My condolences to Virginia Tech from one who hopes he will never fully understand.
This post is going to be more political, and thus perhaps more partisan, than most of my articles. Normally, I take a sideways approach to politics by way of cultural artifacts, music, movies, Internet videos, and the like. Right now, though, I think there are some issues in the air that deserve to be addressed more directly.
Today’s issue is gun violence. In light of the Virginia Tech shootings, I think it’s a good time to make an intelligent statement on the role of violence and freedom in our daily lives. I run a risk here. In the aftermath of an incident like this, I’m in danger of being drowned out entirely by the flood of reactionary bullshit that comes out of the popular media, the blogosphere, and the mouths of politicians. But maybe I have a chance to contribute something intelligent to this debate too – one of a few voices of reason in a country that’s become an ideological battleground, far more than a physical or literal one.
As far as politics go, I’d call myself a critical liberal. I’d like to be the leftist "old enemy from within" (borrowing a phrase from Bataille), strengthening the progressive position by questioning it and discerning the gristle from the meat. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of gristle out there. On gun violence, however, I think the reasoned liberal position, that assault weapons need to be more fully, federally controlled, and regulate, is a fairly cohesive one, and unlike with feminism, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of self-criticism the left needs to do to support its position.
What we’re fighting against: the extreme right, armed with a blanket of civil consent and disinterest. It’s frightening to me that the gun lobby is so large, considering it’s a bastion of regressive American extremism. The Gun Owners of America, apparently the second-largest gun advocacy group in the United States, has declared that the problem, of course, is that more people weren’t armed.
You may sense that this argument, symptomatic of pro-firearm argument, is mind-bogglingly irrational, but you may not realize why. It’s based on some reasonable premises: people should be responsible for their own safety, and they should have the means of protecting themselves. Individuals need to be trusted with security and enforcement, because omnipresent institutions like governments are so prone to oppression and abuse. Laws should target criminals, not the broad pool of people who might potentially become criminals. Why does the gun rights creed sound so irrational when these premises sound defensible?
The reason is that it makes some erroneous assumptions about the human environment. These assumptions make sense in a world where everybody, including, and especially, the morally upright are heroic bastions of strength and self-reliance. It makes sense in a world taken from movies, like the future of Mad Max or the New York City of The Warriors. It makes sense in a world where your personal well-being isn’t linked in any noteworthy way to the mental health of the collective.
But this isn’t a movie. Normal people — people who have been raised in the suburbs, or on dairy farms, or in lower-middle class neighborhoods — learn to fear death and protect one another, not to live within a paradigm of pure autonomy and self-defense. That’s why most of us, the vast, noble masses of sane human being, would find it virtually impossible to level a handgun at someone and put a bullet in their head. I would hesitate, even if I was defending myself from a crazed madman or an armed robber. As a well-developed human being living in an ordered society, I lack the instinct to kill an adversary, and I wouldn’t be prepared to do it.
This is what some of these fucknut bloggers think is wrong with this country, that we "don't have the balls" to shoot one another, Bruce Willis style, in order to protect ourselves and our friends. But they’re a misguided, over-stimulated group who clearly haven’t thought through the implications of that claim. Entering into a fully cooperative, peaceful society, living in close proximity, working together, and eating from the same tables has required that we lay our killer instincts to rest. No matter how "easy to access" guns are, those of us who are socialized correctly won’t be carrying guns around. They’re excessive and dangerous, and we don’t have the kind of impulsive judgment that would allow us to use them productively.
These days, there are enough ways of asserting our autonomy legally, symbolically, and collectively. We don’t need to defend it with lethal force. Guns are the vestigial traces of violence in a society that should be past the need for it, and outlawing "nonsporting" weapons will be the most important step in purging that trace. The only people who are (psychologically) equipped to use lethal force on other human beings are the ones who aren’t fully equipped to deal with discourse, social interaction, and personal responsibility. They’re the criminals, the pariahs, the nut-jobs.
As always, in our advanced civilization, guns are the tools of madmen.