Is gun violence in the United States a public health crisis? There are plenty of people who seem to think so. And these folks are quick to call for improved mental health services as a way of addressing what they regard as an epidemic.
I’ve news for the public healthniks: gun violence is far more serious than a public health matter. It reflects a broader crisis in the legitimacy of public institutions. Gun violence is a cry for help, all right, but not just from a few unhinged folks. We’re all in need of help just now.
What is legitimacy?
It’s the difference between getting shaken down by a stranger pointing a gun at you, and handing your license over to a police officer when stopped at roadside. In the former case, you respond from fear; in the latter case, you comply with an order some part of you believes the officer has a right to give. Legitimacy is the belief that some folks possess authority, and not merely power.
Actually, using a police officer to illustrate legitimacy just now is a bad idea. Police officers are suddenly viewed with suspicion, at least in the nation’s larger cities. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel will be lucky to hold onto his job, given Chicagoans’ suspicions about the Windy City’s police force. To too many folks, police officers are just members of another gang.
Only political philosophers can imagine a world in which individuals live outside of society, in what some authors call “the state of nature.” The rest of us are born, live and die communitarians, or, dare I say it, socialists of one sort or another. The simple truth is we all depend on one another for life’s necessities, including not just food and shelter, but also basic security and freedom from the violence of strangers.
Why are Americans armed to the teeth?
I took a pistol permit class not long ago, crossing a dark divide I had previously vowed never to cross, journeying on the way to gun ownership. The class was sponsored by the National Rifle Association, and featured a video message from a NRA executive. It felt vaguely illicit, like watching pornography, to listen to him talk about the Second Amendment.
We have a right to bear arms, the NRA tells us. Therefore, we should do so. Candidly, I’ve never understood the logic holding that just because we have a right to do something, it ought to be done. Why, for example, would I choose to drink myself into a coma, or consume enough tobacco to darken my lungs? Some things are simply self-destructive.
Why, I ask, a gun?
This gun, this new stranger soon to be beside me, has a substantial meaning.
I suggest that gun use is the exclamation point many folks put on their political views. Dylan Roof wanted to start a race war in Charleston, South Carolina, so he shot up a church. A couple of Islamic extremists shot up a public office building in San Bernardino in the name of their god. Another man shoots up a Planned Parenthood building to save babies. These shootings reflect a lack of consensus about core values; gun violence, shootings, even mass shootings, are becoming what von Clausewitz once called war: politics by other, more violent, means.
We’re a country deeply divided by economic class, on racial lines, on ethnic lines and even on religious lines. Being an “American” is suddenly sounding less and less like a call to some identity with a fixed meaning that it is to an existential smorgasbord, where identities are for sale, all equally valuable, and all equably valueless.
I say the American Dream is dying, and with it a sense of hope in a better future. Gun violence, and mass shootings, are a call for help, all right: but the call is to counter the sense of drift that makes television shows about zombies and the end of the world feel like comforting entertainment. It’s as though we can’t get enough of watching what we dread and believe to be inevitable — the end of a comfortable world.
Sure, some, perhaps most, of the shooters are unhinged, and mentally ill. But I suggest they’re not different in kind from the rest of us, simply different in degree. Scratch the surface of a mass shooter, and you’ll find Everyman.
So why my gun?
I don’ trust the police, and I don’t trust the state, but I trust even less the terrorists who think the world would be a better place with more dead Americans. I’m forced back on my own devices to find safety and security. Owning a gun provides the illusion of safety, I suppose. An illusion is better than nothing.
A good friend chided me the other day. She pitied me, she said, for being so consumed with fear that I needed a gun. My response was simple: if you’re too stupid to be wary, there’s not much I can do for you.
Another acquaintance blasted me for being a hypocrite. My response was simpler still, and already uttered by Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.” Life is not logic.
We’ve always been a nation of extremists. These days, there’s simply less to restrain us in terms of common ideals, hopes and visions. Somehow, and tragically, we’re flirting with a death cult all our own: guns, guns, and more guns. Where will it end? Where, or perhaps when, will we end?