30 July 2012

Have Guns Won?

In the current Time, Joe Klein bewails the fact that "Americans have turned against gun control" in recent years, with no sign that the Aurora amoklauf has changed anyone's mind. Klein wisely expects nothing from the Republicans, but blasts the Democrats under President Obama for having "abandoned the gun-control debate" and failing to challenge the National Rifle Association. He traces the turn from the NRA's role in throwing Congress to the GOP in 1994, but he doesn't claim that lobbying alone altered public opinion. The NRA's success is merely a symptom of larger cultural troubles that gun-control alone, admittedly, might not remedy.

The violence has a lot to do with the state of our mental health, the increased mobility and atomization of our society, the time young men spend alone staring into television and computer screens, the comic-book depiction of brutality -- and yes, the availability of ever more kinetic weaponry.

As the President said [after the latest amoklauf] we need to have a conversation about these gun laws and the mental-health system -- and a larger conversation as well about how we stay coherent as a society, how we establish common bonds and maintain a sense of community in a time when all the technological signals are pointing us toward a relentless, unmitigated individualism that could slowly lapse into social anarchy.

In Klein's view, neither Obama's Democrats nor the Republicans are capable of starting or sustaining this needed conversation. But if that's because such a conversation is too electorally risky, isn't it also true that the people as a whole aren't ready for it? Individualism isn't an invention of political parties, nor is maintaining a sense of community exclusively their business. Leaving politics out of it, too many people don't trust each other. That's true for both sides of the gun-control debate. The people on one side don't trust other people not to rob them or otherwise violate their persons or property, and therefore want guns, while the people on the other side don't trust anyone with guns. Individualism alone doesn't account for this feeling, but there's clearly an absence of community feeling, of a sense of automatic, involuntary belonging and the obligations, positive and negative, that come with it. We fear one another, and for this reason the law-abiding citizen demands as his right the same power that the criminal claims without any justification. Neither sees any return for the renunciation of primal prerogatives of self-defense or self-preservation that civilization requires. Our society says that you can defend yourself while you must provide for yourself, on the understanding that you can cross a line in providing for yourself that activates the self-defense prerogative, to which there seem to be ever fewer limits. Any conversation Klein wants to have should address our positive obligations to fellow citizens, or fellow human beings, as well as such negative obligations as not shooting one another. We need to talk about what it would take to get people not to steal as well what it takes to keep them from going on amoklaufs. We need to ask whether citizens have a material obligation to contribute to social peace, or whether they prefer to take their chances suppressing poverty-driven yet increasingly well-armed crime. We should have this conversation fully aware that no policy vaccine against madness (or greed) can be perfect, but with that in mind we still must ask whether we want peace and what price we're willing to pay for it. Peace is no more free than freedom; the question is which costs more in the long run.

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