05 January 2016
Guns, trust and democracy
The President is testing the limits of his executive authority in another attempt to regulate gun sales and vet gun purchasers. Predictably, the opposition accuses him of usurpation and hostility to fundamental liberties. As predictably, gun sales are reportedly booming. Public opinion seems irreconcilably polarized. Many don't trust the President's intentions, and many others don't trust most, if not any, of their fellow citizens to carry guns. One side doesn't trust the government not to turn authoritarian; the other doesn't trust people not to turn murderously crazy. This mutual distrust is mutually reinforcing. Belligerent expressions of distrust for government fuel suspicions of gun-nut violence, and the more those fears are expressed, the more the gun culture fears a crackdown. Last year, in a conversation with the President, the novelist Marilynne Robinson said, "I think the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people." If so, then it appears, for these and other reasons, that the basis for democracy in America is breaking down. It's often said of Russia and other countries that their people prefer authoritarian government because they don't, to use Robinson's terminology, "assume well" about each other. The gun culture may see the U.S. similarly now; because some people in this country don't trust them, we're on the way to authoritarian rule, possibly by presidential fiat. But do these people ever ask why they're not trusted? Why are so many of us reluctant to trust the "good guys with guns" supposedly in our midst, those upon whom our immediate safety, if not our longterm liberty, supposedly depend? The gun culture probably tells itself that its critics are simply moral cowards who seem perversely more afraid of the only people who might effectively protect them than of those from whom they should want to be protected. There most likely is a pacifistic element in the opposition to the gun culture, but that most likely doesn't account for all the opposition. The real answer, in part, is that it grows harder for many Americans to perceive the line dividing the "good guy with a gun" from the amoklaufer or self-proclaimed militiaman, while it grows easier to assume that the line, wherever it is, is often crossed. The gun lobby wants mass-shooting phenomena treated as a mental health issue, as if to say the line can be drawn most firmly on that front and that you can trust people who aren't crazy. The problem with that is that a lot of us don't trust people not to go crazy, while we believe people capable of kinds of madness that aren't necessarily clinically defined. Nor does it help when each side perceives the other side's politics as increasingly mad, in the clinical sense or otherwise. What follows from this? How can trust be restored when the gun question is only one expression of deeper mutual distrust on the political and cultural level? For that matter, is trust the sine qua non for democracy that Robinson believes it to be? It may go the other way around, a healthy democracy being the cause of mutual trust and declining democracy the cause of distrust. Restoring healthy democracy, however you define it, may require different virtues, whether we trust those virtues or not.