E.J. Dionne suggests that gun control advocates have given up and are “rationalizing gutlessness”.
I’ve moved in my own life from being intensely certain that comprehensive restrictions on gun ownership were an important political objective to being indifferent to the issue. The reason is not that I think it would be a bad thing to change national and state policy on guns. Moderate licensing and regulation on par with what we ask of the owners and operators of cars and restrictions on certain types of armaments and ammunition still seem reasonable and useful to me. Over time, however, I have become more sensitive to two things. First, that there are many responsible, careful gun owners motivated in some cases by hunting and in other cases by the pursuit of security who have felt underappreciated and stereotyped by gun control advocates. Second, and more importantly, the entire issue has become a fiercely powerful synedoche for much vaster complexes of sociocultural identity, conflict and anxiety, and it got that way through organic, complex currents flowing up out of American history, some of them deep and some of them relatively recent. That makes it a disastrous target for top-down changes in policy or law.
This is a wall that Americans as a whole seem increasingly determined to smash their heads into. I’m going to be grossly simplistic about the history of the last 75 years for a moment. Starting in the late 1940s and accelerating in the 1960s, US liberals and progressives managed to demolish much, if not all, of a massive web of legal and governmental structures that actively enforced discrimination, racism, sexism, and inequality. The problem that arose in the wake of that change was that discrimination and inequality did not disappear and in some cases, seemed frustratingly likely to persist. Crudely speaking, the only people who were content to stop at that point were extremely strong believers in negative liberties, e.g., those who felt that once you removed strong governmental or other structural impediments to the social freedom of all citizens, it was up to the citizens to enact their own liberty. For anyone else, there were only two broad options for further action, in the direction of positive liberties: statutes and policies designed to move society towards equality and true freedom, or programmatic attempts to instrumentally change the culture and consciousness of people and institutions that were reproducing inequality and discrimination.
I know this is familiar ground for me at this blog, but initiatives in both of those directions in the 1970s and 1980s were an important force in the long-term coalescence and political empowerment of American cultural conservativism. There’s a Newtonianism at work here: each attempt to use policy and law to create or empower social transformation, or conscious attempts to alter culture in a predetermined direction has created an equal and opposite attempt to do the same thing in the other direction, to use policy and law to compel others to follow conservative moral and cultural practice, or to use civic and educational institutions to secure the content of culture and consciousness.
You can disagree with my implied view of the initial causality here and argue that the interventions of the 1970s were just one more waltz in a long dance of hegemony and counter-hegemony. Or get irritated with the compulsive “balancing” going on here. I’m particularly sympathetic to the latter objection in the sense that I’m not implying moral equivalency between the two “sides” in this push-and-pull.
The point here is that this is a political fact: that when a particular practice gets deeply, powerfully written into culture, identity, consciousness, you generally cannot force it back out again through government or civic dictate. The harder you try, the more you provide thermodynamic fuel that makes your target stronger and more resilient. This should not be news to my colleagues and friends who are social and cultural specialists in history, anthropology or sociology. We can see this kind of dialectic at work very powerfully in the societies that we study in the past, or in some other part of the world. Frequently, our sympathies are with the people and communities that governments and civic institutions are trying to change. Even when we’re uncomfortable with some of the moral or practical consequences of their beliefs and practices–say, with witchcraft discourses; gendered differences dictated by spiritual or religious belief; hierarchies in the domestic sphere and family life; mutilations and alterations of the body–we tend to acknowledge both that these practices acquire new vigor and meaning when they are the focus of strong “top-down” efforts to change or eliminate them and that such efforts at forcible change typically overlook the subtlety and richness of the cultural worlds they are striving to transform.
There are practices you can change by fiddling with tax incentives or promoting public education or partial bannings. They tend to be practices that are either highly marginalized already at the time that the state or civil society takes an interest, or practices that have a relatively shallow historical rooting. Gun ownership in America is neither of those things. It doesn’t matter that there are places in the world with few guns and little gun crime: the histories of gun ownership and of state-society relations in such places are different. You can’t simply transpose one onto the other by policy and law.
If you protest that this condemns us simply to more serial-killer shootings in public places, more uses of guns in urban violence with innocent bystanders falling right and left, you’re right. We are condemned, at least for now. There is nothing that can change that: no law or police-force or government agency big enough for it. Any more than there has been a law or police-force or government agency big enough to win the “drug war”, make people stop having racist thoughts, stop wanting to view pornography or to make people stop eating Chick-Fil-A.
When lots of people are doing something and valuing it as a part of their lives, it cannot be changed by fiat, no matter how good the arguments on paper are for doing it.
What I think we lack sometimes is confidence that in the long run of things, a certain kind of homespun wisdom wins out in culture. When you look at the social transformations of the last two centuries in many societies, there are some you can credit to the forcible intervention of the state or dominant social classes, but a lot that just sort of incrementally and complicatedly happened. Sometimes because things that used to make sense just stopped making sense, or the cost of a certain kind of practice became higher for pervasive and unplanned reasons. Sure, you can keep talking about why guns are a bad idea, or why the fantasies of certain gun-owners are just actively dangerous or wrong. (Say, that it would have helped anything for there to be three or four guys carrying handguns in Aurora. Anybody with police or military experience, any responsible gun owner, knows that’s stupid bravado.) The conversation can continue. I think the more curious, the more exploratory, the more interested in the range of actually-lived practices people are (on all sides), the more possible it becomes for real change to occur, for the great knotted muscle at the heart of contemporary American life to relax, unwind and open up.