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Guns in America: A Question of Trust

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