we would only use with his supervision). This was in the bay area in California, not exactly the heart of conservative america. It was impossible for me to handle larger firearms safely due to pure ergonomic issues, and my father wanted me to learn these safety lessons early on because he felt they would make me safer in a household where we already had firearms.

        The existence of this company manufacturing child sized rifles is evidence that a large number of these rifles exist, especially in places like Kentucky. My prior belief is that households with small rifles for children are probably LESS dangerous for children than matched households nearby where only adult size firearms are available.

        The fact is that most of the conservative senators from places like Kentucky probably DO buy rifles for their 5-8 year olds (I would guess more likely towards the 8 year old range admittedly), which shows just how difficult it is for people in different parts of the US to communicate if Andrew imagines that none of these conservative elites would ever buy rifles for their young children but they’re just voting on some abstract freedom basis.

  9. Gustav says:

    Leaving your kid in a bathtub, and the kid drowns, is a crime.

    You let your kid play with a rifle, then it is an accident. To me, this is odd.