By Alistair Lee
On the 14th of December 2012 the latest chapter was played out in the on-going saga of shooting sprees in the USA. Adam Lanza, after shooting his mother to death in their home, blasted his way through locked security doors and then shot and killed 6 adults and 20 young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. This tragedy followed a format that has become disconcertingly familiar.
What is more, the increasing tempo of shooting spree incidents and their coverage by the media is increasingly unsettling America’s social conscience. The number of people killed in shooting sprees is statistically insignificant compared to the 11, 078 Americans shot and killed in 2009, for example, yet every new event reignites the increasingly polarised debate concerning gun ownership. The latest massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary has led President Obama to declare that the time has come for Americans to let go of their sentimental appreciation for their ‘frontier justice’ philosophy towards civil order and accept that significantly greater gun restrictions are necessary in the modern era.
In many ways, shooting spree incidents can be interpreted as assaults on society but is it true that these acts reflect negatively upon US society overall? They do, and one of these macro social factors I want to highlight are a set of paradoxical processes of cultural socialization occurring in post-modern America, and to degrees in other countries like the UK also; processes that adolescents and young adults are particularly sensitive to.
Americans are socialised to cherish liberty; America is ‘The Land of the Free’. In times previous to the Enlightenment, Americans and their European cousins lived under a yoke of obligations to the Church and State. However, first, Americans fought the British for their liberty; then they fought amongst themselves for the liberty of slaves; and then they fought tyranny abroad in the 20th Century for the liberty of others. Liberty also created the free market. US society exploited liberty for their greater prosperity with the same sort of pro-activity that motivated the first American settlers to cross the Pond in search of a more prosperous life in the first place. Overall then, liberty is an important piece of their cultural jigsaw.
On the other hand though, one must consider the demands that Capitalism makes on Western society. Capitalism has an insatiable hunger for growth. After the 2nd World War, this drove Capitalism to overflow into the domestic market and turned the USA and UK in particular into consumer societies. Marketing expertise blossomed, driving up consumer appetites to the extent that American cultural output now reflects how important consumerism is in society and how important spending power is in gaining status for people these days.
At the same time, scientific rationality and a cultural trend for militant secularism has increasingly discredited the search for spiritual fulfillment. The pace of modern life gives Americans less time to cultivate relations with their friends and families, which makes them less content with their lives. Also, a reliance on ICT to communicate stunts the ability of people to enjoy a rapport amongst themselves. For example, it will surprise some people to hear that according to a recent BBC survey, the loneliest age cohort is the 16-24 years old ‘Facebook Generation’. Furthermore, feminism has freed women from the shackles of financial dependence on men but has emancipated the role of males in society. Now men have less to offer women, and the lack of gender interdependence has deprived people of a motive for companionship.
Americans are growing up into a society with a lack of a sense of purpose attached to their lives except to work to consume. Americans are socialized to consume, and in an age where they have never been made more aware of the sort of person consumer culture expects them to be than in the present era. And who is that person? In a nutshell, someone who is spiritually shallow enough to find commodified culture alluring and thick-skinned enough to negotiate the hurdles of socialization that they are socialized into taking. Emerging from adolescence, they are emotionally functional enough to focus their energies on a vocation that will finance their consumer ambitions. Individuals who do not fit into this template are marginalized, and often feel inadequate.
It was the social functionalist Emile Durkheim who observed that people who committed suicide were either over-integrated or under-integrated into their social environments. Americans are free from social burdens, but in their absence their lives can feel purposeless and devoid of a path towards spiritual contentment. So what else is left than to pursue an empty life of short term gratification? That is the paradox.
When shooting sprees occur, they undermine one of western culture’s most fundamental narratives: That is, the western world is progressing along a path of civilization. Industrially prosperous European nations from the start of the Enlightenment that were nurturing comfortable, politically stable social environments started to expand their intellectual portfolios, evolving attitudes towards such things as class and religion, gender and race, and how we think of criminals as either evil wrongdoers, or as just poorly socialised.
Just like how they socialise the unenlightened classes below them, the upper class intellectuals that have built up these portfolios try to do the same with apparently similarly unenlightened non westerners around the globe. When European missionaries were trying to civilize ‘savages’ with Christianity in the days of empires, so Westerners continue to do so, though nowadays, Christianity has been replaced with equality, democracy and liberty, and the missionaries are now UN agencies or NGO’s such as Amnesty International.
