Editor's note: Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect and the author of "Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success." Follow him on his blog and on Twitter.
(CNN) -- Marketers have long told potential customers that if you used their product, it would do more than satisfy your consumer desires, it would make you into the kind of person you want to be.
You may not be young, hip, and creative, but if you buy a computer from Apple, you can tell yourself that you are. Wearing a T-shirt from Under Armour won't actually turn you into an athlete, but it doesn't hurt to pretend.
And if you're anxious about your masculinity, if you aren't quite sure whether those around you find you sufficiently strong and potent, the Bushmaster corporation has an answer for you. If you buy one of their semi-automatic rifles -- like the kind Adam Lanza used to murder 20 children and six adults last week -- you may "Consider your Man Card reissued."
That's the message of ads the company has been running, along with a particularly ridiculous social media campaign. Until today -- the page has apparently been taken down, but parts of it are visible here -- you could learn on the "Man Card" section of Bushmaster's website that "In a world of rapidly depleting testosterone, the Bushmaster Man Card declares and confirms that you are a man's man." Then you could fill out a little form to bust on your buddies for not being manly enough, to "Revoke a Man Card." Just enter a brief description of the offense and put it into one of five categories: "Cry baby," "Cupcake," "Short leash," "Coward," or "Just unmanly."
The symbol for the last is the female restroom icon (a stick figure wearing a dress), but "Short leash" gets some of the best action, like "Steve A. missed a much-anticipated poker night to attend a movie musical instead," or "Heath K, where 'Yes I will' always becomes 'If she'll let me.' " All it takes to get that Man Card back is to get yourself a Bushmaster.
You don't have to be a Freudian analyst to grasp the hidden meaning. It's not even subtext -- it's text. As we begin a long-overdue examination of where gun culture in America has gone, we can't avoid the way guns have become so entwined with masculine anxiety, as so many men seek to find their identity in instruments of destruction.
This isn't particularly new, of course. Male anxiety has produced backlashes before, enacted through our fantasies as the world changes and tradition gender roles are challenged. A 1959 cover story in Time magazine described how at that time there were no fewer than 30 westerns on the three networks in prime time. For the post-war American male, an office job and a house in the suburbs offered few opportunities to prove one's manhood, so tales of two-fisted cowboys wielding six-guns became irresistible. "How long since you used your fists?" Time quoted one sociologist saying by way of explanation of the western's popularity. "How long since you called the boss an s.o.b? The western men do, and they are happy men."
With manual labor but a memory for most Americans, we have even fewer opportunities to enact rituals of manhood in the way our ancestors did. The strongest caveman may have led the tribe, but who are the masters of today's universe? A bunch of skinny, pasty kids who spend their days staring at computer screens. Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg may not be able to best you at arm-wrestling, but they could buy and sell you a thousand times over.
We have to find reassurance where we can, so even if we can't prove our masculinity on the job and our kids won't listen to us, there is a way to feel that testosterone surge through our bodies. Whatever else you think about guns, no one who has ever held one can deny that they make you feel potent and strong. You don't even need to fire it to appreciate its power -- just holding it is enough. So if watching your fantasies play out on TV doesn't quite scratch that itch, you can enact them yourself down at the range -- or get a concealed carry permit, and convince yourself that the only reason you're not Jack Bauer is that the right opportunity hasn't yet presented itself.
Here's something you may not realize: Gun ownership has been declining for decades. According to the University of Chicago's General Social Survey, in 1977, 54% of American households had guns. By 2010, the number had fallen to 32%. Yet gun sales are at record highs. That means that existing gun owners are buying more and more guns. It's not enough to have a hunting rifle over your mantle; you need an entire arsenal, just in case the government falls, society disintegrates, and you have to protect your cave -- sorry, your home -- from the marauding hordes.
That's exactly what the gun manufacturers want you to think, so you keep buying. They know that hunting will never again be the pastime it once was, and as more Americans move from rural areas to the suburbs and cities, their natural market withers.
That "responsible gun owner" politicians talk about, the one who reverentially passes down to his son the bolt-action rifle his father gave him? That guy isn't good for business. The manufacturers need the other guy, the one who fears he may not be all the man he could be.
Whenever that anxiety gets to be too much, he can go down to the gun store and buy another gun, and another, and a few more after that. He'll get thousands of rounds of ammunition too, because you never know what might happen. Then he'll go home and nod with satisfaction at his own little armory, telling himself that when the time comes for him to become the hero of his own action movie, he'll be ready. He's got his Man Card. And maybe he needs one or two more guns. Just to be sure.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Waldman.