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.
Trust is earned. Trust is verified. Trust is maintained by social relations, predicated on mutual respect and apprehension, and buttressed by the least common denominators of self-reliance and deterrence. Trust is not built by declaration or fiat from above but slowly from the ground up. Relationships of trust require predictability rather than surprise. They are therefore continually tested and reassessed; they are never open-ended or without terms. Failure to deliver leads to their breakdown. In the absence of trust there is the coarsening of social relations, growing fear of one another, the unwillingness to believe again, and defensive behaviors. Like guns.
Extremes regarding guns are instructive; they are unvarnished, explicit, and often paranoid. “Preppers,” for example, express overt fear of social disorder and collapse. But does the ongoing collapse of societies such as Greece or Spain not suggest such fears are well-founded? To believe otherwise, that “it can’t happen here,” is a perverse inversion of an otherwise dismissed notion — American exceptionalism — by elites who deny and deride what those beneath them see with their own eyes.
Fixing the software that drives gun violence requires trust, between Americans and with their government. It requires, among other things, that government act in a legal and transparent manner and enforce reasonable laws, and that it be effective. When it inexplicably takes police 20 minutes – or possibly three minutes — to arrive at a school under attack by a mentally ill gunman, this destroys trust. When government officials vilify “Wall Street” and yet pocket their campaign contributions, this destroys trust. So too, when governments deny the role that religious ideology plays in international affairs, including attacks on America, discounting statements from the attackers that state plainly their motivations. And when governments respond to terrorism by monitoring the movements and behaviors of all Americans, privacy and trust are deliberately destroyed.
A rational policy towards guns would focus on mental illness, culture (and not simply easily pointed to video games but deeply embedded cultures of inner city, border, and drug violence), drug policy, and reasonable changes to existing gun laws. Instead the hardware is blamed and owners anathematized, made to “cower” in shame as if they are deviants and latent criminals.
The emotionally understandable but intellectually shallow desire to “do something” in the wake of calamities is not a recipe for developing intelligent public policy. New restrictions — for example on small metal boxes with springs, that is to say, magazines for semi-automatic firearms — is one such case. Such efforts make it clear, if restrictions on how many ounces of soda can be purchased in a single plastic cup have not, that government does not trust us.
Such efforts are also fundamentally un-American. They substitute dependence on government for individual autonomy, inculcate fear of others and of government instead of demanding responsibility and judgment, and erode liberty in favor of base populist emotionalism that ultimately supports an elitist tyranny.
More guns are being sold in America now than at any point in history, precisely because Americans are being told they cannot be trusted with guns. That alone should give pause.
Also read: The Distinction Between Sin and Crime