So we lecture the likes of the Islamic world over their apparent misogyny, or Russia and China over their comparatively repressive methods of governance, and view ourselves as the benchmark of civilization. Someone then commits a shooting spree in the heart of the western world (the USA) and undermines the integrity of the civilizing process. It is one thing to bat away criticism from outsiders, but when a white, middle class man in the throes of youthful vitality, shoots and kills a lot of members of their society as negative feedback on what it means to live amongst them, that’s criticism that’s hard to dismiss. It is almost as if the West is guilty of hypocrisy.
Perhaps then, the two issues discussed above partly explain why the argument for and against gun ownership restrictions is one of the most contentious issues in US politics. But the argument goes much further outside of the issue of shooting sprees of course; it concerns self-defense and protection of one’s property in general. Surely though, there is a much reduced need for individual gun ownership in the 21st century? Well, with only a population density of roughly 1/5 of the UK’s, rapid law enforcement response cannot be taken for granted and dangerous predators such as wolves and bears still roam the more sparsely populated regions. Never-the-less, the Redcoats, Redskins, the Frontier, have all long been conquered. These days various statistics show that for every law abiding citizen who is saved or deters violence with a firearm, more than one citizen gets killed or injured by one.
When one hears Gun Rights Advocates (GRAs) making their arguments, they almost without exception refer to the right to own guns as adhering to the 2nd Amendment. This reveals a lot about what America’s love of guns is really about: patriotism. Americans are a very overtly patriotic society, and this distinctive social quirk is a necessary one for binding together a nation where virtually all its citizens at some point in their respective family trees affiliated themselves with faraway motherlands. The abstract concepts that are enshrined in the US constitution, and define what it means to be distinctly American, have been beneficial in helping to push a relatively young nation to the top of the global food chain in a lot of respects as well. Patriotism is an emotion however, and so it inhibits Americans’ ability to think rationally about gun control. In a hypothetical scenario where gun ownership was merely allowed in the ‘rules’ or ‘laws’ of the USA, instead of being built into its national DNA, that is the 2nd Amendment, what would the GRA lobby fall back on to justify the right to own guns then?
Something very little acknowledged in the argument for and against guns, certainly not by GRA’s, is the almost primeval like feelings of empowerment that possessing an instrument capable of firing rounds of metal at a 1000 mph dozens of meters away, and the destructive power that gives an individual, is greatly unacknowledged. It is power of the very basest kind; and power that has a strong grip on people’s instinctual subconscious accordingly. Guns act as security blankets and people underestimate the degree to which they fetish gun ownership as a result.
The main point in this article really is that the politics behind advocating gun rights ownership is worryingly detached from rationality. Members of GRA organisations such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) will not even compromise on the right to have access to assault rifles and high capacity magazines, equipment that clearly goes above and beyond giving their owners the means to defend themselves. To an outsider at least, is perhaps the most bewildering thing of all. Yet these organisations are surprisingly influential in mainstream politics.
A Gallup poll shows that Americans quickly baulk at compromising the 2nd Amendment itself but other research by CNN/ORC shows that when more specific gun restriction policies are presented to them, such as ‘banning semi-automatics’ and ‘background checks’ most Americans are in favour of them. This betrays that Americans are not irrational people, as many on the outside looking in sometimes conclude, their judgment is just distorted by their patriotism.
For the 21st century the spirit of frontier justice that exists through the 2nd Amendment contradicts the ongoing civilisation process that underlines western culture. More importantly, it empowers Americans with a proactive, ‘can do’ attitude towards not only self defence, but resolving disputes, and righting wrongs. It explains why American society is a relatively violent one and disturbing shooting rampages are perhaps the worst side effect of this culture.
I think that the solution is to effectively abandon the 2nd Amendment by greatly reducing the right to bear arms, leaving in its wake the legal provision to defend one’s life and property, merely without such lethal means. This will never happen though and the status quo will continue, that is, political intransigence and further shooting sprees. Americans fear that any willingness to compromise on the DNA of their nation will unravel into a slippery slope of compromise. Who knows if the principle that articles of the US constitution are out of date could be applied to justifying abandoning or adapting other articles and amendments of the Constitution in the future; articles and amendments that enshrine abstract concepts such as freedom and liberty, concepts that define the essence of the USA.
However an exception needs to be made with the 2nd Amendment because what one needs to bear in mind is that where the articles and amendments of the Constitution have the abstract concepts imprinted in them, the 2nd Amendment is an exceptional case that deals exclusively and uniquely with the possession of a mechanism that fires out metal rounds dozens of meters.
Americans should reserve their sentiments for what it means to be an American whilst recognising the 2nd Amendment for what it is: the provision to own a mechanism that appeals to one’s primal instincts to want base power over their social environment