The Parkland shooting has galvanized people across the country to demand that elected officials do something about gun violence besides just think and pray about it.
The signs aren’t promising. Can anything be done? Sure – but probably not by politicians.
Governments everywhere are growing in impotence due to a host of tectonic global shifts, while the world is polarizing into two increasingly-hostile tribes with very different orientations toward territory, tradition and force. A declining minority of Americans – roughly, Republicans – owns guns, while only about 3 percent possess the lion’s share of high-powered firearms. But that 3 percent constitute the only people our Luddite governing party of extractive economics and politics cares about.
Ultimately, they – not the majority of Americans who favor background checks, assault weapons bans, and the like – set the nation’s policy on guns, as on virtually all issues. Thus, not surprisingly, mere days after the massacre at their school, students from Parkland watched from the gallery as their state legislature voted down holding any debate whatsoever on assault weapons this year. There almost certainly will be no meaningful government action against gun violence.
Gun proponents argue that their position is protected by the Second Amendment “right to bear arms.” Whether or not the Constitution indeed provides an unlimited right to own, say, intercontinental ballistic missiles (which the Free Dictionary cites as an example of “arms”), however, limits on government as a solution do not imply the total lack of any solutions. The First Amendment’s assurance of “no law” abridging freedom of speech, for instance, is more absolute than the Second, with its qualifying language about “well-regulated militia”: You have a constitutional right to approach anyone on the street and, in the foulest language, tell them they deserve to be assaulted or killed.
Yet hardly any of us choose to exercise that right – except, of course, the current president, who does so at most of his rallies – because we know it’s wrong. Abusive speech was fairly rare in this country until recently, not because it was illegal, but because we had a culture that sufficiently stigmatized it. There’s a difference between what you have a right to do, and what’s right to do.
It is the latter – a question of what kind of society, not what kind of government, we want – to which we ought to be paying more attention. As I wrote here after the previous mass shooting, we don’t have a culture of violence in America because of our lax gun laws: We have lax gun laws because we live in a culture that actively supports gun violence. That’s what needs to – and can – be changed first.
Gun Control and Gun Rights Cartoons
As Krishnadev Calamur noted in The Atlantic post-Parkland, Switzerland is the only country in the world to rival ours in both the level of firearms possession (and then, not all that closely) and the looseness of its gun laws – yet, the Swiss haven’t experienced a single mass shooting since 2001. Why the difference? The Swiss have a “culture of responsibility and safety”; the U.S., not so much. Of course, there is one segment of American society with the heaviest concentrations of guns, yet virtually no shootings: the military. The culture there – contrary to what gun proponents now urge upon civilian streets and schools – is to heavily regulate their use and not carry them around everywhere (you know, kinda like the actual wording in the Constitution). Very simply, safe societies, though they may have guns, don’t glorify and fetishize them.
Legal codes more often codify than change the status quo. A previous generation of young Americans ended a war and ushered in an era of greater tolerance by changing society more than by changing politicians. That’s where attention needs to be focused.
Conservatives have long used commercial pressure against stores that sell dirty magazines or, say, sports leagues whose players express non-conservative views, the First Amendment notwithstanding. Despite the Second Amendment, the majority of Americans who want to stem the rising tide of guns washing over this country can do the same: Launching boycotts against sporting goods stores and others like Walmart that pump firearms into their communities. Or movies that glorify their use. Or advertisers that support such movies or TV shows, or manufacturers that sell their products through outlets that also sell guns.
Those who invest in the stock market can insist that mutual funds take their monies out of gun stocks, and anyone with a pension fund – especially the millions of school teachers in this country – can demand their funds do the same. Since Congress outlandishly prohibits public funding of research on reducing gun violence (unlike, say, reducing automobile deaths, on which we’ve made dramatic progress without taking away cars), private efforts can do so – something all those profitable insurance companies ought to be reminded of.
Successful community programs around the country have asked parents to allow voluntary searches of troubled children’s rooms by school and police officials, short-circuiting would-be Columbines and Parklands. Most shooters make their intentions known, increasingly on social media; this makes all of us, not just the government, monitors of such warnings. 39 state legislatures – you know, those folks who think children need more rather than fewer guns to be safe – prohibit guns in their own buildings; every business and home owners can make clear if they feel the same way about their own properties: As nonviolence movements around the world have demonstrated, the more people exhibit their views through simple statements like colored signs, the more others join in, until the instruments of moral force overwhelm the weapons of physical force.
Every American should rightfully be able to choose to defend his or her home with arms if necessary (despite the evidence that a gun only makes its owner less safe). But in most communities across this country stockpiling and brandishing military-grade weaponry doesn’t make you a hero. It makes you a danger. We don’t need the government to make that socially and economically unacceptable.