Monday, August 4, 2014

Violence in America

If one looks carefully at the different disagreements between advocates and enemies of gun control, one finds that each side has their own reading of history and their own set of facts. Appeals to history and appeals to facts therefore will not serve to resolve this disagreement. At issue are deeply buried attitudes, ancient themes in our culture. The pressing question is what we can do to weaken the influence of those cultural themes.
The disagreements:
1. The Second Amendment to the Constitution reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed. "
Advocates of gun control claim that this Second Amendment refers only to militias and not to the rights of individuals to carry weapons when not serving as members of a militia. (Today we call that the National Guard.) It is unclear what makes Gun Control Advocates so confident of their reading of the Constitution.
Opponents deny that. They provide a detailed history of England in the 1600s – a history that was very much alive in the minds of the authors of the Constitution. According to that reading of English history, the opponents of monarchy and of what they called "tyranny" insisted on the rights of individual citizens to own and carry weapons as a necessary defense against dictators, tyrants, or absolute monarchs.
But this is a tendentious reading motivated by a belief that there is an individual right to bear arms. That belief precedes rather than being supported by the actual history.
2. There is wide disagreement about the facts with respect to the usefulness of private ownership of guns. Gun advocates cite between 2 and 3 million cases a year where someone managed to protect themselves and their family by the use of guns. Owning a gun makes a real difference, they say, in enabling citizens to protect themselves. Opponents believe there are somewhere between 60 and 70,000 such events per year. They cite, instead, large numbers of casualties of privately owned guns. Millions of guns owned by citizens make us less rather than more safe.
The people who collected these facts approach the matter with their minds made up. Each side believes that guns save lives or that, on the contrary, guns take lives. The facts do not convince anybody.
3. The debate over guns is in part a debate over the extent to which the federal government controls the lives of citizens today. One does not have to be a flaming conservative to see evidence of overreaching by the federal government wherever you look. In medical care, in education, in day care new rules are constantly being imposed and the individual practitioner is more and more under the supervision of bureaucrats.
But on the other hand, life is becoming more complex by the day and there are more opportunities for people to be ill treated, defrauded, or humiliated. The government has good reason for stepping in to protect citizens.
In each situation, defensible limits on government regulation are not easily established. More often than not choices for or against more government regulation will respond to some deep seated values which some Americans share and others do not.
What are those values? Here we need to look back at our own history. The original immigrants pretended that the North American continent was uninhabited. Europeans came and settled it, they said, and made it yield abundant crops. But that story falsifies the actual history: about every 10 years since Europeans first came to this continent, warfare erupted between whites and Native Americans. The feeling that one needed to carry a weapon at all times rests on the reality of whites stealing the land against the determined, often violent, resistance of Native Americans.
Add to that, the history of 200 years of slavery and another hundred years after the Civil War when African-Americans were regularly lynched with impunity. The history of slavery and Jim Crow is, above all, a very violent history. The condition of the slaves and the regime of Jim Crow could only be maintained by regular and unrelenting violence. It is a history of whites imposing their regime by force of arms. To maintain themselves they needed to carry weapons and always to be ready to do violence to the people they enslaved.
This history is still alive in the very basic attitudes of many Americans. They still feel that they need to be armed in order to be relatively safe. The imminent need for armed self-defense is a strong theme in our culture. That theme is not weakened by arguing about the Second Amendment or the usefulness or a danger of everyone carrying handguns.
We inherit our gun culture from our history. Our task is to weaken those traditions by resisting the glorification of violence in all aspects of our lives: in sports, in movies, in computer games, and, yes, in the debate about going around armed.
But the enemy is not the Second Amendment. Statistics about self protection or injury by handguns are beside the point. America must acknowledge it's terribly violent history and resolve to put it behind us.