Because that's where we're headed.
- By Jason DempseyJason Dempsey is the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics and American Civil-Military Relations and is currently serving in Afghanistan. The views presented here are his own.
I have been in a handful of drunken altercations in my life. Thankfully, I’ve lived to regret them all. That did not have to be the case, nor was my safe emergence from youthful stupidity a foregone conclusion. Maybe my luck had something to do with growing up listening to Johnny Cash. Standing against the tide of a culture glorifying violence, Cash followed stories of impulsive violence to their inglorious conclusions. In "Don’t Take Your Guns to Town," an insecure young man drinking while armed meets a tragic end. I’d like to think that having that song in the back of my mind kept me out of mortal trouble, but of course most of my luck stemmed from growing up in a society where, for the most part, we’ve all agreed to leave our guns at home.
That agreement has been challenged consistently by the leaders of the National Rifle Association. Their call for more guns in more public spaces in the aftermath of Newtown may have come as a surprise to some, but is in keeping with the organization’s outlook over the last 30 years. I know, because I grew up around guns and NRA publications. I own a pistol, and would likely own several more guns if I did not have access to my father’s sizable arsenal — there are only so many weapons a man can use at once. And for years, American Rifleman, the NRA’s flagship publication, could be found lying around the house. Like a great many gun owners, however, my father and I parted ways with the NRA over their shrill insistence on guns for everyone, everywhere.
The NRA’s maximalist position on guns is theoretically about freedom, but following its lead would result in less freedom, not more, and mark a step backward for the civil society that we Americans have labored so hard to build. The NRA fantasy that true safety only derives from an openly armed population is not only indulgent, it ignores both human nature and history. It is a philosophy that offers false comfort to frightened individuals and would do nothing for our collective safety.
The world is full of societies where individuals arm themselves for safety, and the instability of such countries should serve as an object lesson of what happens when our mutual trust and our willingness to engage in conversation, unarmed, is driven away by fear of both our government and our fellow citizens. Such places are invariably not more polite, as NRA leaders would have it, but much more explosive. Just look at Afghanistan, where I and thousands of other Americans have confronted the realities of a population armed and on edge.
Pashtunwali, the tribal code of the Pashtuns, which emphasizes vengeance and honor, can be confusing for Westerners, and its outcomes can seem downright incoherent. An attempted murder can be reconciled with the sacrifice of a goat while a couple that elopes may be sentenced to years in prison, or simply killed. These outcomes have nothing to do with justice as we commonly understand it, but are part of a necessary dance among armed factions, each seeking stability in a desperate environment. Honor and vengeance represent both sides of the coin of insecurity, and Pashtunwali is most easily understood not as a cultural code but as realpolitik for places where the threat of violence is ever-present and people cannot rely on their government to provide stability. In such an environment, there is little room for individual freedom and justice. There is only the survival of the family and tribe. Everyone is armed. Everyone is defensive. And society is congealed into those elements that can best ensure stability. Eventually loyalty trumps justice, and survival trumps all.
Therefore our greatest challenge in getting Afghanistan to move beyond its violent past has been in building the kind of credible local and national institutions that can offer an alternative to brute force as the way to resolve disputes. That some Americans have so little faith in our own institutions that they would willingly retreat to the brutality of this kind of frontier justice is a travesty.
Yet in the view of men like Wayne LaPierre, threats to freedom abound, and the only answer is the threat of violence. They believe that every agreement to mitigate violence is a direct threat to independence, and one that ultimately leads to subjugation. Such a view suggests that we are incapable of creating a secure society that also allows for individual freedom and limits the powers of a central government. Not only is this view both paranoid and self-limiting, it also ignores the core strength of American society. Our police and courts are not perfect but we understand that collective efforts to ensure the peace will, in the long run, always be more effective than one man with a gun.
It is a mark of all we have accomplished in our two-and-a-half-century history that we do not settle our disagreements with weapons, nor do we avoid voicing those disagreements for fear of getting shot. Calls for more citizens to regularly carry guns should be viewed with great skepticism by both NRA members and gun-control advocates alike. We need to remember that we are not a state on the brink of failure. The overwhelming majority of us are not in mortal danger and we do not need to be packing heat to protect our honor. A greater public role for private guns would not add to our freedom; it would detract from it.
There are steps we can and should take to limit the potential for future events like Newtown, but we should scorn the paranoia that sees solutions in even more weapons in more public spaces. America armed would not be a place of genteel men in cowboy hats keeping everyone calm, but a nation even more on edge. Encouraging an armed populace cedes the ideas of justice and deliberation that we have worked so hard to build to a brittle strength — one that sees mortal insult in a traffic slight and where arguments are more often than not met with physical challenges.
We can respect the right of Americans to own weapons while agreeing that they should be left largely out of public life. I don’t agree with banning guns, but I categorically reject calls to embrace them more openly as a way to avoid violence. The young Taliban in the news may appear tough but are in fact men in perpetual insecurity, living only a fantasy of purity and strength. Their embrace of armed conflict and intimidation is a sign of the weakness of their ideas and their inability to constructively engage their fellow Afghans. There is a reason we left that model behind, and I am looking forward to leaving it behind myself. I am eager to return to America and to the freedom that comes with leaving my guns at home.