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Six Thoughts on Guns and Freedom

02/18/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player 
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage 
And then is heard no more: it is a tale 
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
Signifying nothing. - Macbeth

I first drafted this essay nearly one year ago, following the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association in Indianapolis in April 2014. With the NRA now publicizing its 2015 annual meeting in Nashville, seems like a good time to revisit last year's frenzied, speaking-in-tongues tent revival, along with some of the ideas on the relationship between guns and freedom prompted by NRA nuttiness. Because... ya know... nothing much has changed.

* * *

The National Rifle Association held its annual meeting in Indianapolis this weekend, which quickly devolved into a kind of last days ecstasy. Highlights included a day-long seminar on how to evade laws that restrict access to guns, the unveiling of a television advertisement that depicts the United States as a place where filthy crimes go unpunished and killers and con-artists prey upon anyone who still follows the rules, and Sarah Palin memorably telling us that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists. The fierce piety that can allow NRA members to oorah to this chaos invites modest scrutiny.

1. Demographics

The demographics of gun ownership clearly are evolving, and they don't favor gun owners, who are predominantly older white males in rural parts of the South and Midwest. In the next 50 years, the nation will become more urban and less white. More young people will grow up in an environment where there is no functional need to own a gun and where the idea of owning a gun seems alien. For these reasons, trend lines do not favor gun owners.

Of course, guns are prevalent with young minorities who live in cities, but gun possession among this population is largely associated with gangs and drugs. In other words, gun possession within this urban youth population is an immensely destructive accoutrement of youth, not an article of religious faith. Revamping our drug and incarceration policies to keep kids in school and out of jail, and to remove the market incentives for illegal drug trafficking, would likely make a big dent in the percentage of young minorities living in cities who possess firearms.

2. Protection

Notably, the percentage of Americans who say they own a gun for protection has risen precipitously at the same time that crime has fallen dramatically. For this reason, it is difficult to make the argument that the perceived need for "protection" is based in reality, on actual probabilities of meaningful threat. Instead, we must wonder whether the urge to own a gun for personal security rests more on a different, less concrete understanding of what constitutes a threat, and how best to handle that threat, whether it is imagined or real.

Guns give people the fantasy of control, not the reality of control, so to understand the firearms ownership obsession, we need to appreciate what fantasies are at work. For example, there is a significant fear among whites of black youths. But most violence involving young black males is seemingly geographically specific, committed against other black males, who more than likely know each other personally. This reality removes any reasonable argument for stand-your-ground laws, concealed weapons laws, open carry laws, and let's-allow-guns-in-schools-parks-churches-and-bars laws.

3. Constitution

Second Amendment zealots appear not to understand how far they have removed themselves from the global mainstream when it comes to opinions about gun ownership. Citizens of other nations generally feel no need to own guns and their rate of gun violence is far lower than it is in the United States. For this reason, we should not underestimate how weird and creepy our national obsession with firearms appears to people in other countries around the world.

Appealing to an abstract "Constitutional" or "God-given" right to own guns in response to the condemnation of pretty much everyone else in the world really is not useful. Most legal scholars would agree our 225-year-old Constitution, which is one of the oldest in existence, and which has never had a fixed meaning but has always been in instrument of political conflict, is long-past due for an overhaul. The U.S. Constitution was drafted for a nation entirely different from the country in which we now live. As for our right to own guns being God-given, well, maybe we should let God speak for herself on this matter.

4. Politics

People in the United States generally don't question the need for our state governments to license both cars and their drivers. It is self-evident to just about everyone that cars in poor condition, or in the possession of the wrong people, become weapons that menace our safety.

The logic for gun-control laws is virtually identical to the logic for licensing cars and drivers. And so it should not surprise us that one of the biggest obstacles to reasonable gun-control laws, particularly in less densely populated states, is the outsized influence within their governing bodies of white, male, and rural representatives. It is precisely among these populations where one would expect the logic for regulating ownership and use of both firearms and motor vehicles to be almost equally suspect.

The intimidating rhetoric and organizational virtuosity of the National Rifle Association reinforces the rural-white-male bias within state legislatures. The effect has been to give interests favoring extreme gun rights disproportionate power to open the floodgates to gun ownership and to block laws that would enact even the mildest background check or gun safety provisions. Of course the other major source of influence in this debate, when one looks further under the skirts of the NRA, is the firearms industry.

5. Human Nature

Guns don't kill people, people do.

When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

For decades, gun rights advocates have parroted these slogans without really feeling any need to justify their claims logically or support them with evidence. Indeed, logic and evidence both clearly indicate that the abstract concept of a "person" is woefully inadequate for capturing the range of psychological circumstances and conditions to which every one of us is subject on a daily basis. At any given moment, even the most rational or disciplined or experienced among us is capable of acting irresponsibly or dangerously -- out of rage or despair or incompetence or inattention or indifference.

We are imperfect beings. Put a perfect tool of destruction and mayhem in our hands, and you can well predict the havoc we are capable of unleashing.

6. Freedom

Gun rights advocates in the United States sequester their odd claims under the sheltering canopy of faith and freedom. Gun ownership has become a bizarre, frenzied religion. A cargo cult that worships the smooth barrel of a gun, a false idol, with its prosthetic, prophetic promise that we can blast our way into Heaven. The language of the Second Amendment has itself become fundamentalist literalism, obsessively parsed for divine meanings and prophecies, the authority that justifies itself. To paraphrase Sarah Palin, violence is how we baptize our enemies and confirm our freedom.

However, neither gun ownership nor the Second Amendment can confer, exalt, or secure freedom. Enhanced destructive capabilities do not make us free. Nor can we subsist on parchment freedoms inscribed in the Constitution. Indeed, to make a piece of technology or a piece of sheepskin the enabling condition for our freedom is to trivialize beyond recognition the meaning of freedom, and its importance to our nation.

Freedom is a spiritual condition of awareness, an intellectual endowment of foresight and reflection, a physical gift of health and wholeness, and a social capacity for conversation and communion. We are free when we can trust the spaces and the silences that separate us from our brothers and sisters, an interim that lets us fully see ourselves, and know ourselves, in the whites of their eyes and in the rise and fall of their breasts.

The gun destroys the interim. The gun takes away our freedom.