Author’s note: I started this essay after the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting earlier this year; then let it slide for other things. I picked it back up over the weekend.
I’m having a bit of a philosophical and ethical dilemma regarding my stance on gun ownership, and I need some space in which to hash it out. First of all, I am not opposed to guns per se. I grew up in rural New England with a father who hunted, though he got more deer with his car than he ever did with his shotgun. I learned firearms safety and respect at an early age. I knew where the ammo was, how to load the rifle and shotgun, and not to even think about them when Pop wasn’t around. Guns are tools, yes; but potentially dangerous ones. Guns are cleverly designed and can possess the beauty of fine craftsmanship, as well as provide the benefits of recreation, food, and personal defense. Yet in the three decades since my idyllic youth, when I happily riddled tin cans with my .22 rifle, something ugly has emerged from deep within the American psyche. Maybe it was there all along, but the pace of technology and modern life have thrown it into relief. When a hammer is the tool of choice, more and more problems look like nails.
For many people, guns have come to represent war, crime, and the death of innocents, often overshadowing their more legitimate sporting and defense roles. Part of this is, I think, technological. As warfare became more mechanized in the 20th century, some of that advanced technology found its way to the consumer market. Returning GIs brought semi-automatic .45 pistols and M-1 Garand rifles back from World War II and Korea; the AR-15 and AK-47 emerged as favorites after the Vietnam War; and mankind’s relentless quest for efficiency has put the equivalent of five old-style six-shooters in virtually anyone’s pocket.
Meanwhile, our ethical development has, as usual, lagged far behind our technical achievement. As a culture, we glorify physical prowess and the capacity for violence over compassion, intellect, and reason. There is ever a new threat around the corner, a new enemy at the door, a new reason to respond with violence, out of fear-whether it be criminals, terrorists, our own government, or some more nebulous “other.” We increasingly use violence, whether of images, rhetoric, or weapons, as a means to solve our problems, while our tools become more compact, powerful, efficient, and available. Unmanned robot aircraft now patrol the skies over several nations, removing the burden of guilt for the deaths they cause from soldiers to technicians in faraway bunkers to bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., poring over a list of names of those deemed worthy of termination. “Due process” has become yet another meaningless euphemism.
We also have come to the point as a nation where the pro-gun advocates seem to have won the debate. In the wake of all the recent massacres by gunfire in this country prior to Newtown, I heard no voices-certainly no politicians’ voices- calling for any sort of limits or restrictions on ammunition purchases, magazine capacity, or any other aspect of gun ownership. The guns were here, and not going away, so we all just had to deal with that fact. Instead, a point of view had emerged which states that more people need to own and carry guns in order to prevent more mass shootings. At first, that idea strikes me as being as sensible as putting out a campfire with more wood. Yet there is a vein of logic, however twisted, in that argument. Here’s how I see it: if we the people, acting through the agency of our own government, fail to control the personal arms race now underway in this country, then we as individuals have a moral obligation to provide for our own self-defense by joining it. We concede, in other words, to the pro-gun zealots. We relinquish our right to not own firearms if we so choose, abandon our Constitutional mandate to “provide for the common defense,” and retreat to our basements and bunkers to await the apocalypse, if only in a metaphorical sense. Thus the privatization of yet another aspect of our society: safety.
Maybe Newtown has changed that tune. Maybe we are wise enough now to understand that an elementary school should have no reasonable fear of being invaded; that children and firearms do not mix. Maybe we can appreciate the value of public space, public safety, and public servants. Maybe we can begin to understand the need for some restraint in certain areas, that just because we can do something- like owning a semi-automatic assault rifle with a drum magazine, or stockpiling thousands of rounds of armor-piercing ammunition- doesn’t mean we should. Maybe we need to recognize that mental health is every bit as important as physical health, and we can stop stigmatizing the people who need help and see that they get what they need to heal. And maybe, just maybe, we can begin to see the terrible harvest of our culture of violence, now that it has sprouted again in our backyard.