'Order at Universal Gunpoint'

The other day I tried to nail down what, specifically, bothered me about the "more guns" solution to American violence. Over at The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs makes the point with which I was struggling:

But what troubles me most about this suggestion -- and the general More Guns approach to social ills -- is the absolute abandonment of civil society it represents. It gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian "war of every man against every man" in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now -- but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly. 

Whatever lack of open violence may be procured by this method is not peace or civil order, but rather a standoff, a Cold War maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction. Moreover, the person who wishes to live this way, to maintain order at universal gunpoint, has an absolute trust in his own ability to use weapons wisely and well: he never for a moment asks whether he can be trusted with a gun. Of course he can! (But in literature we call this hubris.) 

Is this really the best we can do? It might be if we lived in, say, the world described by Cormac McCarthy in The Road. But we don't. Our social order is flawed, but by no means bankrupt. Most of us live in peace and safety without the use of guns. It makes more sense to try to make that social order safer and safer, more and more genuinely peaceful, rather than descend voluntarily into a world governed by paranoia, in which one can only feel safe -- or, really, "safe" -- with cold steel strapped to one's ribcage.

I've talked a lot about the presumption of goodness in our society. For instance, there needs to be some sense that the mere act of arming oneself might invest you with a particular hubris, that there will be side-effects from arming educators, that placing weaponry in our elementary schools affects our broader conception of ourselves as a society. 

One of the points of a democratic society is to put brakes on our animal impulses -- impulses which are universal across humankind. I think much of our recent firearm legislation -- Stand Your Ground, for instance -- runs in the exact opposite direction. I wonder if Michael Dunn would have said one word to those kids had he not been armed.

It assumes, as Jacobs puts it, an "absolute trust" in ourselves. Jacobs cautions against making law out of white elephant events, and I think that's generally correct. But I can not escape the fact that Nancy Lanza was, as far as we know, a responsible gun owner. She was following the theory of "more guns." Those guns were then used to kill her.

UPDATE: Cleaning up the McArdle comments, which are all off-topic. I don't think it's smart to teach people to rush a guy armed to the teeth in body-armor. But I also don't want half the comments in the section wondering at Megan McArdle's prospects. Please do that somewhere else. 
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

From This Author

Just In