I was raised in Western gun culture, so I had a different perspective from the liberal hysteria after the Connecticut school shooting. That can be boiled down to: Ban guns and our problems will be solved. Well, no. From an early age, I was taught gun safety, including an NRA safe hunter course in the eighth grade at Kenilworth School. My friends and I would go target shooting in empty deserts. My scoutmaster taught me how to fire my first semi-automatic rifle. As important as the shooting was always checking to make sure a gun was unloaded, knowing that if you dropped the magazine, a round might still be in the chamber.
“Don’t point a gun at someone unless you intend to shoot them,” my mother said. A concert pianist, she was also an expert shot and would not have hesitated had we been at risk. She did not like handguns. To her mind, a handgun could be too accessible while one was still angry. Through all this was a thread of deep seriousness: A firearm was deadly, had to be treated with respect and care.
Needless to say, this culture existed in a West with many fewer people than live there today. Still, I own guns. I like them. If I had the money, I would buy more. I’m not a hunter like my uncle and grandfather. But I do like target shooting.
In the 1960s, liberal sociologists explained rising crime as the outgrowth of “the sick society.” Then it included racism and lack of economic opportunity for minorities and many low-income Americans. But that society was healthy compared with today’s. These endless cavalcades of mass shootings — taking place while overall violent crime is falling – are telling us something important. I don’t claim to know all the answers, but I have some suspicions.
Young men, full of testosterone and primal urges, are always especially dangerous. This makes them good soldiers. In the old days, a stint in the service did much to turn dangerous young men into responsible adults. Or they were channeled into other grown-up endeavors which taught dependability, trustworthiness and maturity. That world is gone.
Most mediating institutions also are gone, ailing or have lost their legitimacy: Unions, church, close families, secure jobs. Real community. Women who taught young men civilizing behavior. Fathers and uncles who were genuine role models.
Most of today’s America is marked by amorphous suburbia, everything car-dependent and separated. Our isolation breeds dysfunction. It’s telling how these horrific events happen there, not in downtowns or ghettos. Our society is hyper-stimulated by electronics. Television spews an endless firehose of the national freak-show. Our politics is dominated by hatred, especially against that (black) man in the White House, and specifically among a certain cohort of angry white men. Society has become infantilized. Young men who can’t get girlfriends play murderous video games, listen to violent hip-hop, have their brains fried by constant electronic distractions. Our malls and streets are full of nominal adults covered with tattoos, dressed like adolescents, calling each other “motherf-----.”
Nobody seems to know what is appropriate, nor is this expected by grown ups, even the small things. Wearing a suit to work, a funeral or the symphony is not being “uptight.” These are among the scores of things that once civilized potentially dangerous young men.
America has been coarsened by more than a decade of ill-advised and failed wars. Those conflicts mired us in situations where combatants and civilians were often indistinguishable.
Much of this is not new. America created its continental empire through violence, especially Indian removal, white supremacy, slavery and Jim Crow, whose lynchings were so popular that they spawned a postcard industry depicting this racial brutality. It’s important to note that many Americans opposed these measures, but they were usually on the losing side. Some is new. President Obama’s re-election has been followed by record gun sales. Research indicates more guns do translate into more gun violence. Mass shootings are getting more prevalent.
Do we need more attention to mental health? Sure. But the reality is that most of these killers wouldn’t have availed themselves of such services or taken their meds.
As for gun control, my Second Amendment stance will not please progressive readers. The amendment is unfortunately worded ambiguously, but all of the Bill of Rights pertained to individual rights and limitations on the government. If the framers had intended the Second Amendment to apply to the militia, it would have been inserted elsewhere in the Constitution. That said, no right is absolute, trumping all others. The Constitution was written before we became an urbanized society with 312 million people and before assault weapons. So limitations on assault rifles and magazine size, requiring registration and eliminating the gun-show loophole all sound reasonable to me.
The National Rifle Association, of which I was once a member, has become a disease on the body politic. The NRA has enabled and encouraged shootings and the opportunities for using a gun instead of a harsh word or a fist. Nothing should be more abhorrent to gun owners.With some 270 million guns already in the country, I am skeptical that merely passing some gun-control laws and enhancing mental-health operations can stem the bloodshed. We must do more, addressing the other cancers I have already mentioned.
Jon Talton is a former Observer business editor.
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