Guns Beget Guns
A Reflection by John B. Cobb, Jr.
see also Beyond American Gun Culture in JJB
Every now and again, in fact, quite frequently, an incident such as the senseless slaughter of children in Connecticut focuses attention on one of the ugliest features of the American character – our propensity to kill one another with guns. We cannot dismiss it as “human nature,” since we are far more murderous than are people of other industrialized countries. One reason and, one would think, the one easiest to overcome, is the widespread presence of firearms in our society.
Why do we do so little to control the ready accessibility of these
dangerous instruments? We blame the gun lobby and perhaps the manufacturers and sellers. But that they are able to block political moves to control the sale and ownership of guns says something deeper about our culture.
Our nation was founded on gun violence. It was with guns that we killed the indigenous people and drove them off the land. Of course, they resisted, and this madesettling new lands and living near the frontier dangerous. Of course, we blamed the indigenous people for this danger, and used their resistance as justification of genocide. Meanwhile we expected those living in real or imagined danger from the “savages” to arm themselves.
This process continued for centuries.
Often the dangers of frontier living were more from lawless Euro-Americans than from the indigenous people. Long after the latter had been fully subjugated, violence shaped the self-understanding of frontier people. Those who wanted to live peacefully were often exploited by others, and there was often a real need for people to defend themselves. The belief that “law-abiding citizens" had the right to defend themselves came to be a part of widespread American self-understanding.
Even when there were no more frontiers in relation to the indigenous people, there was crime. Often criminals were armed. The need of people to defend themselves against such criminals was partly real, but to a large extent it was a way of justifying attitudes that were no longer appropriate. Of course, those who profited from the gun culture encouraged the continuation and even spread of these attitudes.
Like many evils this one has been self-re-enforcing. Because it is so easy for others who might threaten you to get a gun, you need a gun to protect yourself. And if others get more powerful weapons, then you need more powerful weapons as well.
There is another factor supporting the gun culture. There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans who are deeply alienated from government, especially the national government. They see government as inherently the enemy of their freedom. They believe that if the government has all the weapons, there is no way left to defend their freedom and that the government will oppress them more and more.
Since it is unimaginable that private citizens could hold out long
against the United States army, this idea that stockpiling weapons safeguards their freedom is hard to take seriously. But at the fringes of American society are those who feel that the possession of military weapons gives them leverage against the incursions of the government. Any effort of the government to restrict their acquisition or possession of these weapons only confirms their suspicions of its ultimate intention. And, of course, the occasional crackdown of the government on particular groups of opponents reinforces the hostility of others.
The majority of Americans know that the gun culture is destructive of their well being and would like to see a great reduction in the availability of guns. But they are not organized with the passion and intensity of conviction that sustains the gun lobby. From time to time the majority is aroused to action, but this public will has thus far proved no match for the persistence and organization of its opponents.
Is change possible? As a process thinker I certainly affirm that it is. Over against the self-fulfilling belief that one is threatened by armed criminals or even the government, there are self-fulfilling moves toward trust and non-violence. When the new “enemy” justifying violent self-defense is racially defined, for example, white fear of black lawlessness, the consequence is often discrimination against blacks that in fact leads to an increase of lawless violence. This vicious circle can be reversed when whites treat blacks justly and friendships are established across racial lines. Violence begets violence. Generosity begets generosity. Guns beget guns. Nonviolence begets nonviolence. The choice is clear.