13 January 2011

The Deep Roots of America's Gun Culture

Along the 2,000 miles of border between San Diego and Corpus Christi, there are about 6,700 gun dealers. All on the American side, of course: guns are illegal in bullet-ridden Mexico.

Perhaps the reason that Americans love their guns has its roots deep in the collective history of Western Civilization.

The conservative impulse is always a desire for what once was, a pull towards some idealized past. This is not to say that it is at odds with progress: Renaissance thinkers sought to return to what they saw as the glorious past of the Greeks and Romans. They were not deliberately trying to create something new but were, instead, trying to revive the classical world that had died centuries before.

Conservatives try to retain what is – or even return to what they imagine once was. Religious conservatives feel a pull towards a past in which the church could define society. Social conservatives want to return to an imagined past in which social mores were more clear, were simpler, when mores were more moral.

Without understanding what came before the nation-state, one can’t really understand the love of guns in this country. It seems to have its roots in feudal Europe, a pull towards an idealized world that came before the rule of the state.

Few realize that feudal Europe was a world in which disputes were settled by, well, feuds. There was no recognized central government and if two families or regions or people had a difference, they settled it through negotiation, trickery, or force.

Although clergy were prohibited from carrying arms, everyone else was expected to be armed and prepared to defend himself. Rights were not guaranteed but had to be fought for and “war” regularly broke out between families, groups, and even individuals. Although this seems to us like anarchy, these feuds were one characteristic of feudalism.

Medieval society was closer to anarchy than anything we know of as a modern nation-state. Force was used to settle issues and anyone could wage war against anyone else. Feuds were common in this age of feudalism. If this seems primitive, American readers might do well to remember what happened to the chief author of the Federalist Papers, which did so much to define the United States. Even for him, law did not offer an honorable resolution to disagreement: Hamilton, the first American Treasury Secretary, was killed in a duel because Aaron Burr thought that Hamilton’s criticism ruined his candidacy. The bill of rights that included a right to bear arms drew from this earlier time of feuds when the individual distrusted government’s monopoly on power. Even this constitutional genius had more regard for honor than law; culture changes slowly and involves more than just reason. Although they didn’t use pistols, many a medieval man died as did Hamilton, although for them there would have been, for them, no alternative of resorting to law rather than a personal duel or feud.

Conservatives today have a love of guns because theirs is still an uneasy trust in the machinations of justice as administered by the state.

Now for us normal people, the thought of justice administered by force rather than law or reason seems unreasonable. And perhaps many conservatives would articulate the same thing. But in some deeper recess of their coerced social evolution, they still pull back from the idea of ceding power to faceless bureaucrats. The right to bear arms becomes sacred because it represents at a real and visceral level the last bastion of resistance against the monopoly on power that the state uses as the basis for everything else it imposes upon its citizens – from laws, regulations, and taxes. 

3 comments:

Thomas said...

Texas has mandatory jail time for possession of brass knuckles, and I guess Brass Knuckle Control works because I've never heard of them being used in a crime.

That was an aside.

nunya said...

Most conservatives have no idea that the the things they fear and hate the most are used to manipulate them.

Damon said...

as a conservative, I whole heartedly agree with much of your point here Ron. And yup, those last 2 sentences pretty much sum up my feelings.