Earlier this year, I answered a question in an interview by saying, "The United States of America is the one advanced nation on Earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense gun-safety laws — even in the face of repeated mass killings." And later that day, there was a mass shooting at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. That day! Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We've become numb to this.
— Barack Obama, October 2015
I recently generated some unintentional hilarity at a dinner table when I said that pacifism was the key to reducing gun violence. "So," a friend sarcastically said, "you're not only gonna get us world peace in five years. You're gonna get us gun control too."
Well ... maybe so, though I won't do it alone.
Many of us are in despair about the rash of gun shootings in the United States of America. We're stunned and furious about our NRA-funded Congress's inability to pass gun control laws. Even President Obama seems to be resigned to short-term failure, since Congress is nowhere even close to passing serious gun control laws, and instead wastes its time blocking small measures like closing the gun show loophole.
The stakes are painfully high when we talk about gun violence: images of dead children on one side, rhetoric about the bloody tree of liberty on the other. Because the stakes are so high, our debates about gun control and gun violence tend to be harsh, shrill and unforgiving. That describes the state of the debate today: loud, shrill, painful but yet ineffective and without hope.
Since our nation is deadlocked on this terrible problem, it won't hurt to take a step back from the screaming battle lines and try to think more broadly about why we're stuck. The philosophy of pacifism has much insight to offer with regard to this major problem, and can be good medicine for gun violence for at least three reasons:
1. There Cannot Be Peace At Home In A World At War
If you talk to an NRA supporter about why guns must never be banned, it probably won't take long before the NRA supporter reveals the motivation we all know and understand: many Americans believe their country to be at imminent threat of foreign invasion, abetted by internal enemies who are already scheming to end America's tradition of individual freedom. The guns are a stockpile against this future threat, as well as a symbol of determined resistance.
This vision may seem paranoid to critics of the NRA ... however, this paranoia is stoked by the horrific realities of violence, dictatorship and totalitarian exploitation that exists today around the world, and therefore cannot be easily dismissed.
The United States of America cannot exist as a fortress of peaceful domesticity in North America while wars rage in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. As long as war is the primary fact of life outside our nation's boundaries, guns will continue to be very popular in our homes. That's not to say that ending the epidemic of violent wars around the world (if such a thing could happen) would immediately solve the epidemic of gun violence at home. But the obverse seems to be self-evident: as long as violent wars are going on around the world, it will be that much harder to reduce the domestic paranoia that keeps the NRA in business.
The connection between global war and domestic gun violence can also be seen in the life stories and profiles of the sick individuals who commit acts of mass violence such as school shootings. These sick individuals show a variety of interests: sometimes they're obsessed with Batman, or with dogs, or with video games. But mass shooters have one disturbing characteristic: they tend to relate heavily to military themes, and are often obsessive guerrophiles.
2. Gun Control Advocates Must Treat Their Opponents With Respect
The great nonviolent campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were exceptional for always treating opponents with dignity and respect. Too often, those of us who support greater gun control laws today make the mistake of ridiculing and minimizing our opponents.We would do well to follow the examples of Gandhi and King and begin taking a higher road in the gun control debate.
This may be easier said than done, especially in some of the East/West coastal cities where insulting "dumb rednecks" is commonplace. (Sorry, but it is, and this needs to stop.) Gun control activists need to remember that NRA supporters are not stupid, are not uneducated, are not small-minded.
I have the privilege of knowing many different people who are passionate gun-owners, and have learned that there are many different reasons, some entirely valid, for their interest in guns. The tradition of pacifism reminds us that we should try to always avoid the mistake of categorizing, stereotyping or insulting those we disagree with. We need to take on the NRA directly, but we must do this from a position of dignity, empathy and respect. The more we can live up to this ideal, the more effective we will be able to be in persuading those who fear gun laws to open their minds to change.
3. We Can't Get Rid of the Little Guns Without Getting Rid of the Big Guns
It's no coincidence that the United States of America has the worst gun violence in the world, and also spends more money than any other country on weapons and soldiers.
We mentioned the "gun show loophole" above. But the photo at the top of this page doesn't show some neighborhood gun show in some Missouri hockey rink. It's the annual AUSA Conference in Washington DC: the biggest gun show of all, where USA military personnel gather to talk and drink and admire shiny new weapons.
The AUSA is about a hundred times bigger than any neighborhood gun show, and those shiny new weapons are paid for by taxpayers. That's some gun show loophole.