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Why Americans tolerate gun violence
A scary incident at a Little League game in Georgia is emblematic of a gun culture run amok
 
The right to bear arms — but at what cost?
The right to bear arms — but at what cost? (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Imagine the horror. You're sitting in the stands at your son's Little League game, and you notice a man with a gun pacing back and forth in the parking lot, murmuring something you can't quite make out. Understandably panicking, the coach cancels the game while parents call 911 — 22 such calls end up being made — and barricade their children inside the dugout for protection.

While everyone waits for the sheriff to arrive, you take a deep breath and begin slowly walking toward the man. As you approach him, he turns and says, "See my gun? Look, I got a gun and there's nothing you can do about it." You back away, fearing for your life.

When the sheriff finally arrives, he, too, approaches the man to discuss the situation, and then wanders over to the parents. Sure, he tells them, the man's behavior is "inappropriate." But there's nothing the police can do about it. The man, you see, is merely exercising his "constitutional right to bear arms."

Just another day in the land of the free and the home of the terrified — in this case, Forsyth County, Georgia, on the evening of Tuesday, April 22.

Why on earth do we tolerate it?

And make no mistake, that is precisely what we do. It might feel good to blame the National Rifle Association and denounce its execrable influence. But the fact is that its money and lobbyists would hold far less sway in Congress and in state capitals if million upon millions of Americans weren't receptive to its message and perfectly willing to accept a bloody massacre every few months in return for the freedom to walk around a Little League parking lot brandishing a handgun. This is a trade-off that lots of us apparently find perfectly reasonable.

The question, again, is why.

The answer lies, in part, in the peculiarly one-sided way that Americans have absorbed and institutionalized the lessons of modern political thinking.

Broadly speaking, modern government moves between two poles, each of which has a 17th-century thinker as its champion, and each of which is focused on minimizing a particular form of injustice. On one side is Thomas Hobbes, who defended the creation of an authoritarian government as the only viable means of protecting certain individuals and groups from injustices perpetrated by other individuals and groups. On the other side is John Locke, who advocated a minimal state in order to protect all individuals and groups against injustices perpetrated by governments themselves. Taken to an extreme, the Hobbesian pole leads to totalitarianism, while the Lockean pole terminates in the quasi-anarchism of the night-watchman state.

Aside from the pretty thoroughly Hobbesian state of North Korea, every functional government in the world mixes elements of these pure forms — and partisan disputes within nations can often be understood as conflicts over how Hobbesian or Lockean the government should be on a given issue.

From the time of the American Revolution, with its justification of rebellion against the tyrannical King George III, the United States has defaulted toward the Lockean pole. This diminished somewhat from the 1930s through the 1970s, when we tended to balance Hobbesian and Lockean concerns. But with the rise of the New Right and the election of Ronald Reagan, the Lockean outlook began to reassert itself, with the Republicans becoming a more purely Lockean party (on everything except abortion and national security). The Tea Party has pushed this tendency even further.

On the specific issue of guns, the NRA has been remarkably effective at convincing large numbers of Americans (and at least five Supreme Court justices) to treat the Second Amendment to the Constitution as a Lockean bulwark against tyranny that establishes an absolute, nonnegotiable individual right to bear arms.

Many Americans believe passionately in this right. But they should be honest about the costs. Governments are indeed one source of injustice in the world, but private individuals and groups are another. In fixating on the danger of tyranny to the exclusion of other threats to the common good, gun-rights advocates have come to accept far too much injustice with far too much complacency.

It doesn't have to be this way. It's one thing for individuals to own and possess rifles and handguns for use on firing ranges and in their homes to protect against intruders. It's quite another for them to be permitted to purchase semi-automatic weapons and carry pistols in public — in blatant defiance of the first principle of politics, which is that government must have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. To deny that principle is to court anarchy and the chaos and violence that go along with it.

Only a people monomaniacally obsessed with a single form of injustice could find the status quo acceptable, let alone something to be venerated.

That's a form of exceptionalism that no American should be proud of.

 
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a former contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

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