Earlier this week, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina joined fellow Democrats and family members of the Charleston shooting victims to call for stricter gun laws. It was an emotional scene for Clyburn, who had spent most of the three weeks since the shooting lobbying to take down the Confederate flag from his state’s Capitol grounds. But now, he believed, it was time to move on to another topic. “The event of the Emanuel Nine, for some reason, is focused on the symbol of the Confederate battle flag. It’s an important symbol, it is a very strong symbol,” Clyburn said, “but the fact still remains that though this young man worshiped that symbol, he carried out his dastardly act with a gun.”

The young man Clyburn referred to was self-identified racist Dylann Roof, who allegedly entered Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last month and murdered nine black worshipers with a handgun he was barely old enough to possess. No stranger to the fight against racism, Clyburn was echoing a fear expressed by many gun policy reformers in recent weeks: The public outcry over Charleston has been overly focused on one of the salient issues at the expense of the other. It is a worthwhile cause to combat hatred and its coding in our culture, to discard once and for all an arbitrary, antiquarian animus that still holds enough sway in the mind of a 21-year-old South Carolinian boy to motivate him to kill. But is it also serving to distract from a debate over improving gun policies to reduce the violence?

The short answer is no. Attacking hatred and its cultural sources, in fact, represents an important long-term strategy for gun reform advocates. That’s because America’s tolerance for lax firearms regulation is bound up in its cultural capacity for hatred, to a greater extent than either gun safety advocates or pro-gun lobbyists acknowledge.

The National Rifle Association has so far maintained a relatively lengthy, manifesto-free silence after Charleston. The lobby is learning that there are times when saying nothing is better than any message it could convey. Observers as astute as Dave Weigel and the New York Times have noted the group’s ability to swap silence and soft platitudes with its more familiar invective to dissipate public outrage after a mass killing.

One thing that’s made it easier for the NRA to maintain that message discipline this time is the lack of public pressure on Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre to make a public statement, compared with past mass shootings. Charles Cotton notwithstanding — and it’s hard expect the NRA to keep all of its board members (76 at last available count) in check at all times — the group hasn’t been calling extra attention to itself, making it that much easier for public reproach to zero in on Roof’s apparent racist motivations and South Carolina’s complicated cultural history with the imagery of that racial hatred, including the Confederate battle flag.

The NRA also ducked intense and sustained scrutiny after Elliot Rodger went on a guns-and-knives rampage that killed seven people in Isla Vista, California, last year. In the aftermath of that attack, media scrutiny centered on Rodgers’s misogyny and the very real problem of violence against women. He played violent video games; he frequented “men’s rights” and “pickup artist” sites; he was, like Roof, inculcated with violent animosity for an entire group of people not like him.

On one view, that focus syncs neatly with the NRA’s strategy: Blame a culture of violence, not the instruments of that violence. “There exists in this country a callous, corrupt, and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people,” LaPierre said in his infamous post–Sandy Hook press conference, blasting games like Grand Theft Auto and movies like Natural Born Killers. “In a race to the bottom, media conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate, and offend every standard of civilized society by bringing an ever-more-toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty into our homes.”

In fact, research has found no link between consumption of violent images and carrying out violent acts. But the NRA has shown considerable stamina in peddling that false connection. In the good old days of the 1990s, NRA president Charlton Heston was lamenting the allegedly murderous influence of “cop-killer” gangster rap.

But does that mean we’re guilty of taking the NRA’s bait when we attack longstanding racial antipathies after Charleston or male violence against women after Santa Barbara, drawing attention and energy away from a public policy debate on lethal weaponry? Hardly.

For one thing, the racial and gender insecurities that animated Roof and Rodger have become inextricably bound up with the instruments they used to kill. Here is a line from Rodger’s diary, describing how he felt on obtaining his first handgun:

After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who’ve looked down on me in the past.

A similar conception of toughness runs through Roof’s alleged online manifesto:

We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.

When one “takes it to the real world,” one takes heavy firepower, as Roof apparently did.

Simply put, racism and sexism motivate some of the gun lobby’s worst adherents. Since the days of Heston, the NRA has been overt in its demonization of criminal “thugs” and its celebration of the manly men who defend themselves from such dark elements of society. Fear of subjugation by the criminal Other, and a sense of potency in armament, permeate many of LaPierre and Co.’s arguments to this day — including their aforementioned battles against “violent” hip-hop music, which seek to demonize more than just record execs. This sense of embattlement, and a need to be all-powerful, self-sufficient — even if that fantasy is ultimately impossible to fulfill — are fundamentally what drive the self-defense ethos into a bizarrely militant posture and make any background check, waiting period, gun-free zone, or duty to retreat an affront to security and self-reliance. If you need a gun so that the thugs won’t get you, then there’s no way you’re willing to wait five days for it. And because the thugs could be anywhere, you have to carry a gun everywhere, regardless of whether you’re adequately trained to know when the Other, when he is encountered, actually represents a threat.

Which is precisely why advocates of more robust gun regulations shouldn’t worry that attacking symbols of hatred detracts from their ultimate goal. A less racist, less sexist, more egalitarian America is a more secure America. It would be a country where more citizens might see their guns less as magical protective talismans against dark threats, and more as hazardous tools with limited uses in the hands of responsible, reflective citizens.

[Photo: Flickr user eyeliam]