Guns, civil society, and peacemaking

In the wake of the horrific massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday, a common reaction among some conservative/pro-gun folks has been that we should “arm the teachers.” This is consistent with responses to previous such events, like the movie theater shooting in Colorado this summer, when some gun proponents argued that if only someone else there had been armed, they would’ve been able to stop the shooter.

But apart from the logistical and safety issues this would raise, the more important reason this is a bad idea was well articulated today by two different writers. At the New York Times Opinionator blog, philosophy professor Firmin DeBrabander writes that “an armed society — especially as we prosecute it at the moment in this country — is the opposite of a civil society.” What he means is that if your solution to gun violence is to arm more people, in more places, more openly, you’ve replaced a society based on mutual trust and cooperation with one based on fear.

At the American Conservative, Alan Jacobs offers a similar thought:

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.

There can and should be vigorous debate about what kinds of gun control measures are desirable and practicable, but we also need to think about what kind of society we want to live in. The character of a society in which everyone walks around packing heat, Old West style, would be very different from one in which most of us feel safe enough to go about unarmed. There’s no question in my mind which is preferable.

In her sermon this Sunday, our pastor reminded us that Christians are to act as peacemakers as part of their calling to “bear the life of Christ” to the world. But there is peace based on fear, and there is peace based on love (or at least mutual respect). We’ll probably never eliminate the need for some “fear-based” policies, but the proper Christian stance, I submit, is to nudge social relations  in a “love-based” direction. By that standard, a more heavily armed and militarized society would be moving in the wrong direction.

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