BY MATTHEW HERBERT
BBC: Is there any one thing about British life which you really admire?
Kingsley Amis: Yes, there is. I like the fact that in Great Britain, by and large, people don’t beat each other up or shoot each other for holding certain opinions, or belonging to certain churches, or having a certain color skin. I feel very much at home because of that fact.
– BBC interview with Amis on his latest novel, I like It Here, 1958
I’m reading The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. It’s a true story, and you probably already know its outline: ex-con Gary Gilmore shoots and kills two people in Utah, is caught, sentenced to death, and insists on being executed by firing squad. He gets his wish. It’s an all-American story of gun violence come full circle.
America has a love affair with gun violence. Or it might be better to call it a common-law marriage: we have kept and used guns so long, they have become inseparable from us. We should admit that we like it this way, and we have no interest in changing. Acknowledging our love of guns would save us the hypocrisy of feigning dread the next time there is a mass shooting. We like it here.
While it might be going too far to say we have gun violence in the bones of our nation, it certainly seems to be a dominant gene. We’ve shot and killed four of our 45 presidents and taken shots at nine more, scoring non-lethal hits on two of them, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. That’s a quarter of our presidents we’ve shot or tried to. I am not counting the three (known) instances of gunmen firing shots at the Whitehouse (Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama), which may have been sincere assassination attempts or merely propaganda of the gun. We note in passing that Andrew Jackson shot and killed a man in a duel before becoming president, and Vice President Aaron Burr killed presidential hopeful Alexander Hamilton in a duel while in office.
We have a fundamentally positive relationship with guns in America: guns have been good for us. The earliest settlers used guns to kill game and suppress the natives, both useful for surviving and conquering a wild new territory. The Minute Men used (their own) guns to rebel against tyranny, setting the stage for our country’s independence. And let us not forget that, while whips and chains played parts in controlling our African slave workforce, it was the gun that gave planters their ultimate authority. The growth of our early mercantilist economy depended crucially on the competitive advantage afforded by slave labor. Love guns or hate them, they put America where it is today.
Gun atrocities in America are regarded the same way Christian philosophers approach the problem of evil. (The problem of evil: If God is all-powerful and all-good, how do bad things like childhood cancer happen? He must either be not all-good or not all-powerful; otherwise he would stop bad things from happening.) There are a handful of standard responses to this argument, and they all hinge on humans’ inability to see the big picture. One such defense is known as the “tapestry” argument: life is a rich tapestry of triumph and grief, bright patches and dark. Life’s overall magnificence is the overriding good, however, and that goodness depends on the existence of the tapestry’s dark patches, even if they appear tragic in isolation. It’s very limp stuff as theology goes, but it does capture the way many people view life–a patchwork of joy and sorrow that is ultimatley preferable to non-life and therefore, “good.”
Now I don’t mean for a second that anyone literally invokes these terms when they think about guns in America. But the pattern we are asked to accept as normal has striking similarities to the tapestry argument. The 12,000 gun homicides, 33,000 suicides and handful of mass-shootings that happen each year in America are simply the fixed costs we pay for enjoying the greater good of a lasting and legal bond with guns.
My point today is not to argue the merits of the gun control debate, a vast topic covered in detail by finer minds than mine. Although I would be remiss not to point out that, as usual, the most recent mass shooting in America has produced some trechant analyses that are important for understanding the issues. Reason magazine argues that controlling automatic weapons can yield very diminishing returns compared with reinforcing the social factors that have clearly reduced overall violent crime over the last several decades. Vox points out that, across U.S. states, gun ownership does corrleate positively with gun deaths, but there is no increased support for gun control even after a mass shooting.
This last observation is a telling one. On the issue of gun control, our democracy is a coldly well-informed one. We have enough information to make reasonable decisions about guns, and we choose to keep them. I am not saying the debate is over, but I am highly skeptical it will move in my lifetime. Gun culture controls gun law. That makes for a certain number of gun deaths each year, yes, but we should at least have the courage to embrace that fact. Or as Amis said in his 1958 interview, we should admit we feel very much at home because of it.