So we have another mass shooting. This time in San Bernardino, California. What should we think about this? The FBI considers any event in which 4 or more people are killed in an event to be a mass shooting. Unfortunately, by this definition, the United States has a mass shooting event every two or three days. Most of these do not make the network news because the victims are black or Latino. Their lives do not matter as much in the main stream news cycle. But here we are in which the President talked a couple days ago in France about the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado. His words were barely off his lips, 24 hours later, when another publicized shooting occurs.
So how should we think of this and what should we do about it? In the first place, the United States often thinks about the Middle East and their unstable warlike condition as something that happens to the other. This is an artifact of an area in the world that is slowly emerging in their move towards democracy. We can think paternalistically about how if only they had a more robust and fair system of elections and how if only they demonstrated more pure capitalistic conditions that they might attain the status of the United States which politicians from Reagan to Romney have characterized as a shining light upon the hill: a pure goal to which all can aspire.
Well, maybe not. If we have mass shootings in the country several times every week throughout the year, then maybe we are moving toward the same warlike state as these countries that we criticize so blithely. So, what are the facts? More than 30,000 people in the United States are killed by gun violence each year. That is enormous. In Japan the figure is less than 50, western European countries such as Germany, France, Italy, et al, it is around 150, and Canada around 200. Why are we so disproportionate? Is it because we were born from violent revolution? Is it because we are a country where there is huge economic disparity thus giving vent to class anger? Is it because we are still a racist society that punishes and stigmatizes African Americans and Latino disproportionally at all economic levels?
This is a difficult question and beyond the scope of this short piece. But it should be recognized that in the truly open primary for president, the Republican Party’s leading candidates are outsiders who play to an audience of anger and hatred.
This is the foundation of civil unrest. The United States today has so much gun violence that it can be characterized as on the edge of civil unrest which is another name for war (also called popular insurgency). Plato, in book eight of the Republic suggests that there can be devolution of political systems according to how lazy the citizens of the state are with regard to their own common good. His aristocracy (which can be translated to our capitalistic democracy) devolves into oligarchy and eventually to chaos when the common good is ignored for the special interests of the few.
I suggest (along with some economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty) that we are moving in that direction. The underlying cause for this violence is a society in which wealth is becoming increasingly skewed. Plato in the Republic thought that the differential between the representative lowest economic individual and the representative highest economic individual should be 10 times. In my book A Just Society, I extend that to 50 times. Most of the history of democratic countries in the world would fit into my formula. Unfortunately, since 1978 we have moved drastically away. This creates a social tension.
When there is clear social tension that is built upon racism and economic inequality, then there will be reactions. When the United States makes guns so readily available (as I wrote about in these pages in 2012), then it is a recipe for violence and death. As this cycle increases it pushes the United States into a state of internal lawlessness that borders upon a state of internal anarchy, aka war.
I have advocated here and elsewhere for the past two decades that gun control is a key component. The other alternative is that we arm everyone so that we can have constant shoot-outs at the OK-Corral. This latter alternative (advocated by the National Rifle Association) is a sure avenue towards an escalation of gun violence as every gun owner is the arbitrator of a state of nature system in which civil justice and policing are tossed aside. Individualism and the hatred of the state (very present in our political climate today) take over. The logical consequence of this is anarchy and civil war. This is why the discussion on gun control today is of so much importance.
How can we stop this process? There is no single answer. Certainly gun control is one component. However, there are others, as well. Decent people owning guns, as such, do not cause these catastrophes. But since guns have a much higher damage coefficient than any other weapon, we must think about access and weapon clips, et al. If we were to recognize that we are governed by communitarian as well as liberal individualistic conceptions of the just society, then this would be a positive step forward. I have always situated myself as mid-way between individualism and communitarianism.
Gun violence is but one aspect of a society that is blind to both racial prejudice and economic inequality. When people get mad they turn to the weapon with the highest damage coefficient as possible. We have to intervene here.
Now some libertarians might argue that we all should be as free as possible to do what we like—including owning guns with the maximum damage coefficient possible. But even here we limit automatic weapons. But gun control alone is not enough. This is a complicated social problem that demands an extended tactical response. If we are moving towards civil insurgency in the United States, then we must meet this threat on a number of fronts. Gun control must be a part of social/racial justice so that everyone in the society can aspire to the American Dream.
The time to act is ticking away. If we are to avert a war within America, we must act immediately. We have very little time left.
Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Marymount University. His most recent books are: Natural Human Rights: A Theory and the philosophical novels, Rainbow Curve, and To the Promised Land.