The term "gun" is a broad one, and as such it has a number of definitions based on both form and function. But, when we talk about guns in public discourse, as we often do when "gun violence" makes its way into someplace that Mainstream America considers "safe," it's not always clear that we're talking about those definitions. Or at least, that's what my observation of the debate tells me.
Broadly speaking, when we talk about the gun/gun control debate in the United States, we're talking about a split in "working class" and higher America. Violence is endemic enough in poor Black and Hispanic communities that no-one bats am eyelash at it. Whether they consider it a side effect of a culture of inequality, or the predictable consequences of laziness and a bent towards criminality, it's just par for the course in some neighborhoods. And for all that we say that we value a unified nation, we've never really been a unified populace - and Americans are no less likely than anyone else to determine that "Not my problem" is the functional equivalent to "Not a problem." But in those classes of American society where violence is just enough of a factor that it has a place in the imagination, there are basically two camps. What they have in common is that they tend to equate guns with violence and lethal force.
Guns mean the ability to act on the urge to kill.For Blue-State America (to use a common political breakdown which is of some use here), guns become the means by which violent urges become violent acts that become the deaths of innocent people, and although a world without guns (which is really simply a world in which only the right people have guns) is not entirely a world without violence, it is a world in which violence is more easily localized, contained and survivable.
For Red-State America, guns become the means by which one defends oneself and loved ones from the violent urges of others - and many of these Others are dangerous, even if they do not have guns. Others may be bigger, stronger, faster and more versed in the ways of violence, but a gun makes all things equal, so that those who were once vulnerable and weak cam now stand up for themselves without reliance on authorities - who are likely to be slow to respond - if not agents of dangerous Others themselves.
And when we add the nebulous category of "assault weapons" into the mix, meanings can shift again. The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, otherwise known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, dealt only partially with the function of the weapons it targeted, concerning itself mostly with outward appearances, potential accessories and even weight to some degree. For many members of the general public, assault weapons are like pornography - they may not be able to define them, but they know one when they see one. And again, there are shared elements in the way the two camps see them.
Assault weapons mean certain things about Others and groups.For Red-State America, assault weapons can take the image of The Great Equalizer a step further - allowing one brave person to stand up against the dangerous Other even when the Other comes in groups.
For Blue-State America, assault weapons allow dangerous Others to kill and maim many more people at one time than they could otherwise, turning what would be at most a handful of dead or injured into dozens or scores of casualties, and to bring violence into areas that, because they are inhabited by groups, would otherwise be Safe.
This is, of course, not the whole of the divide, nor the whole of the debate. One could write entire volumes on the topic. An evening's blog post will barely scratch the surface. But when you look at these different understanding of what guns mean, of what assault weapons mean, it begins to become clearer why the two sides are so at odds with one another. Even if it offers no hints on how to bridge the divide.