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As NRA meets, Great Gun Debate intensifies America's culture war (+video)

Both sides in the debate over gun policy are indulging in stereotypes and name-calling, fueled by a distrust bred from previous culture war fights. As the NRA convention continues this weekend, are red and blue America really so far apart?

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But among the actual citizenry, the divide over guns is not as deep as the activists and politicians paint it to be, polls indicate. Yes, majorities in the West and Northeast favor more gun controls, while majorities in the South and Midwest do not. But asked by Pew whether they favor gun rights, only 50 percent of Midwesterners said yes, as did 49 percent of Southerners. A Pew poll, moreover, also found that only about 1 in 5 Americans is actually angry about the Senate vote in April not to expand background checks.

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Still, to see the activists on either side try to one-up each other in the stereotypes battle is to behold a completely different reality.

Take an essay in The Daily Beast last week, in which Bronx-born culture critic Lee Siegel used the gun rights fight as one reason for the South to “Go ahead, secede already!”

With secession, a “red-state nation, giddy with new mobility, could make the 1958 Chevy its official car … [and] it could arm all of its citizens, and thus relieve itself of the financial burden of maintaining law enforcement for its citizens,” he wrote. The North, he added, could be unshackled from its Bible-crazed, knuckle-dragger anchors, to venture forth to establish the America envisioned by the enlightened: “Universal health care. No guns. Strong unions … high revenues from a fair tax structure.… In short, a society on a par with most of the rest of the industralized world.”

On the other side is the depiction of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, cofounder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and a major funder of the gun-control campaign, as Mr. "Nanny State." As Ms. Palin said Friday, he and others like him are "bitterly clinging to the notion that the government must control the people in all aspects of life."

It's much too early to tell whether political vilification over gun control and gun rights, so on display around the NRA convention, will pull the electorate one way or the other heading into next year's midterms. But whenever policy becomes so entwined with emotions and cultural identity, common ground can become maddeningly elusive, students of US history suggest.

The dynamics of "tying guns to the identity of the country sort of becomes a way to avoid debating who we are and what we will do as a society, and how we will deal with certain kinds of problems," Carole Emberton, a historian at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, told the Monitor earlier this year.

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