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Fighting Our Real Enemies: Now, Do We Have the Ammo?

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22guns-popupIn August I posted a blog on gun violence, arguing that our struggle to curb it is not just a matter of what to do with our freedom, but also a matter of grappling with the effects that these shiny, seductive objects have on the way we think, and on the way we respond to feelings of fear and rage, and to tragic shootings.

Spinoza believed that knowing an object is a matter of knowing what it can do, and that is something of an indeterminate task.  As he pointed out, no one really knows what a body can do. Its potential expressions are nearly endless. What can guns do?  They definitely have effects, many of them unspeakable in light of Sandy Hook.  But their effects, as I wrote in August, depend upon the ways that the objects with which they come into contact are structured.  Human bodies each respond in pretty much the same way:  ballistics and physiology are fairly exact predictors of the kind of encounters we can expect.  But human agency is more complex, shaped by a range of different loyalties and commitments, and therefore prone to different kinds of reactions. So, we can expect some fairly wide disparities among people responding to the shock of bullets colliding with young bodies.

The truth is, guns have a relatively secure place within the American psyche, not just as symbols (say, of freedom) but as political companions.  We have welcomed them into the commonwealth, either because they play a role that supports our lingering frontier mentality (and its paranoid fears of environmental threat) or just because they look and sound so cool, or both.  Note that, in either case, guns have a sort of agency whose efficacy cannot be measured in grains.  If nothing else does, the discharge of firearms by heroes on our screens shapes American consciousness.  Just look at the way our favorites hold their guns, and fire them.  Aren’t they part of them?  And somehow of us?  A grim symbiosis.

And so, it is inevitable that certain types of solution to the problem of gun violence would be offered.  It seems crazy that there would be people actually calling for more guns—as if escalating a war against nothing in particular.  As if evidence from the experience of every industrialized nation doesn’t demonstrate with utter clarity that fewer guns in circulation correlates with fewer lethal crimes. But, inevitably, the crazy comes. It would be comical if it were not so maddening.

What can stop the crazy? What can release us from the power of these idols? Perhaps only another form of insanity, another type of idolatry.  It is insensitive, at a time like this, to point out again what has been pointed out many times in less grief-soaked circumstances.  Let me put it this way:  What is different about Sandy Hook?  Why are even some “A” students of the NRA calling for tightening of gun laws? Of course, it’s the children.  It’s as if there has been a painful and disconcerting collision between two idealizations:  ballistic power and childhood innocence. Why else would so many conservatives be willing to entertain, with dazed looks, regulations that would have looked to them like the end of America before Sandy Hook?

I want to make two points about this. First, though the idealization of children is not entirely a bad thing—it certainly beats the hell out of the repeated crushing of children under the wheels of society throughout much of human history—it is still an idealization, and one which is deeply connected to Pelagian myths of innocence characteristic of neo-liberalism, arguably the predominant heresy of our time.  Our children, we think, are blank slates, perfect little receptacles of every experience we wish we’d had, pure vessels of every perfection we can manage to pour into them. So we over-structure and micro-manage their lives, burdening them with expectations that are cruelly unrealistic.  In other words, we make them gods.

Enough of that, though. I love and probably idealize children myself (I’ve got three idols at my elbow as I write.), and this is not the time for a harangue on that topic.  The more constructive point I want to make is that we are in the middle of a trial of strength between two populations of political actors:  guns and children.  And children are vastly more powerful.  We don’t have to idealize them to recognize that they are far more important as political partners than are our guns.  And, if neo-liberals do idealize them, so much the better.  I don’t know if the kingdom is ever going to come, but I do know that one way to move toward it is to play idolatries against each other, mitigating the worst features of one by means of appeal to another, rather like alcoholism is sometimes overcome by nurturing substitute addictions.

This is a critical moment for progressives on the issue of gun control in the United States, and shrewdness is called for.  Some insightful commentators are suggesting that progressives avoid talk about “gun control,” and that, I believe, is wise advice—as long as we know nevertheless that gun control in the most literal of senses is precisely the issue. Don’t talk about gun laws in terms of freedom and regulation (a losing proposition for progressives on most issues and certainly this one), but talk about it in terms of what these shiny, seductive bodies can do—to our innocent ones. We don’t need to talk about “control” (Atlas Shrugged outpolls 1984), but control over the ballistic and political power of guns is exactly what we must somehow have—not just for our children, but for our sanity.

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Thomas A. James is Assistant Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.