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I wish I could say I’d been blindsided by the most recent shooting, but I’m old enough to remember Columbine and frankly, the horror has become mundane. Sometimes I wonder if this was the way New Yorkers felt in the 80s, when muggings were so commonplace as to be a running joke. I could quote statistics about gun crime and domestic terror to fill a thousand articles, but we have all already seen the data. We know that there is something wrong about the rate of gun crimes in America, we don’t need depersonalized numbers to bring that home.
So why, in a world where nail clippers aren’t allowed on airplanes, is American gun control so lax? To really understand this phenomenon, we have to look at the last time that property ownership was a major governmental debate: the end of slavery.
Regardless of the multitude of other factors that led to the Civil War, the biggest issue was that the United States government had decided that it was no longer legal to own a certain type of property: people. For the slave owners of the time, they saw this as the act of a tyrannical government. After all, American independence had been fought largely over economic rights. Part of the American dream was the promise of wealth and prosperity and we built a government that would support that.
So when the United States government declared that it was illegal to own people, war broke out. For the North, it was a matter of life and death. People’s lives were at stake. For the South, it was a matter of principle. Taking away property was in direct opposition to everything it meant to be American. What point was there in a life ruled by tyranny, where gifts and hard earned profits and valuable treasures could be confiscated at the slightest notice?
The American ideal of independence and economic autonomy certainly hasn’t faded over the years. Reaganism and anti-communist frenzy fed on that idea, embedding it deeper into our cultural consciousness. Trumpism is the direct result of that trend, leading to a constant barrage of court cases that question the interaction between individual ownership and individual social responsibility. It shouldn’t be a surprise that in this current political situation, individual ownership is winning that debate.
Of course, contrary to the popular ideas spread by game theory all last century, this focus on individual rights hasn’t exactly led to a better experience for the average person. Instead the economic divide is the deepest it has been since feudal times and millions live in crushing poverty. While the rhetoric of economic autonomy assuages the guilt of the wealthy by assuring them that the poor could be rich if only they had tried harder, it has little to no connection to reality.
So where does America go from here? With corporations and the mega-wealthy in control of political power we have avoided another civil war, but at the cost of hope for change. People will continue to die, because we value people’s right to own weapons more than we value people’s right to be safe. Gun lobbyists and enthusiasts will always paint governmental restrictions as tyranny, proof that Americans should have guns to protect them from the representatives they voted into office.
I believe that it is possible to unify the American people. Maybe I am a fool for believing that there is a way to reconcile opposite ways of viewing the world. Last time it took a war to re-unify the United States. The gun lobbyists are willing to wage war again, they love it when their market goes up. What we need are gun owners who can acknowledge that physical violence can’t cure social ills and that their gun collection can’t save them from poverty, unemployment, isolation, and untreated sickness.
We need gun owners who value the lives of others more than their illusion of safety.