America’s gun debate is framed too narrowly to be helpful; advocacy for gun legislation isn’t only about preventing school shootings, nor does it seek to circumvent the 2nd Amendment. Legislation does more than command or prohibit behavior, it formally declares social priorities, what is acceptable to a society and what isn’t. Laws reflect, and in myriad ways shape our social values. Focusing on the cultural implications of gun legislation, or lack of it, provides a deeper and more productive focus for a national conversation.
Gun violence in America is a cultural and bi-partisan problem–at least I assume we all agree it’s a problem–that requires all our culture shaping tools to fix. Congressional opposition to restrictions on time, place, or type of gun possession, despite the country’s extraordinarily high rates of gun violence, declares to all Americans and to the world that institutionalizing our affection for guns is one of our highest national priorities.
Similarly, answering the horror of gunned down children and teachers with a call to arm teachers, with no evidence this would prevent more harm than it would cause, tells everyone that we see guns as our first and best, if not only means of preventing violence. When gun advocates say, “the best answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” they are also saying “the best answer to gun violence is more gun violence.” These are the values and beliefs our children are learning, and, thus, on which we continue to build our culture.
I suspect we’ve been fish in this culture bowl for so long we don’t even see the water we’re swimming in–a society structured by biases that accept ubiquitous violence as inevitable. Most of us don’t see, for example, the federal laws passed at the NRA’s behest that shield gun manufacturers from civil suit and prohibit government agencies from collecting data to study gun violence as a public health issue. Most of us probably assume the 2nd Amendment protects the right to own assault weapons, even though the Supreme Court specifically declined to say that, because gun advocates repeatedly make the claim with great passion. By accepting all this as normal, as just the way it is and always will be, we don’t see these are choices we could make differently.
Yes, it can be and is argued (with little hard evidence one way or the other) that restrictions would not have prevented some of our worst mass shootings, that there are already millions of guns out there that bad guys could always get their hands on, and that an armed civilian might be able to stop a mass shooter sooner and save lives. But those arguments are doing nothing to reduce the violence, and probably won’t yield until every man, woman, and child is armed and the gun violence goes on unabated; maybe not even then.
More importantly, those arguments miss a crucial point. By refusing to try, refusing to study and experiment with meaningful restrictions, we pronounce as a matter of policy, with immeasurable ripples through the culture, that our commitment to and faith in guns is absolute, stronger than our commitment to and faith in creating a less violent society. The fresh and shocked eyes of the Parkland high school students saw through this cultural water (made opaque by the NRA’s skewed and powerful messaging), and called BS! Their vision is refreshingly clear. The nation would do well to look through their eyes and see what they see.