The Real Reason the Right Loves Guns
Look at American civil religion
As I prepared to launch this subscription newsletter, I originally thought of writing a series of programmatic posts through its first week. And why not? One advantage of moving to Substack, as opposed to writing as a columnist for a news organization, is the freedom to step away from headlines to think out loud about broader trends and reflect skeptically on one’s own premises and assumptions. Who am I? Where do I come from intellectually and politically? How do I understand the right? And liberalism? And the left? I still plan to write on those topics over the next few weeks, but not today—because the news got in the way.
The last few weeks have been wrenching. First, on May 14, there was the mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, in which the perpetrator, motivated by right-wing ideas about a “great replacement” of white Americans, appears to have deliberately targeted black patrons. He killed 10. Then, 10 days later, an 18-year-old high-school dropout perpetrated the deadliest school shooting since the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. This second attack, in which 19 elementary school kids and two teachers were murdered in Uvalde, Texas, has provoked a passionate outpouring of anguish and outrage, especially on Twitter and other social media platforms.
The Obvious, and Impossible, Answer
I used to respond with anger to such events, but it has long-since curdled into despair. Not because we can’t imagine reforms that would make such events less frequent, but rather because we know from the experiences of nearly every other advanced democracy in the world exactly what would help—and yet there is very little chance of the necessary reforms being enacted.
That’s because the thing that makes it relatively easy for political extremists and sociopaths in the United States to enact coldblooded fantasies of murder is the astonishingly large number of firearms in circulation. Other countries make it much harder to buy guns, and often they require the weapons to be stored under lock and key at firing ranges. The idea that Americans are allowed to stockpile private arsenals in their homes and are increasingly allowed to walk around public places displaying their firepower strikes many around the world as horribly reckless—and a patently obvious cause of the bloodshed that so regularly breaks our hearts.
The fact that the United States seems to produce more than its share of people (nearly always men) who dream of winning notoriety through an often suicidal act of mass slaughter also plays an important role, and it is incredibly disturbing. Republicans aren’t wrong to note this reality under the rubric of “mental illness.” But liberals also have a point when they respond by suggesting the move is mainly a diversionary tactic—a way of highlighting a cause with a much less clear-cut policy response, and one that directs attention away from how absurdly easy it currently is in the U.S. for emotionally disturbed people to arm themselves with deadly weapons. (Some conservative commentators have fastened onto “red flag” laws and other minimalist measures that might prevent at least some mass shootings.)
If we want significantly fewer mass shootings (and fewer shootings of all kinds), we need fewer guns. A lot fewer, along with rigorous background checks, bans on the deadliest weapons (those most efficient at killing), restrictions on stockpiling weapons in private homes, and probably a massive program of Australian-style gun buy-backs.
Clear. Obvious. And also, in 2022, pretty close to impossible to imagine.
The Role of American Civil Religion
Why? Gun-control advocates point to a range of culprits: the outsized influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) over lawmakers in Congress; the grandstanding and demagoguery of conservative politicians and media personalities; the paranoia and conspiracy-addled thinking of Republican voters; the way our political institutions amplify the power of less densely populated states, where opponents of gun control are more likely to live; and so forth.
Each of those causes plays a part in limiting possibilities in the present. But I think focusing on them, as we so often do, misses a deeper underlying factor that makes a significant portion of Americans receptive to pro-gun messaging in the first place. It’s a factor that’s deeply and distinctively American, which helps to explain why the U.S. struggles with this problem more than other counties. And when it’s combined with certain recent trends in American political culture, it shows why enacting gun control measures has seemingly become impossible in the present.
That factor is American civil religion—specifically, two aspects of it that continue to be affirmed by right-leaning members of the electorate, that have been increasingly abandoned over time by the rest of the country, and that play very little role at all elsewhere in the world
The first aspect is classical liberalism’s prioritization of private individuals and groups (families and churches especially) to the government, with the legitimacy of the latter depending on its powers being limited to securing the liberty of the former, who are free to speak, worship, and defend themselves as they see fit. The government ultimately exists to secure these elemental freedoms, and the moment it begins to transgress them, it becomes tyrannical, with private individuals and groups fully justified in rising up in revolt against it.
The second aspect of American civil religion is the classical republican ethic of self-reliance. Unlike classical liberalism, which thinks in terms of an individual right to self-defense, the classical republican tradition positively affirms the virtue of engaging in acts of self-defense. To remain free, citizens must arm and take responsibility for protecting themselves. They must be ready and willing to risk life and limb in defense of liberty at both the individual and local-community level. The more republican citizens rely on themselves instead of on state power, the more liberty they will ultimately enjoy.
Travel around the country and talk to people, especially those who own guns, and you will hear powerful echoes of both aspects of American civil religion. Not necessarily in the most lucid or coherent form. But the way such Americans make sense of the world, themselves, and the country and its politics is clearly shaped by these stories about who we are, what government is, and how we should live, as individuals and communities. That doesn’t make these Americans right to affirm the truth of these stories, or to support any politician who promises to govern with them in mind. But it does place them firmly within old and deep American traditions.
Distrusting Our Fellow Americans
Why, though, has belonging to these traditions become incompatible with accepting sensible gun regulations? As recently as the 1990s, Congress managed to pass a ban on certain semi-automatic firearms and large-capacity magazines. Why has even that modest regulatory step become impossible?
Because over the past three decades, trust has collapsed across the political spectrum. As a result, pro-gun Americans now assume any serious new effort to regulate firearms is a pretext for widespread, unconstitutional, and even tyrannical gun confiscation by the government—and specifically by Democrats.
Some of this is rooted in paranoia encouraged by right-wing officeholders and media outlets, who profit from sowing distrust. But as is usually the case, the message would be less influential if there wasn’t some truth to it. The highly educated, urban progressives who make up the most outspoken faction of Democratic voters and activists really do tend to despise guns and sneer at the classical liberal and classical republican cases for gun rights and an armed citizenry, which they consider pernicious myths that lead directly to horrifying incidents like those in Buffalo and Uvalde.
In place of these stories, Democrats affirm an alternative myth or mode of civil religion—an account of moral progress through history in which active government plays a crucial role, building a world in which individuals are protected from harm by the state limiting how much responsibility people can take for their own protection.
The question before us is this: Can two groups of people, or political parties, even begin to reason with each other about common problems when they begin from incompatible assumptions about the proper ends of government, with each rooted in a separate and distinct mode of civil religion?
It’s my doubt about the possibility of answering that question in the affirmative that’s the ultimate source of my despair over gun violence.
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