- Banning guns will not work
Last weekend, there were two more mass shootings in the United States. Nevertheless those who are in favor of guns have disproportionate strength. To address the question of how to mitigate mass murders in the U.S., we need to consider the deeper historical connection between guns and liberty
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Last weekend, there were two more mass shootings in the United States – one in El Paso, Texas, carried out by a white supremacist, and another in Dayton, Ohio, carried by someone who supports the left wing of the Democratic Party. Among all of us there is a hunger to find some motive for such violence. We believe that if we could find one, we could perhaps do something about it.
Since 1999, the year of the shooting at Columbine High School, the U.S. has experienced 88 mass shootings – defined as a shooting in which a lone perpetrator killed at least four people in a public place. In two decades, 738 people have died as a result of mass shootings. The killers were, overwhelmingly, angry men who took their anger to an extreme level, killing people in a black church in South Carolina and a white church in Texas; a gay nightclub in Orlando and a country music concert in Las Vegas; a university in Virginia and an elementary school in Connecticut – and many more. There is no external marker for these men. And while it is tempting to look for the motive behind their action, I focus on their choice of doing evil. The motives behind mass shootings vary; what does not vary is the evil behind them.
An extraordinary number of guns
So, instead of trying to understand individual motives, let us examine the value that many Americans place on guns. I, like many other Americans, own guns. I am horrified by these killings, and I am prepared to accept any sort of limitation on weapons that will make my grandchildren safer. But I am also aware that banning guns will not work. The U.S. has imposed bans on products that some of its citizens want, like drugs. Laws may limit access to those products, but empirically speaking, bans only intensify the products’ presence among the lawless. Banning weapons would have that effect, concentrating them in the realms of the lawless. Banning drugs has not worked. Neither would banning guns.
The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey estimates that there are 393 million guns in the United States. That is an extraordinary number, and there are far fewer per capita in other countries. To address the question of how to mitigate mass murders in the U.S., we need to consider why there are so many guns here. It begins with the special role of guns in the United States.
The domain of the nobility
In the 18th century, guns were extremely expensive, and they were made for the nobility’s use in hunting – an activity that in Europe and Britain, in particular, was aristocratic. Most hunting lands were off-limits to others, and the penalty for poaching game on those lands was death. Peasants, meanwhile, lived hard lives and died early. For them, access to food was sometimes uncertain. The possibility of eating meat depended on committing a crime for which execution was the punishment. Getting a gun and killing game could save your family from starvation – but at great risk.
There was no such limit in North America as that continent was being explored and settled. The forests were full of game, and guns, though still expensive, were obtainable. Having a gun made settlers self-sufficient. But it was also a symbol of freedom from the hated regime they had left behind in Europe, where guns were the domain of the nobility. In America, it was possible to have a gun and, therefore, stand equal to the nobility.
A symbol of autonomy
That was what the American Revolution was about: The common man was to be the new nobility. The rifle or musket was bound up in the assertion that the nobles could not write the rules in America. The gun, as a symbol of autonomy and as a real economic tool, was far more important then than it is now. The poacher’s fear of the noble is long gone and, with it, the gun’s ability to make one free and equal to the nobles. But the idea of a gun being linked to liberty persists. The cord linking it is hard to see, but it persists.
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. The only other countries with that constitutional right are Mexico and Guatemala. America’s founders felt they had to include that provision in the Constitution not only to ensure a well-armed militia, but also because of the symbolic meaning of the gun. In today’s cultural web, that meaning still resonates. The right to own guns, enshrined in the Constitution, is exercised by many as a guarantee of liberty.
The country is, of course, divided on this. Those who are unyieldingly in favor of guns are in the minority, and yet they have disproportionate strength. That strength doesn’t come only from the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers, but also from the deeper historical connection between guns and liberty. And gun control can’t succeed until those deeper roots are understood. There are many who are not attached to this idea or who may even dismiss it. But in doing so, they miss a crucial dimension of American history that compelled the framers of the Constitution to enumerate that right.
Asking the right questions
American society is saturated with guns for reasons cultural and prudential. I have weapons because I live outside of Austin and, should something happen, the police would get here in time to write a report. That is true in much of the country, including in cities. I like shotguns for home defense, and I can easily live without semi-automatic weapons. But I don’t think banning them will get rid of them.
We are still left with the questions: Why now? Why this intense? Why such varied motives? Is this a sudden concentration of evil or some other force? I don’t know how to get rid of guns, I have a practical but not a cultural commitment to weapons, and I am at a loss for what to do. We all want to blame someone, but I will leave that to others. First, we must make sure we are asking the right questions.