Our Collective Impotence Feeds the Power of Guns

Thousands of members of the media mix with Republican delegates, demonstrators, street preachers, corporate donors,  police from several states, and anyone seeking the glare of the television lights during the Republican Convention in Cleveland Ohio. The Republican Party officially nominated Donald Trump as their candidate for president. Gin rights activists taunt Al Sharpton who is across the street.
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: During the Republican Convention set to nominate Donald Trump, Second Amendment activists exercise their legal right in the state of Ohio to bear arms in the streets of Cleveland, Ohio on Jul... CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19: During the Republican Convention set to nominate Donald Trump, Second Amendment activists exercise their legal right in the state of Ohio to bear arms in the streets of Cleveland, Ohio on July 19, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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We’ve discussed it many times. Most of us realize it: one of the great ironies, and perhaps tragedies of the “gun control” debate is that it has been backed into such limited and incremental policy prescriptions that those prescriptions can be reasonably derided by “gun rights” advocates as barely worth the trouble or hardly of any use. We know that no one restriction would prevent every needless tragedy. But together, a number of them, interweaving and compounding each other, would prevent or limit many massacres and bloodbaths. More importantly, this whole logic is not one we apply to any other problem of criminality or public health. Our entire counter-terrorism policy is based on no silver bullets but a series of traversable but still consequential obstacles, the aim of which is to disrupt, make more complicated or reveal conspiracies. We have collectively made it mainly too difficult to hatch plots to commandeer airliners or even effectively communicate to plan major operations at all. So radicals are reduced to largely ineffectual (but still often deadly) DIY kitchenware based bombs and trucks. That’s a good thing.

Yesterday was an unspeakable tragedy for a few dozens of families and an opportunity for the rest of us to revisit our collective disgrace – every single one of us – in sitting by and letting these things happen again and again. Yesterday I had what was for me at least a minor epiphany: A major driver of gun massacres is not simply our failure to act on any one of the various proposed incremental reforms. It is our failure to act on any of them or all of them, ever, which validates and encourages a culture of massacre.

I want to be clear precisely what I mean. Our inaction itself and the clear reasons for our collective inaction validate and inspire the culture of massacre. Directly. By doing nothing we validate a simple point: the total, maximal right to have any number of guns of any sort in any circumstance is not only more important but overwhelmingly more important than preventing school massacres. It is more important than anything. Nothing better captures the cultural supremacy of the gun than this. Nothing provides more fuel to the now hideously cliched ritual of the blaze of glory moment of total destruction.

We know that individual mass shooters are the product of damaged psyches, unbounded rage, mental illness of some sort in almost every case and the cult of public spectacle which informs our entire culture. But these events, these people, grow out of ourselves. They are not singular and unknowable. They are the products of countless injuries but also validations and mores and encouragements – sanctions and inhibitions. The public campaign against drunken driving is the operative case in point about the transvaluation of values, driven by and undergirded by changed laws but not equal to them, which is the only way forward for true change.

Numerous laws changed and that changed the equation for drunken driving. But the true change came from a radically different understanding of the social acceptability of the behavior itself. It is now seen as shameful, awful, selfish. Drunken driving still happens of course. But it happens much less and our society and the individual life lanes we all travel have numerous impediments, disincentives, and collective shamings on the way to getting drunk and getting behind the wheel of a car.

The gun problem requires laws, restrictions, reshaping the framework of legal and civil liability to bend the curve away from the current culture of massacre. But what makes all those things impossible, for now, is the political decision that nothing is more important than the completely untrammeled right to have any gun with any amount of ammunition anytime anywhere.

Do you really need an AR-15? For some people, it’s just fun to fire off an AR-15. I begrudge no one that fun. You’re at the range. It’s just cool. I get it. But maybe, because it’s also the weapon of choice for virtually every school massacre, to have that fun you need to do a background check not just for institutionalization or felony records but something a bit more thorough, to know you’re not someone with all the markers of a mass shooter. Or maybe you can have it and fire it as often as you want but you need to leave it in a locker at the range. These changes would be a bit of a pain for enthusiasts. But changing mores about drunken driving also made social drinking a bit more difficult. You have to think through how you’re getting home if you’re going to go out and have more than a couple drinks. Does your spouse or partner not drink? Do you have a designated driver? Public transportation? It’s a bit of a pain. We’ve decided this pain is more than worth it. The ability to drink in any way or to any extent at any time is not an absolute value.

The specific reforms are beside the point for these purposes. The point is the need for and public agreement to some balancing, some inconveniences and impediments to total freedom to do anything with guns up to the doorstep of a felony or a massacre. Until we do this, not only do we not have any of even the most basic reforms which could begin to make it a little harder to commit massacres, we also collectively send a signal as a society. Guns are not only potentially fatal as tools. They are all powerful totems. They are untouchable. They reduce adults who promise to spare no exertion to protect the country from various public or domestic threats to be reduced to the gibberish and nonsense of “thoughts and prayers.” Nothing is a deeper testament to the cultural power and invincibility of the gun in our society. And it is that power which is at the heart of the massacre spectacle – the desire and all-consuming need and drive to destroy lives including your own indiscriminately in a final burst of total power. Our collective impotence not only sharpens that weapon, that symbol for the perpetrators of the actual massacres. It also gives sanction for all the precursor behavior (the gun nut who is stockpiling AR-15s and ammo but never actually kills anyone).

The reforms are critical. And more of them than are even close to the current debate will be required. But the core of the culture of massacre is equally driven by the social sickness of inaction itself. It is the ultimate validation of the power of the gun that is at the heart of the sick social disease. Until we recognize that the collective message of the power and singular importance of guns is at the heart of the gun massacre scourge, we’ll never be rid of it.

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