12/17/2012 05:08 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Gun Control, Or Reloading Morality?

I'm willing to concede that there may be a glint of truth in the argument that stricter control of guns, or banning them entirely, wouldn't necessarily prevent crime, or even the kind of massacre we saw in Newtown, CT, on Friday. The counterpoint, of course, is that restricting the ownership of assault weapons would doubtless make such killings more difficult to carry out, but that doesn't necessarily invalidate the premise.

It is, to be sure, a vastly more intelligent argument than the alternatives advanced by the pro-gun lobby: that arming everybody would eliminate crime or mass murder, or that the 2nd Amendment is constitutional and therefore beyond question.

Arming schoolchildren or teachers likely wouldn't have stopped the evil perpetrated in Newtown and, in any case, it would be a crossing of the Rubicon of an unimaginable magnitude. The 2nd Amendment was designed to allow 18th century citizens to arm themselves against the government, not each other which, in any case, seems a bit pointless given the 21st century global superiority of the U.S. military (nobody suggests that citizens should be allowed to own cluster bombs, or drones, or nuclear weapons, for example.)

But perhaps the issue isn't specifically gun control, or the 2nd Amendment. And if it isn't, then another question emerges: what is it that makes the phenomenon we witnessed in Connecticut, and countless atrocities like it, so quintessentially -- and so tragically -- American?

One answer is to do with the values of society more broadly. No society is either perfectly virtuous or evil; both malice and kindness exist everywhere. But, in recent times, American society has proudly venerated the basest instincts of human nature -- ruthlessness, greed and the self-interested contempt for others -- as fundamental to the survival of the nation as a whole.

These are not, however, timeless American values. The myth of rugged individualism and the coveting of wealth certainly have their roots in the pioneer ethos of conquering the forbidding wilderness, and what sociologist Max Weber called the Protestant ethic: the Calvinist belief that hard work, in the pursuit of the common good, indicated those who would be "saved" and enter heaven.

But no pioneer ever made it to the frontier on their own. Calvinism was a moral program designed (rightly or wrongly) to prevent mendicancy, not a philosophy of greed. The Constitution is premised on equality. The legalized ability of citizens to openly cheat each other was curbed after the South Sea Bubble and the Great Depression. FDR's New Deal in the 1930s and Truman's Fair Deal after WWII both recognized the responsibility of a decent and civilized society to provide a social safety net, that communities were important and that individuals deserved to be protected from oppression and exploitation by the powerful (including, one might posit, gun owners.)

However, as David Harvey has argued, since the Reagan era there has been a deliberate dismantling of community and social solidarity under neoliberalism in favor of an every-man-for-himself attitude, and the privileging of acquisitiveness and avarice over all else. The right of the individual to be free from oppression and exploitation has become the right of the individual to be free to exploit and oppress others. Communities are now merely dormitories, not the bedrock of social cohesion. The result is an embedded hyper-individualism, where regard for others is irrelevant, since the pursuit of success is, by definition, at the expense of others. Lest I be accused of economic reductionism, Reagan's arguably more stridently neoliberal counterpart, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, (in)famously declared that "there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women" and that "economics are the method: the object is to change the soul."

Reagan and Thatcher's neoliberal ideology inevitably entails the inculcation of a widespread amorality and misanthropy among the population. With Friday's events -- and the other half-a-dozen similar incidents this year alone -- it should be no surprise (though no less of a tragedy) when psychopathy comes home to roost.

The implied amorality of the NRA argument against gun control is illustrative, perhaps as much as the possible individual psychopathy of the gunman at Sandy Hook. Whatever its merits -- and statistics and opinions vary -- the idea that arming citizens protects them from other armed citizens does not address (and in many ways treats as entirely insignificant) the fact that someone is going to get killed. Its basis is in the maxim of "an eye for an eye," except with assault rifles and body armor. The silence of the NRA during the whole of Friday suggests that the gun lobby does not have an adequate -- or perhaps a palatable -- answer for the question that begs: is the slaughter of twenty children acceptable collateral damage to uphold the rights of the individual to bear arms?

Friday was a gross affront to human decency and the visitation of indignity on those who didn't deserve it. On Friday, ten days before Christmas, twenty families ... I don't know that "grieve" or "mourn" are verbs which adequately capture the sentiment, and I can't think of any which do. Perhaps there is just an indescribable hollowness; an empty noun which stands in for where somebody's child should be. If anything positive can come out of this, it's that the collective sense of wrongness is felt across society, and that this is a challenge to the persistent and malicious notion of a dehumanized and decontextualized hyper-individualism. Society needs to search its common soul for the answer as to whether this act of barbarity is an example of an ideology pushed too far. But this is an exorbitant price to pay -- the lessons which the children of Sandy Hook will never get to learn -- for a lesson that, as a society, we should have learned a long time ago.

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