The Hand that Wields the Gun

AS AN AMERICAN in Italy, I am often asked by dumbfounded Italians how it is possible my countrymen should possess so many guns. They want to know all manner of things—as, did I grow up with firearms? Is it permitted for Americans to take guns wherever they please—airplanes, buses, banks? Is it not appalling that such deadly weapons should be permitted in so many private houses? Am I not ashamed, when I look at the statistics of gun-related crimes, when I hear of this or that accident or school shooting, that my country permits such barbarities?
      And thus I risk being drawn into the debate which rages in my own country over the status of its gun laws. Yet I would dearly like to avoid this debate—but because I think it insoluble, but because I think it is in all cases premised badly, and in such a way that it really does become insoluble.
      For the debate over gun laws is a prime instance of what I have called in a different essay Procrustean statecraft. This is in its way a disease of modernity: this idea that with but the right institutions, all our social problems can be happily eradicated, and we dwell in prosperity and contentment ever after. Beyond that fact that I perceive such a notion as this to be at the root of a large portion of our more unjustifiable contemporary carping and disaffection, I also think it fundamentally absurd. May be one could have easily enough believed it even twenty years ago: but since the war in Iraq, and all our ruinous meddling in the affairs of nations which do not accept and evidently are incapable of accepting democratic institutions, it seems to me that we are no longer justified in taking this view so naively.
      Anyone who has looked into the question of gun ownership and the laws surrounding gun ownership will certainly be familiar with the basic difficulty. One will find oneself perhaps pulled this way and that by the debate, now falling on this side, now on that, and with no means of reconciling the contradictions. The conversation, and with it one’s loyalties, will proceed something like this:

      “Guns kills people; if everyone were armed, many would die.”
      “No, guns protect people; if everyone were armed, everyone would be safe.”
      “But look at the high gun-related crime rates in the United States, and look at how many guns there are here.”
      “But look at the low gun-related crime rates in Switzerland, and how many guns there are there.”
      “But look at the low gun-related crime rates in Japan, where there are no guns.”
      “But look at the high gun-related crime rates in the old Soviet, where there were also few guns—”

And so forth and so on, each drawing from a seemingly endless well of practical examples and counter examples. A pretty mess! Here this institution seems to work, there this other; here the first institution fails completely, and there the second. However is one to find one’s way in such a medley?
      I propose that the fundamental difficulty here is not the confusion surrounding the facts, but rather our ignorance of a key variable—the variable, indeed, which regulates all these matters, and which we, as good democrats, simply fail to consider: namely, the particular human beings involved in each example: their customs, their religions, their quality. We are not so blinkered when it comes to individual cases, with individual human beings. Everyone is aware that, even if it is acceptable to permit a totally self-controlled, aware, and trained adult to own certain kinds of firearms, it is madness to give any kind of firearm to a man who has a record of repeated gun-related crime. Some human beings are simply not responsible enough to be armed. But something similar must be said even of entire peoples: there are human societies in which it is just for the laws to permit wide gun ownership, because they show themselves responsible enough to handle it; there are other societies where such laws would be foolhardy and dangerous. And even as one judges human beings on a one-to-one basis, so must one do with communities, societies, and peoples. Not the institutions, but the human material, is the true foundation of all civil life.
      With this in mind, let us Americans look closer to home. There is no doubt we are suffering presently from a great many gun-related problems. These problems have become much more palpable and much more acute in recent years. But here already we should take pause: for while the problems have grown worse, it is not as if guns have become suddenly so much more numerous. The contrary: the United States has a tradition extending back to its very origins of permitting and indeed encouraging the broad possession of firearms, for a variety of very defensible reasons. I myself came of age in small towns in the West, places in which firearms were readily available; I can count on one finger the number of times anyone in these towns was murdered by a gun while I lived there, and this was a Mexican in gang-related activity. The constant between the past of the United States and the present has been wide gun possession; what has changed is the quantity and nature of the crimes. Guns themselves, then, cannot be the cause of this change. We must look instead to those alterations in the tissue of custom and demographics, those transformations in the atmosphere of American life, those psychological and sociological mutations within our very citizenry, which alone can help us understand these American difficulties with greater clarity. It is not the gun, but the hand that wields it, which should be our prime concern.
      And with this in mind I may answer my Italian inquirers: yes, I am surely ashamed; ashamed that my people has evidently grown so unstable and fickle that it can no longer live up to the responsibilities implicit in its own traditions—and ashamed over all that it is so often unwilling to look at the demons in its society and in its soul, the true reasons it suffers these ills, but puts the blame steadily and fixedly elsewhere.

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