Returning to the State of Nature, One Newtown at a Time
Enough, finally, is enough. Your right to bear arms does not yield the right to kill at random. Doesn’t last week’s killing spree at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown give you even a moment’s hesitation? Or are you still going to hide behind the facile quip that guns don’t kill people, people do? Even the tobacco lobby was not that cynical; it just lied about causation, trying to hide the consequences of smoking. You cannot hide the 20 children killed by gunfire.
Twenty little coffins will carry the bodies of the elementary school children killed by a lone gunman, children ages 5, 6 and 7 years old, murdered in cold blood. The children were killed with a .233 M4 carbine, believed to be manufactured by Bushmaster Firearms International, with headquarters in Madison, N.C. The gunman also carried Sig Sauer and Glock handguns, two automatic weapons with magazines capable of holding many rounds. The killer, reported to be 20-year-old Adam Lanza, carried at least two guns reported to be legally registered to his mother, yet another victim of the shooting spree.
Oh, yes, we need those guns in each of our homes and hands, don’t we? That’s our Constitutional right, guaranteed by none other than the founders of this republic, propertied and monied men, some slaveholders. But at least our forebears had the historical justification of needing a militia. They won their independence at gun point from Great Britain, and feared new invasions. State militias were necessary for national security from foreign powers in that bygone era.
No one relies on a militia for national security today. Don’t even suggest that: the notion is a stupid, historic anachronism. Play Tea Party all you like. Wear knickers. Wear powdered wigs. Pretend we live in an 18th century world with weapons far less lethal than those marketed to just about anyone who wants a gun. Proudly carry your gun in public, flash your metal and laugh when law enforcement confronts you, as the president of the New Haven County Bar Association did at a theater one night not long ago, when police tried to find out whether he had a license to carry the gun in public.
And don’t pretend we individuals need the right to bear arms to keep government on its toes. Since 9/11, we’ve happily traded the illusion of security for our liberties. The Bill of Rights, once a bastion in defense of liberty, is happily eviscerated by our courts. A warrant to search your home? A creative cop will find an exception. Firepower is rarely used against the government in defense of liberty. We just don’t do it. We no longer believe in what John Locke called the “appeal to heaven,” the right to rebel and revolt against government. We engage in all manner of trash-talking rhetoric on cable television, but accomplish nothing. No one bears arms to resist tyranny.
Our politics have become a sick, and ineffective, joke.
No, we celebrate our individual right to keep and bear arms as a way of protecting ourselves from one another.
The bodies were still being counted in Newtown, when one pro-gun rights spokesman took to the airwaves to say we need more, not fewer, guns. What next? Arming kindergartners?
Should we just blame all the killing on the insane? Every mass killing is followed by reports about the eccentricity, oddness and outright madness of the shooter. But the mass killings are merely the most public face of gun violence. Guns have become the equivalent of a domestic appliance. Kids kill kids over a trifle.
We celebrate the right of all to go their own way, turning our back on the eccentric and the ill because, after all, we each have the right to be let alone. This is less robust individualism than a form of social irresponsibility. Not my brother’s keeper? How quickly we must arm ourselves against the consequences.
Perhaps it’s time to drop the pretense and call the United States the most sophisticated of failed states. We cannot pass budgets that fairly distribute the cost of the services we demand. The gap between rich and poor grows. We imprison more people per capita than any other nation on Earth. Society frays, but, oh, how we love our guns. Possessing them is our individual right.
Political ideas are not eternal. They change, meeting the needs of the people who use them. Centuries ago, we developed powerful ideas about individual liberty. In the seventeenth century, such political philosophers of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, wrote about the state of nature, a place without states and the rule of law. As Hobbes famously put it, life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Individuals left the state of nature, sacrificing natural liberty for the security civil society and the state provided. But individuals retained so-called natural rights, rights no group could take or impair, whether society or state. Our political heritage in the United States is rooted in this powerful individualism. Ideologues rail against any sacrifice of individual rights, calling it socialism, even communism. The right to bear arms is regarded by many as part and parcel of the rights retained by the people, a right so sacrosanct it has been written into the Constitution.
But the Constitution is not a suicide pact. The right to bear arms is transforming our society into a regulated state of nature, the very sort of chaos life together was supposed to protect against. Could it be that individualism has run its course? Have we pressed our ideas to an extreme breaking point? Can we live together in a community when each is so afraid of the other that we will fight to the death to destroy one another at will?
It’s time to restrike the social compact. You may want a right to bear arms. But I am less fearful of the state than I am of an unhinged or angry man shooting at random just because he can. At a minimum, it’s time to treat gun manufacturers like tobacco producers. Guns make it too easy for people to kill people. It’s time not for communism, but for communalism — there are limits on what individuals living in a group should be able to do.
Reprinted courtesy of the Journal Register company.
No comments yet
(Won't be displayed with comment)
Link must be approved,
then will show on this page.