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Ira Chernus Headshot

The Fantasy of Absolute Safety

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My son was spending the night in Aurora, Colo., 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.

The movie theater "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. Yet a moment's reflection tells me we can never make our public or private spaces absolutely safe -- neither for our children, our students, nor ourselves -- no matter how desperately we want to.

We could make our spaces relatively safer by one simple political decision: No civilian should have military style weapons -- AK-47s, semi-automatic rifles, or the Glock semi-automatic pistols so favored by mass killers.

There's only one problem: Political reality. It isn't just the clout of the National Rifle Association, which is real but over-rated. A bigger problem is that this is a democracy, and a majority of us do not want stricter gun control laws. 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 percent of us would support the liberal cause of "gun control."

And the number who want guns laws eased has risen even more dramatically since 1990: from 2 to 11 percent. Yes, even in this conservative era a mere 11 percent of us want less regulation of guns.

What's more, 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.

Our national contradiction is an old story. On the one hand, we've got a tradition as old as the U.S. itself: 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.

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: 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.

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