"As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask--and rightly so--what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government."
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Beyond Vietnam--A Time to Break the Silence," April 4, 1967
"This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell--where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided or for righteousness' sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need the most, where we see no hope and have no faith, where we are needy and alone, where things that ought to stay together fall apart, where there is such a groaning travail of selfishness in all its forms, where we love one another and die, where we must lose everything to know what we have had."
-Wendell Berry in Jayber Crow
It's true that handguns and cars are more responsible for more murders in the U.S. than are semi-automatic guns. I'm also not one that believes guns are the "cause" of violence in the United States, but I am to the point--even as one who hopes for a small government and places little hope in laws to solve our problems--where I'd gladly concede that it would be a good thing for our society to rid ourselves, as much as possible, of semi-automatic guns, much like we did with automatic guns. (And while we're at it, our government and others ought to decrease their ridiculous nuclear weapons stashes.)
What are the purposes of a semi-automatic gun? Admittedly, I own no guns myself, so it's possible that I'm missing something, but best I can tell, the purpose definitely is not for hunting. I get the sense that it's not self-defense either.
What are the advantages to our society of having them? Certainly, the guns are selling, which means there are jobs and livelihoods at stake, which I definitely don't want to belittle. I suppose this is at least part of why the NRA is such a powerful lobby. But I don't think the economic element is enough to keep going the way we're going.
On the other hand, what do we have to lose? A bunch of tragic deaths?
Gun advocates would certainly (and rightly, to some degree) point us to the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights. But if we take away the rhetoric and irrationality of the conversation, what does it actually say? The exact wording is as follows:
"Well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the poeple to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
But this is where, as the cliche tells us, we do not have to throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we can honor the Second Amendment while also outlawing AK-47s and the like. It says, justifiably I think, that our right to bear arms cannot be infringed. But like Rick Reilly, I think we could continue to allow people their single-shot handguns (for self-defense in the home) and shotguns (for hunting game, which seems to me a healthy alternative to a toxic, corporate food system).
Even if we head in this direction, which I hope we do, it's important for us to be honest about a few things. Obviously, a black market of sorts would develop, and besides, there are plenty of other ways to kill people, masses even. We are not solving the problem; if anything we are mitigating an effect of the problem(s).
If we're going to rage against machine guns and the Adam Lanzas, it might be time to acknowledge that violence, destruction, and exploitation thread through so many of the practices we tolerate and even actively condone. The cars we drive pollute the air we breathe. We destroy land in the name of "development." We rape mountaintops in order to extract resources that will surely run out one day. We poison our food to make it "cheaper" to produce. Many of us rely on substances that poison our bodies in order to get through the day. We slaughter babies that don't fit into our plans. We accelerate the deaths of sick elderly people and our more extreme criminals. Our solution to disgruntled poor people and minorities that lack literacy skills seems to be mainly continuing to bloat our prison system. Our corporations outsource its real work to countries with more lax labor laws so they can treat them and pay them as slaves. Our government invades countries that act against our (mostly selfish) national "interests." Perhaps worst of all is our possession of weapons that can obliterate whole cities in a matter of minutes. We've even used these weapons that make machine guns look like toys. No, the violence of Newtown is not an isolated incident, and in fact, it is plenty learned.
Why are we so violent? Why is it so hard to love each other? Why are so many men (and people) reaching this point of hopeless desperation? Why, in the words of a Walker Percy book title, are so many of us "Lost in the Cosmos"?
I suspect that the real tragedy lies beneath the behavior we're seeing in events like Newtown. But is there a way forward? I tried to get at some of that in a post for Front Porch Republic this week, but some of the answer is that there is no easy answer. We have created this society, though; this isn't just something that's "happening to us." And it all runs so much deeper than gun laws.
Questions for the reader: Can we honor the Second Amendment while regulating certain kinds of automatic weapons? If not, would it be worth the process of changing? What are some of the root causes of this pattern of school shootings?