Why are Americans attracted to guns? It there a uniquely dark side to the American character and American history? Is there a minority obsessed with destructive technology? Or is there a strange discontentment among those who, as the president put it while campaigning in 2008, “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”?
Tradition, technology and culture explain some but not all of the American attraction to guns. Another aspect, largely unremarked upon, is trust, or rather the pervasive erosion of trust in American society. Economic failure, social polarization, racial and ethnic fragmentation, and mendacity and malfeasance at all levels have brought about a lack of trust perhaps unique in American history. One result is arming in self-defense.
There is a palpable and well-deserved loss of trust in official institutions. The Department of Justice runs guns into Mexico for unknown reasons, loses track of them, people die on both sides of the border, and the attorney general lies to Congress about the affair. The secretary of the Treasury fails to pay his taxes but suffers no sanction.
Public policy is conducted in the tone of moral panic. “Wars” are declared on cancer, drugs, and terror; victory or defeat are never declared but billions continue to be spent, while critics are derided. Social engineering and its supporting cult of experts create a never-ending cascade of solutions to real and imaginary problems, which ripple across the landscape. From school-busing schemes that failed to resolve racial segregation to Section 8 housing vouchers that raised suburban crime, from mayoral regulation of Big Gulps, fat, and salt, problems are never solved, only displaced at vast cost. Failure destroys trust.
Science is not immune. Global warming is touted as the greatest threat to humankind only decades after global cooling was similarly hyped. It is only necessary to read headlines to see the blatant substitution of values for facts by media outlets, and their continual denigration and abuse of other viewpoints as primitive and evil. Meanwhile, decades of determined, caustic attacks on America’s Founders, Constitution, and history have successfully eroded a shared sense of history and citizenship, leaving only competition and mutual vilification. Civic duty and patriotism are defined solely as paying ever-higher taxes.
Trust in one another is eroded by things as simple as parking illegally in a handicapped spot or as desperately mundane as an SAT cheating ring. The routine grifting of union and corporate leaders, the hypocritical grandstanding about violence from Hollywood stars whose movies are never-ending gun battles, and the banality of dependence, entitlement, and violence that are so commonplace erode trust.
The list could be lengthened endlessly. Many Americans, perhaps most, have no trust in “the system,” the government, their “intellectual betters,” any social class, or, beyond families, neighbors, and friends, each other. The expectation is to be abused and screwed. Certainly many will regard this list, and the very assertion that trust has crumbled, as an expression of paranoia. Such dismissive responses, however, neatly illustrate the thesis.