To own or not to own?

Stephen B. Young, The Daily Record Newswire

President Barack Obama has made enhanced regulation of guns and those who might use them priority goals for our country.

I recently convened a round-table discussion after the Sandy Hook irrationality to consider what might be done. Participants, thankfully, offered thoughts of considerable insight and much common sense. In this commentary I want to summarize and share their observations:

They concluded that for Americans, guns have acquired a metaphorical and symbolic expressive power that readily overlooks facts and reasoned argument. The emotional association of guns as representations of security moves this policy debate outside the boundaries of easily found accommodation and compromise. The character of the debate over gun control is more antagonistic than usual — more akin to deep cultural conflicts, such as differences in religious beliefs and practices.

With reference to history, it was remarked that America grew out of a warrior culture, with war glorified to defend and protect good values against threats. In this tradition, the gun took on a very positive meaning. Consider that the image of the American Revolution is the Minuteman Statue with the farmer standing with a rifle at his side. Guns represent power and freedom, two iconic values. To take away personal possession of these values by taking away guns is a threat to personal identity, causing fear.

The divide over the proper degree of gun control reflects a cultural divide in a country where a moral consensus has been lost, along with the role of moral laws that should be respected. Many Americans have perceived that fundamental moral laws of nature and nature’s God are no longer respected. This gives rise to fear for the future out of a corresponding belief that where such laws are violated, one must suffer consequences. A struggling economy seems to prove that something is not right; too much debt and indulgence also raise fears over an inability to restore moral coherence. For many on the right, President Obama embodies this sense that we have to fear what is coming.

Many baby boomers were, due to the Cold War, socialized to fear air raid drills and the very potent thought of nuclear war suddenly breaking out. Since the mid-20th century, the U.S. has been in a state of near-perpetual war, with the notion that there is always an enemy “out there” becoming normalized.

The group noted with sadness that the most powerful normative institution in our culture — with great power to upset our sense of moral order — is: the media. The media — unlike families, churches and schools — is expressly a for-profit institution, driven by the desire to make money from its products, lacking countervailing, internal, moral responsibilities.

The values promoted by contemporary media are hedonistic, “me first,” materialistic, envious and emotionally damaging. The moral vision of the media is that happiness can be found in things and that even other people are just objects. From this comes a callous culture of narcissism and profligacy. More importantly, for perceptions of the need for guns, this culture leaves people feeling very alone and insecure.

In reality, crime has dropped significantly, a fact that should assuage fears. Unfortunately, news coverage of this fact has been scarce. Only if it bleeds, does it lead. More and more, people have been boxed in promoting good behavior, but in the media, even the weather and traffic have been “catastrophized.”

Then, there is the theme of racial fears — which often seeps through rhetoric on the right, where whites tie a need for guns to protection against “others.” Rifle sales were up after Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and again in 2012. Derogatory internet references to “the little man in the White House” intertwine a lack of confidence in the current president, with deep-seated racial unease.

It was noted that in environments of fear, people turn for psychic security to religions and ideologies as their trust in the good will of others evaporates. Others agreed that America is a house divided and recalled Lincoln’s reference to biblical warnings that a house divided cannot stand.

A primary function of leaders and leadership, it was noted, should be to address fears and help us overcome them. But, few leaders are to be found these days. Spokespersons, yes; leaders, no. Political office has become the domain of political correctness. Competence in problem solving is less media-friendly.

When leaderships fails, bad behaviors emerge and we come to “eat our young.” Higher values are trumped by fear. The capacity for building consensus is lost. Followers, being fearful, do not let leaders emerge, seeking not solutions but comfort in solidarity.

A related thought put forth was the movement of American culture towards moral relativism since the 1960s with a decline in the teaching of common values of good character and citizenship.

It was then suggested that, as American culture has become more secularized in many ways, we have turned to state laws for solutions, not to families and churches for moral instruction.

Moreover, economic evolution has undermined the socialization role of the family. In the agricultural era, families were extended and influential. In the industrial age, families became nuclear and more and more urban. Now, with globalization, families have decentralized to individuals — men and women in the work force, mobile, no job security. The capacity for inculcating good personal character has been eroded.

In this environment, it is easy for each side of the debate over gun ownership to see the other side demanding extreme solutions — those who want to own guns fear laws that will take away all their guns while those who want gun control see gun owners as demanding too much freedom from regulation.

More civility is needed to ratchet down fear. Even when in disagreement, we need to assume good will in those who disagree with us. How can we deal with issues — large or small — if we can’t have good conversations about them?

But here, participants felt that American leadership has failed, even within families. It was said that parents have checked out on their responsibilities, leaving many children in all socio-economic statuses in dysfunctional home environments.

Turning to the dynamic element of the mind of those who kill with guns, there seems to be an unfortunate bias in diagnosis of those with murderous potential. Often, a person of questionable intent is diagnosed with a mental illness, requiring suppressive medications, rather than with a character disorder, which requires intensive counseling. With medication, the vulnerable person does not learn self-discipline, how to establish a workable structure for living, or tactics for coping with challenges. When the medications end, for whatever reason, the triggers of psychopathology are released.

It was agreed by participants that better inculcation of the ability for higher moral reasoning, part of social and emotional learning, needs attention with so many effectively fatherless families. It is no accident that the killers who abuse the right to bear arms are almost always young men. Something has gone wrong in their upbringing or in their mental dispositions. The threat to society from guns is not general but is highly localized in a few poorly socialized, alienated young males.

It makes sense, participants agreed, to do more to keep guns from those disposed to misuse them. For example, it was volunteered that only 1 percent of gun dealers sell to the worst users. Better record keeping, monitoring, or imposing indemnities for misuse should be considered. Those who release moral hazard into society should be made more accountable to society.

When an inherently dangerous instrument ends up in the hands of an inherently dangerous person, innocent people are at risk. The case for some degree of regulation is self-evident, like our individual rights. The need to protect the innocent should trump our fears and guide us to prudent controls on the dynamics that give rise to murder.

Those who kill take away our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Are they not then domestic enemies? When faced with such threats, do we not have a pre-emptive right of self defense?