Yesterday I found myself driving behind someone who was sporting a bumper-sticker on his car that read: "An armed society is a polite society." What an irony, I thought, if some of those who, in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings, are reportedly sending death-threats to officials of the NRA today should decide to take their anger out on this guy instead. Perhaps he should get another bumper sticker with an emendation: "An armed society is a polite society — except for the growing number of people who get really, really cross about those of us who say things like that." Anyway, the sticker’s information is out of date. Having lots of people who carry weapons around with them may be a necessary condition of a polite society, but it is not a sufficient one. The Founding Fathers put the Second Amendment into the Constitution not because they thought guns would make people virtuous but because they thought Americans already were virtuous and would continue to be so and, therefore, that they could be trusted with lethal weapons.
Sometimes it takes a foreigner — one from among those whose reaction to armed Americans is routinely just knee-jerk horror — to understand this. Here is Mary Dejevsky in (of all places) the reliably left-leaning U.K. Independent:
While I share the general European aversion to the overweening US firearms lobby, gun ownership has two compelling arguments on its side. The first is self- defence. Those countries which arm their police do so because possessing a gun evens up the odds, as between male and female, attacker and victim, in a way that no other weapon can. You may be smaller and weaker than your assailant, yet if you are armed and shoot better, you can prevail. The second is an argument of high principle. A state that allows its citizens to carry arms is a state that is confident in its legality and unafraid of its people. Americans do not often defend their attitude to guns in this way, but if they did, they might be better understood.
Yet can we say, hands on hearts, that the state is wise today to be unafraid of its people? Or, for that matter, that the people even want to be trusted, as opposed to being taken care of, by the state? I would say that the corruption and infantilization of our popular culture are bound to produce, among many other ill effects, a steady stream of madmen like the Connecticut shooter who have been encouraged from earliest childhood to see images of appalling bloodshed and death as mere entertainment and who are well-practiced in the necessary art of mentally dehumanizing the rest of the world with the help of commercial fantasy versions of what he did — that is, those shooting video games which some of his victims themselves may have asked for for Christmas.
Fifteen years ago I remember reading of a lifelong British republican who, confronted by the tsunami of public grief at the death of the Princess of Wales, announced that he was a convert to monarchism. The British people, in his opinion, had shown themselves to be not politically mature enough to live under a republican form of government. I myself felt a little bit the same way after the recent presidential election in this country. The American people had voted — and for the second time! — for someone who had based his appeal to them on a promise to stand in loco parentis to a childlike people, taught to expect that they could continue to receive ever more good things from government which they themselves would not have to pay for. Obviously enough, not only are we no longer the nation of mature, independent, self-reliant adults envisaged by the Constitution’s framers, we don’t even aspire to be that anymore. If we choose to be treated as the children of a benevolent, paternal state, we must expect that, sooner or later, the state is going to take our dangerous toys away from us.