Gun culture and wellness culture may seem like they have as much in common as an AR-15 and essential oil. But don’t let superficial differences between Gwyneth Paltrow and Wayne LaPierre fool you. Members of their respective communities are actually seeking the same kind of existential comfort: safety and security in a fallen, dangerous world, where the only person you can really count on is yourself. Whether it’s wielding a weapon to protect your family against home invaders or taking natural supplements to protect your body against invasive toxins, the allure of the fantasy is identical — and it explains the profound appeal of both when empirical evidence doesn’t.
I’ve spent the last four years studying how people end up believing in a range of medical pseudoscience, including reversing cancer with a raw vegan diet and avoiding vaccines in favor of homeopathic medicine. They are united by a set of shared concerns, all built around grains of truth: frustration with arrogant and uncaring doctors, suspicion of corrupt government scientists and a heightened sense of environmental risks. Their discontents metastasize rapidly, eventually causing severe emotional pain that demands to be addressed. This process is often catalyzed by tragedy — a devastating medical diagnosis in oneself or a loved one — and the realization that standard approaches can’t guarantee a solution. As a consequence, the afflicted immerse themselves in personal narratives of redemption outside mainstream medicine, which come paired with reassuringly detailed instructions on how to defend yourself against suffering when the authorities can’t, or won’t, help.
The result is what I call an “empowering epistemology”: a way to make sense of the world based not on the best possible evidence but rather on the evidence that gives you the strongest feeling of control. The communities that embrace it share some structural features with archaic aspects of traditional religion: Like-minded people gather and testify to the power of their rituals and talismans, be they “empowering coconut oil” or energy crystals. The power is all the more real for being denied by “conventional” wisdom.
I’ve always associated this way of thinking with medical pseudoscience, so I was shocked to see textbook signs of it in the least likely place: a recent essay on gun culture for The Atlantic by the conservative writer David French. Then, less than a week later, I saw those same signs in a New York Times op-ed, “I Wanted to Be A Good Mom. So I Got A Gun,” by Bethany Mandel. A visit to the magazine section of my local Barnes and Noble confirmed it: Gun culture and wellness culture are both built on an empowering belief system.
French and Mandel open their explanations of gun culture with stories of personal trauma. In his essay, French tells readers that his wife was a victim of sexual abuse and that his family has received multiple threats. In her op-ed, Mandel recalls a spate of burglaries in her neighborhood just after her father left her home, when she was only 3 years old. Were they writing about wellness culture, the stories might have described the sudden onset of chronic pain or an autism diagnosis. French generalizes the power of these experiences perfectly: “It starts with the consciousness of a threat. Perhaps not the kind of threat my family has experienced. Some people experience more. Some less. And some people don’t experience a threat at all — but they’re aware of those who do. With the consciousness of a threat comes the awareness of a vulnerability.” It’s how Dante’s archetypal tale of redemption begins: In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.
The need for empowerment comes from a place of intense disempowerment, and the rhetoric of gun culture, like that of wellness culture, reinforces it with endless terrifying anecdotes. “We all know someone whose home has been violated,” reads a typical article in Recoil magazine. “We see stories on the news with increasing frequency about families being brutalized by home invaders.” Once you’ve heard enough of those stories, even experienced them yourself, the conclusion is inevitable. “There are evil men in this world, and sometimes they wish to do you harm,” says French grimly. Whereas wellness magazines emphasize an environment polluted by toxins, gun culture emphasizes souls polluted by evil. In both cases, the magnitude of real dangers is exaggerated far beyond the evidence by showcasing anecdotes instead of data.
These anecdotes are a key part of any empowering epistemology. Does the establishment say vaccine-related illness is rare? It’s harder to believe that when you’ve heard how your friends’ child fell sick after being immunized. Are there no natural alternatives to chemotherapy? Websites list countless personal testimonials to the contrary.
Studies about the inefficacy of guns as protective measures are overcome in the same way. In Mandel’s essay, she tells the story of her “heroic mother” driving away a home intruder with a gun and uses it to undermine official studies. “Our incident won’t show up in the statistics about gun use in self-defense scenarios. I doubt my mother ever reported it to the police.” Likewise, French argues that one’s opinions on guns are shaped by personal experiences and stories shared by members of the in-group, which are far more important than “any study.”
In both communities, the rejection of data and statistics is tied to a broader suspicion of established authority. French can’t imagine relying on a sometimes “shockingly incompetent government” for his family’s security (“the police can only protect the people you love in the most limited of circumstances”). Mandel slams federal law enforcement as “bearing some responsibility” for mass shootings. The parallel in the medical world is unscrupulous physicians and government regulators in the pocket of Big Pharma who can’t be trusted with our health — just look at the opioid epidemic. No matter that the NRA actively suppressed federal research on gun danger. No matter that “natural” supplement companies lobby to exempt themselves from the same regulations that apply to pharmaceuticals, just as guns are the only product that cannot be recalled by the government if they’re defective. The supposed downsides of these exceptions are likely to be mainstream disinformation. The only people you can really trust are your friends, and yourself.
It’s no coincidence that the word “empowerment” is ubiquitous in wellness culture and gun culture. When you are dedicated to an empowering epistemology, the ability to secure your life needs to be in your hands, not someone else’s. “In our house we saw [guns] as tools of protection and empowerment,” writes Mandel. Her words echo French, who explains succinctly: “People want to be empowered. That’s how gun culture is built.”
