Beyond American Gun Culture
by John B. Cobb, Jr.
See Also American Gun Culture by John B, Cobb, Jr.
"Two years ago, a mentally ill young man shot me in the head, killed six of my constituents, and wounded 12 others. Since that terrible day, America has seen 11 more mass shootings – but no response from Congress to prevent gun violence. After the massacre of 20 children and six of their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary though, it’s clear: This time must be different."
Americans for Responsible Solutions
John Cobb is one of JJB's most influential columnists. His American Gun Culture presents a warning to Americans to transcend violence; his God and the Sendai Earthquake is an invitation to move beyond images of an all-powerful deity; his Vocation is an invitation to recognize that each person is called, not only to help others, but to critique the systems that lead to the need in the first place. His Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet and Five Foundations for a New Civilization point toward constructive alternatives to contempory collective instanity. His Miracles offers a vision of miracles which takes life itself as the greatest of miracles. His Prayer and Planetarity is an invitation to pray, not only for people but also the planet as a whole. If you are curious about Dr. Cobb's ideas on a wide variety of issues, see Ask Dr. Cobb in Process and Faith.
It is easy to imagine a culture in which guns are possessed only by officers of the government: the military and the police. This is easy because such cultures exist in many places. And there are cultures in which guns are not prominent even for police. At least, in comparison with the United States, these can be considered cultures beyond guns.
What is hard is imagining a gun culture like ours becoming a culture beyond guns. At present, even denying automatic weapons to the public will prove extremely difficult. Even if the advocates of gun control succeed in this limited objective, the success may again prove temporary. Meanwhile the mere possibility of control whets the appetite of the public for possession of these weapons.
A culture beyond guns would require deep changes. For example, in many places in the United States the fear of one’s home being invaded and of being robbed is not entirely unrealistic. The robber is likely to be armed. The desire to defend oneself against such violation is understandable. There is little point in trying to prevent the acquisition of guns for this purpose.
The need is to reduce the threat of robbery, and this depends on reducing the motivation to engage in criminal activity. A gun-free culture will be possible only when all citizens have realistic hopes of employment and adequate income. In that context, the choice of crime will be greatly reduced. Society’s goal with those who do commit crimes would be retraining them and returning them to society. As crime becomes rare, people in general will feel more secure. The reality is that having guns in a home usually adds more to danger than to safety, and in a crime-free environment, most people can be persuaded of this.
But some people want guns not only to defend themselves from criminals but also to resist what they view as oppressive government. Some of this fear of government is created artificially. But the fact remains that law enforcement in this country has never been entirely just. The police force has been used by some segments of society to control others. Whites used the police to keep blacks “in their place.” Corporations used police to put down workers when they struck for better wages or working conditions. Financial institutions use police to protect them from protesters. As long as police function as part of an oppressive system, it is understandable that some people want to arm themselves for purposes of resistance. We can
agree that this is unrealistic and can only add to the problem. But the desire to have countervailing force cannot be dismissed lightly.
That means that a second requirement of getting past the gun culture is for police to be, and to be recognized as, servants of the people, rather than just of those in power. We should not underestimate the difficulty of achieving this change. Those in power genuinely find all protests and efforts of those they oppress to be violations of public peace. They naturally expect police to bring back law and order, and that means to serve them against the protesters.
Furthermore, the police are likely to use violence even against peaceful protesters. Alienation from the government that suppresses peaceful protest in this violent fashion is inevitable. The reversal of this cycle requires a system of human rights and of law courts that serve that system rather than the political authorities and also control the police. If the police are really experienced as serving all the people fairly, the emotional need to have means of resistance will decline.
More difficult still are changes in the understanding of manhood in many subcultures in this country. Having a gun and knowing how to use it are closely connected in the minds of many with manliness. The sense of threat from criminals and police supports this connection, but its removal would not end it. Boys grow up playing games that include shooting at one another. Our culture needs to put forward very different images of manhood.
The likelihood that any such change will succeed is minimal as long as our nation celebrates its military prowess and honors chiefly those who fight its wars. A culture beyond guns requires a nation that does not identify heroism and masculinity with military prowess. As long as the United States is devoted to imposing its will on the world through military superiority, the chances of moving far toward a culture beyond guns is very slight.
Another possible change is worthy of mention. The manufacture and sale of guns to the American public is a very profitable business. These profits make it possible to support a powerful organization with excellent public
relations and massive lobbying. Politicians fear that a highly organized and wealthy special interest will defeat them at the polls if they do not act as instructed.
I do not suggest that the gun culture exists because of the wealth and power of the gun industry. Its roots go much deeper. But if the nation enacted laws that would reduce the power of corporate money in elections, the government might begin a process of modifying the gun culture. This would be but one of the gains that would result from freeing our politicians from their shackles to the corporate world.
I have not mentioned hunting. Once upon a time hunting was a part of procuring food for large numbers of people, and possession of a rifle was a practical matter. But today, with few exceptions, hunting is a sport that must be carefully regulated in order to be sustainable. Many of us think that, although hunting is now a small part of the gun culture, the shooting of other animals contributes psychologically to that culture. It is the one “sport” that is a matter of killing.
We believe that today many of our ecosystems would be healthier if hunting were reduced and natural systems of maintaining a balance were relied upon. We believe that hunting is not the best way of experiencing and exploring the great outdoors. Capturing nature on film seems a better way to relate to it than bringing home the dead bodies of the animals one has killed. We also believe that those who are truly interested in hunting as a sport that demands great skill might be persuaded that bow-and-arrow hunting is a greater challenge. Perhaps a culture beyond guns could end the use of firearms in the relation between human beings and the other animals.
This would be a better world for humans and for animals. It would free human creativity toward constructive and compassionate ends. It would open up possibilities for joy beyond killing. It would come closer to that harmony which is the heart of any healthy spirituality, religious or secular. This is the harmony of what we have come to call a truly ecological civilization.
An ecological civilization is creative, compassionate, participatory, diverse, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind. It is non-violent in its ethos, safe for people and kind in its treatment of animals. The relational thinking explored in this website, sometimes called process theology or process thinking, highlights the primacy of non-violence over violence, persuasion over coercion.
We believe that the very Soul of the universe -- God -- is found in non-violent love. When we put down our guns and the need to shoot things, and open our hearts in spirit of justice, caring not simply for ourselves or our families but for the common good of all, there's a beauty wider than the sea. This beauty is the greater hope.