America and Guns in the Age of Anxiety

In the wake of another deadly mass shooting incident on American soil, and another outbreak of the shrill, polarized national debate over how to prevent this uniquely American brand of tragedy, I want to bring up an underlying premise that rarely if ever comes up in these discussions.

Here are some of the facts we all know: We have more guns than the rest of the world by a long shot. Those indisputable statistics are all over the Internet –just 4.4 percent of the population, but 42 percent of the world’s privately owned guns, according to one estimate– and studies suggest this fact stands alone as the number one causative factor in our astronomical gun homicide rate (33 per million people in 2009, far exceeding the average among developed countries. In Canada and Britain, it was 5 per million and 0.7 per million, respectively) and preponderance of mass shootings.

But why do we have so many guns? They aren’t natural features like lakes or rock formations; people make them and people buy them. And they are not forced upon us. We have this crazy number of guns because we demand that many.

You can blame the extremely lax regulation of guns for the easy access to them, but again, why? Why do we feel compelled to let the arcane concept of a “well-regulated militia” in a vague reference within a 240 year old document mandate carte blanche access to weapons that didn’t exist when it was written? The same reason: we demand it.

We demand guns because we are a skittish, hypertense society that lives in chronic fear of having what we own taken, first and foremost our lives. We are not the most violent or crime-ridden society in the world, but the threat of violence, a mix of the real and imagined, seems ever-present. We live in a state of hair-trigger alert.

The face of the threat changes across the political spectrum, but the underlying cause is a non-partisan factor that no one is talking about: We have an exaggerated sense of both the value and primacy of an individual life, to the point that it hinders the actual enjoyment of that life. In short, we are scared to death of dying, of the eternal loss of everything that we believe ourselves to be.

America has far and away the most potent combination of philosophical individualism and material prosperity the world has ever seen. The individualism means we have a more deeply ingrained belief in our existential isolation. We feel our personhood as an independent phenomenon within a composite of other independent phenomena called a society, and not as an interdependent product or aspect of that society. This will annoy many people because it is impossible to quantify, but for anyone who semi-objectively watches the sociological norms of our culture as they play themselves out in our political rhetoric, in our books and TV programs and movies, and especially in our social media exchanges within an international community, it should easily pass the eyeball test. In our ardent and well-intended effort to evolve beyond stultifying communitarianism and tribalism, we set ourselves up to each exist as a tribe of one, and we learned that this comes with its own set of perils.

The factor of prosperity is simpler to define: It means we’ve had more chance to cultivate aspects of our individual selfhood beyond its mere bio-survival, and to accumulate wealth that becomes part of this identity. Once the access to basic human needs is secured, we are more free to develop other dimensions of our individual lives that set us apart from others in our sense of ego-identity.

Put it all together, and we are more sharply defined individuals, each living one mortal life isolated in time, and a helluva lot to lose.

I call this state “hyperindividualism.” From the linked article:

A society of hyperindividualists no longer functions like a single organism, but as an aggregate of parts each looking out for its own interests, cooperating only as they see fit as means to their private ends –a society of sociopaths, in other words. Imagine if every cell in your body thought of itself as an individuated being that wanted to do its own thing and “marched to its own drummer,” unwilling to die and be replaced, so on and so forth. This is an extreme but not inaccurate model of how a hyperindividualistic society functions.

Though it is a very unstable way to experience the world, it wouldn’t be called a mental illness because it is the new normal, a silent dysfunction underlying the typical American self-identity.

The end result is a hypersensitive vigilance that is way out of proportion with the threat, and a resultant need to protect ourselves from a nebulous “them” out there who want to kill us and take our stuff. We blame the NRA and 2nd Amendment fetishists, but even our liberal-progressive reaction to gun violence bespeaks this unhealthy vigilance —for example, our willingness to spread hyperbolic factoids like “a school shooting every 60 hours in 2018” on social media even though this is an extremely misleading and illogically deduced statistic. As advocates of sensible gun control, it is imperative that we don’t play into the same hysteria that caused the flood of guns in the first place, as this will only encourage more of it from the other side (“Then every teacher should be armed!”)

The problem is that any real effort to talk about an apolitical, non-sectarian solution gets caught in the crossfire, so to speak, of a culture war between two factions that are equally ill-equipped to address the root cause.

On one hand, we have a deeply religious population who believe in private salvation and the preeminence of law and order, but are bereft of any real spirituality or metaphysical insight. On the other hand, we have a deeply secular population who believe in public education and redemption from the evils of our ancestors but, for equal and opposite reasons, are also bereft of any real spirituality or metaphysical insight. Unchecked materialism, as an end unto itself rather than a means to spiritual experience, is the inevitable result, adding to the heaps and housefuls of things that must be protected. Neither side seems to find any relief from its chronic existential anxiety in which preservation of self and loved ones is life’s foundational purpose.

To be one of the few voices suggesting that salvation might be a universal property, or that our public ethics should be spiritually informed by an expansive and unitive sense of self rather than mere tolerance of diversity, is to invite ridicule from both sides as they sit entrenched in their camps of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Is there hope for the existential crisis behind our stockpiling of guns, the “cause of the cause” of the American penchant for lethal conflict resolution? (Random mass murder of strangers being a form of conflict resolution with the world in general.) I like to think so. But until ideas like “Avant-God” spirituality and inner peace become part of the national conversation about ourselves, we will continue to fight over the proper way to treat the symptoms instead of addressing the cause.

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