Once you want to be empowered, cultural ambassadors are ready to meet your needs. Physicians may not have time for your life history; they may not be sympathetic to your fear of toxins. But alternative medicine practitioners tend to be empathic listeners, with ample time and openness to a wide range of therapies. They will talk you through a multifaceted approach to wellness that puts you in charge, and they will be extremely confident in its success rates. The same is true for gun store owners. “The first thing you’ll notice — and I’ve seen this without fail,” says French, “is that the person behind that counter is ready to listen. They want to hear your experience. They’ll share their own. They’ll point you immediately to a potential solution.” Suddenly you’re on your way to conquering those existential fears with no more than a kind ear, a few new purchases and a detailed plan of action.
That plan of action is key, because it functions as a script in safety fantasies. When the thought of an imminent threat makes you feel vulnerable — cancer, an intruder — you can mentally rehearse the steps you’ll take to ward it off. Mandel’s story of her heroic mother using a gun to ward off a burglar becomes your own story; the guns themselves become talismans of protection. “Your thought-process starts to change,” as French puts it, and that change is exhilarating. No longer are you a helpless victim “dependent on the state for your personal security.” You don’t need doctors, or the police. You have your empowering narrative and the props to act it out.
The importance of this narrative cannot be overstated — it is completely transformative. French describes it in language reminiscent of religious conversion: “Your life has changed for the better. Your community has expanded to include people you truly like, who’ve perhaps helped you through a tough time in your life, and you treasure these relationships. You feel a sense of burning conviction that you, your family, and your community are safer and freer because you own and carry a gun.”
It’s easy to see why gun owners are so angered, and threatened, by the rhetoric of gun control advocates. Owning a gun for self-defense springs from a deep-seated desire to protect yourself and your family, no different from the motivations of parents who reject vaccines or try unproven experimental stem cell therapies. Yet detractors call you a murderer, a terrorist, an idiot, someone who wants children to die. They label you the villain and threaten to force you into vaccination or giving up your guns. But those aspects of your life are the keystone in the architecture of your security, your personal identity — they define you not as a villain but as a hero. “Support for gun rights is motivated precisely by our devotion to protecting our kids,” says Mandel. Why can’t others see that?
In a 1993 advertisement that is either comedic or profoundly chilling, depending on who you are, Mel Gibson hides in his kitchen clutching a bottle of vitamin C as armed government agents swarm the premises. “The federal government is actually considering classifying most vitamins and other supplements as drugs,” warns the ad. “Could raids on individual homes be next?” The melodrama will seem absurd to anyone who doesn’t depend on supplements for talismanic protection. But in light of the anxieties just beneath the surface of an empowering epistemology, it makes perfect sense. It’s as if the government were trying to regulate your religion. Or maybe it’s more than that, since concealed weapons and nutritional supplements become a literal extension of yourself: It’s as if the government were trying to regulate your body.
Wellness culture and gun culture exploit truths for their persuasiveness. Guns really do save some people’s lives, and certain aspects of wellness culture are legitimate ways to improve health. There’s no denying that the medical establishment has serious flaws, as does law enforcement, and the world is filled with danger and tragedy. But both of these cultures exaggerate the extent of the problems, overstate their ability to help and distract us from the root causes. Economic and social injustice is a far greater threat to people’s health than medical error or malfeasance — just as it is by far the greatest risk factor in gun violence — but this does not fit neatly into an empowering epistemology. Nor does it fit to acknowledge that friends and family are more likely to attack you than some random home invader and that no matter how well-trained you are with guns or how securely you store them, those precautions won’t save you from using one to kill yourself if you’re depressed.
But once you understand the foundations of gun culture, it becomes obvious that statistics won’t convince anyone to give up an AR-15 purchased for home defense. That gun is part of a larger set of beliefs and rituals that, in French’s words, make “you feel more ‘free’ than you’ve ever felt before.” Without them you feel scared, helpless and dependent. Moreover, these beliefs and rituals are sustained by anecdotes, community and personal experience, not logic and establishment statistics.
Instead, the best approach is the one that pediatricians and other experts have laid out for dealing with vaccine hesitancy. First, don’t vilify. Like parents who are hesitant to vaccinate, gun owners are genuinely trying to be good parents, and good citizens — dismissing them as irrational and dangerous will only serve to alienate them. Second, lead by listening. “Attentiveness to parents’ concerns is important,” notes the American Academy of Pediatrics in its clinical report on countering vaccine hesitancy. This is the best way to earn trust and respect, especially when engaging with someone who feels threatened and disempowered. Lastly, make sure to acknowledge gun owners as a diverse community of individuals, each with their own story and reasons for behaving the way they do. Talking about “gun nuts,” like talking about “anti-vaxxers,” is counterproductive. It reinforces us-vs.-them, which makes it difficult to reach persuadable members of each culture, further cementing their loyalty to a community that provides affirmation instead of condemnation.
I still get incensed when I see NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch shilling for guns (or for some new superfood). It scares me that people take her seriously, whether about AR-15s or about SuperBeets. But I also understand that those people are trapped by their need for an empowering epistemology. They’re scared, too, probably even more scared than I am. Any effort to make the world safer, for all of us, has to begin there — with the fear at the heart of gun culture and with the faith-like structures built around that fear.
Alan Levinovitz is assistant professor of religion and philosophy at James Madison University. Follow him @alanlevinovitz.