A group of handguns. Credit: Wikipedia
My son was spending the night in Aurora, Colorado, when all hell broke loose just a few miles away. He wasn’t in the Century 16 theater. But he might have been; he loves those opening nights. And there wasn’t a thing I could do to protect him.
I’m a professor at the University of Colorado (though not on the campus where James Holmes studied). I’ve surely had quiet students who were deeply troubled but, like Holmes, drew no attention to themselves. So there wasn’t a thing I could do to help protect them.
I’m active in a community organization trying to improve Colorado’s abysmal mental health services: The state ranks dead-last in per capita psychiatric hospital beds, and services of every kind have suffered drastic budget cuts. I’ve had more than one family member who needed help badly and got that help only after a long wait, persistent struggle, and nasty fights with insurance companies. Lots of folks don’t have decent insurance, or anyone to fight the woefully inadequate system on their behalf.
The shooting at that movie theater in Aurora hit me personally on all these levels. It made me realize how little I, or anyone, can do to prevent such mass violence.
That’s the bottom line of the national gasp of horror. “This was supposed to be a safe space,” as Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post. But now it feels like, “no space is safe; maybe that’s what’s shocking.” Surely that’s what’s shocking, I’d say. But a moment’s reflection on my experience as a parent, a teacher, and a community activist tells me it’s true. We can never make our public and private spaces absolutely safe.
Yet we can make them safer.
From the first reports, it seems there’s nothing the mental health system or the University could have done to spot Holmes as a troubled young man. No one really noticed him. He was so “ordinary.” That’s what the neighbors typically say in these cases, and it’s usually true. Even when the signs of trouble are there, it’s extraordinarily hard to change a person who is so deeply disturbed.
It would be much easier to change their access to weapons of mass killing. At least easier ideally, in principle. But not in political reality, it seems. The problem isn’t just the clout of the National Rifle Association, which is real but probably over-rated. The bigger problem is that so many Americans are paralyzed on the gun issue, caught in a crossfire of competing cultural traditions, beliefs, and symbols that make it very difficult to mobilize the public in any clear direction.
Just look at the numbers:
Gallup tells us that the number of Americans favoring stricter gun laws has fallen by nearly half in the last half century. That shocking statistic reflects the long post-‘60s rightward shift in the national mood. “Gun control” is widely seen as an idea by and for liberals. By now less than a quarter of us will wear that badge. To the rest of America, liberals look more or less dangerous because they are "soft" on keeping us safe from enemies, foreign and domestic. It’s impressive that even 43% of us would support the liberal cause of “gun control.”
However, the number who want guns laws eased has risen dramatically since 1990: from 2 to 11 percent. Yes, only 11 percent of us want less strict regulation of guns. And support for specific gun control measures -- waiting periods and background checks for gun buyers (even at gun shows), banning assault weapons, registering all guns with local government -- remains very high. A slim majority even support limits on the number of guns a person can own. (Most gun owners have several, and most mass killers are caught holding many guns.)
So here’s the real political problem: Ask people about specific, common-sense gun control measures and they strongly approve. Ask them about “gun control” in the abstract, and a growing majority says no, though almost half say yes. We, the people as a whole, want controls but we don’t want them. When nations, like individuals, try to go in two directions at once they get paralyzed. That’s where we are on the politics of gun control.
The roots of our paralysis run very deep in our cultural history, where traditions about guns are equally ambivalent. It looks like Americans have a love affair with guns. “America's gun ownership rates are vastly higher than that of other wealthy countries,” according to economist Howard Steven Friedman. “Only one OECD country has a rate that is even half as much of America's gun ownership rate.” The Gallup survey found gun ownership dropping just slightly in recent decades.
But far fewer than half of American homes have guns. The General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center found a steady and sizeable decline over the last 35 years in the number of households with guns. That decline showed up in every age group and was especially sharp in recent years among people under 30.
Those numbers reflect a contradiction as old as the nation itself. On the one hand, we’ve got a tradition going back to colonial times that says: If you want to be safe, get a gun; if you want to be absolutely safe, get a lot of guns. That’s why Americans once built forts and stockades and included the right to well-regulated militias in the Constitution.
Since World War II, we’ve made our quest for absolute safety our number one national priority by far, under the banner of “national security.” That’s why we built a nuclear “shield” of tens of thousands of bombs that can each destroy a whole city. It’s also why we have a military nearly as big as all the rest of the world’s militaries combined. Now we call it “homeland security.” we’ve enshrined it as our sacred national myth.
And that’s why, with the eager help of the military-industrial complex, we are awash in a sea of military weapons -- a sea that on tragic occasions turns to blood in our own homeland.
Yet we also have another tradition as old as the nation itself, inscribed in the very first words of our constitution: to provide for the common defense, which most of us now take to mean absolute safety. The longing for absolute safety is certainly as strong, and probably stronger, among conservatives as it is among liberals. Across the political spectrum most of us want stricter specific gun control laws, which we expect will keep guns out of the hands of “evildoers” at home just as we hunt down and annihilate the “evildoers” abroad.
So we’re caught in a crossfire of competing cultural traditions and beliefs that make it very difficult to mobilize the public in any clear direction when it comes to guns. Paralyzed by our ambivalence, we can’t mobilize for political change. So we leave it easy for anyone to get weapons of mass slaughter.
The result is a growing fear that no space is safe any more, that at any moment our longing for absolutely safety could be shot to pieces. Fear is even more paralyzing than ambivalence. When Americans do manage to act on their fear, their most common response is to chase the fantasy of safety by getting another gun, or at least allowing others to get more guns. Fear will override common sense most every time.
In the movies we see the most fantastic military-style weapons deal out measureless blood and gore. Audiences applaud it all, because they trust that the good guys on the screen will end up with their absolute safety restored. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way in real life -- not even in movie theaters.
The root of the problem is our dedication to the fantasy of absolute safety and security. The sooner we recognize that as our national fantasy and stop arming ourselves to the teeth in pursuit of it, the safer we all will be.