Gun violence and gun control have become subjects of frequent conversation and political debate because of high-profile mass shootings, especially school shootings. Even though gun crimes have been declining overall, we have a problem. According to the International Business Times, the United States has the highest level of gun ownership in the world and high levels of gun violence in comparison with other developed countries. Some have criticized “America’s unique gun culture” as the root of the problem.
But “gun culture” is not the problem. The problem is gun availability without gun culture.
Gun availability and gun culture are not the same. Culture is a way of life, a set of ideas and practices that constitute living in community at a particular time and place. It includes beliefs, traditions, and processes by which one generation passes them to the next. Gun culture, rightly understood, is about more than gun ownership or access to guns. Members of a responsible gun culture understand that guns are not toys but deadly weapons; they internalize the implications of the power that guns confer and the responsibility that comes with it. Critically, this understanding comes from a deliberate effort on the part of elders to transmit it to youth; in a gun culture worthy of the name, elders communicate to youth the precious value of life. Indeed, life is so valuable as to be worthy of defense, with deadly force if necessary.
At the risk of mimicking Hillary Clinton on the stump, let me illustrate responsible gun culture from my own experience. I learned to shoot handguns and rifles from my grandfather at about ten years old. The first rule? Treat the gun at all times as if it were loaded. That means never—never—point it at anyone, with the sole exception of a real situation where you have to defend yourself or others. I grew up on superheroes like Batman, sworn never to kill, so I was a bit shocked by my grandfather’s instruction that if I found myself in a situation like those we’ve seen on the news, aim for the upper body. Stop the threat. Protect life.
My grandfather grew up in the 1940s and ’50s, when gun ownership was much more common and less regulated, at least in Texas, New Mexico, and Utah, where his family lived. There were mass shootings and school shootings back then, but they were less frequent and generally less deadly; six of the ten deadliest school massacres occurred in the new millennium, and a seventh, Columbine, happened in 1999.
A society where citizens maintain the right to bear arms must maintain a gun culture that instills the corresponding obligation to preserve life. The recent rise in mass shootings, and high levels of suicide by gun since the 1980s, suggest that as a nation we are failing at this. The Newtown episode resulted at least in part from such a failure; the shooter’s parents reared him in an environment with access to guns but did not ensure that he imbibed the respect for life that must correspond, or address his mental and emotional problems.
Since basic gun regulations are not working in our most violent cities, and are unlikely to prevent mass shootings, we have two broad options: (1) ditch the current interpretation of the Second Amendment, allowing state legislatures or even Congress to follow the United Kingdom and Europe, with extremely limited gun ownership; or (2) restore gun culture, rightly understood.
The first would require extensive, expensive government buyback—or confiscation—campaigns, coupled with hail-Mary political efforts to strictly limit gun ownership and manufacturing rights, not to mention sacrificing liberty. The second, which I favor, is closer to the Israeli model and is already evident in rural areas which tend to have high (legal) gun ownership relative to urban areas, along with sport shooting and hunting.
Restoring a responsible gun culture will be demanding. It requires parents and adults to implant in youth a deep respect for the value of life—their own and others’—and to provide more familiarity with gun safety. But the middle ground—gun availability without gun culture—is killing us, and threatening to create a culture of fear.
There can and should be debates about specific regulations or policies. (For example, certain levels of gun regulation may be better-suited to some environments than others.) But this is not a policy issue alone. We need a broad cultural corrective if we are to maintain a high level of gun availability. Bloomberg View columnist Francis Wilkinson points to the needed corrective:
First, acknowledge that guns are dangerous—not just to the bad guys lurking on the street or in the imagination, but to anyone within range of a bullet. Once you accept that guns are dangerous, it’s a small step to conclude that it’s not such a great idea to take your mentally ill kid to the gun range and get him comfortable with shooting at things.
My dad and I took a preparatory class for a concealed-carry permit about a year ago in Austin, Texas. We never got the permits, but the class was entertaining. To begin, the instructor asked all the participants to state their reasons for wanting a permit. Answers ranged from increased “comfort level” walking at night, to simple gun enthusiasm, to fear of Second Amendment rights evaporating. Much of the class consisted of information on legal liabilities related to permits, and frequent admonitions to exercise extreme caution, using guns only as an absolute last resort. I joked with my dad afterward that my own comfort level would be higher if some of our classmates were not issued concealed-carry permits and allowed to walk around with guns. The class was a demonstration of self-government in action, but also a bit scary. My dad corrected me: “Self-government is scary.”
Self-government is scary and demanding. During his presidency, John Adams penned an oft-quoted observation, fittingly to the officers of a Massachusetts militia:
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
The question of how to deal with gun violence in our country is a subsidiary of a deeper question: are we Americans still fit for constitutional liberty and self-government? Can we be again?
Ben Peterson is completing a Master's in Public Policy at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. An Austinite and a die-hard Star Trek fan (TOS only, of course), he graduated from Oklahoma Christian University in 2011 with a B.S. in History Pre-Law, Bible double-major, and International Studies minor. Follow him on Twitter at @ben_2_long.
Complement with Ben Sasse on the American idea and why it's in danger, Alec Dent on our pursuit of ideology over truth, and Jane Clark Scharl on trusting your five senses in the gender neutral bathrooms debate.