Looking out at the political landscape today, one wonders: what will the most important policy struggle be for the next decade or so?
By "important," I mean not only in the sense of quantifiable changes in government behavior; I mean in the sense that populations are shaped by their political environment, as much as they shape their environment. I mean in the sense that the government's policies will shape the very worldviews of the people, leading to distinct behavioral trends.
Certainly, the fight over Medicare and Social Security will be important. Americans will either learn self-reliance as an ideal, or dependence on the government in the manner that we see in Britain or parts of Europe. Our foreign policy will either confirm our role as champion of human rights and freedom, or as cynical realpolitik imperialists, with profound consequences for our national character in either event. The environmental struggle will be important as well. We need to find a golden medium between total neo-Luddite extremism, and total disregard for the environment and our duty to protect it.
But I believe that the issue with the most power to shape the American psyche is, quite simply, firearms.
Out of all the critical issues in the balance, why firearms? What is this American obsession with firearms, anyway?
To answer that, let me tell you about my own firearms experiences. In my suburban home growing up, there were no guns. My mother didn't like them, and though my father appreciated guns in principle, he had never used one since his time in the Scouts and didn't see the need. (He considered getting one during the Rodney King riots, but the violence never got close enough to be an issue.) My brother and I knew very little beyond what we saw on TV or in movies; though we both agreed that guns were cool, and wanted to own some eventually, this was mostly in the sense that we wanted to own cool computers, or video games.
Our grandfather was the first, I think, to teach us anything about weapons. He had served in the Pacific Campaign, and though he was and is a peaceful man, he was willing to teach us how to shoot a BB-pistol. We were young, certainly no older than ten (if that); but as I remember, he only pulled out the BB-pistol a few times. But it always seemed more like a toy than like a gun. Meanwhile, my political views were being shaped mainly by National Public Radio. So, for example, I was scornful of those radicals in the NRA who were so attached to their "assault weapons." After all, why does an individual need something like that? And when my uncle would make dire comparisons between gun licensing and the Nazi confiscation of Germany's guns, I thought he was being an alarmist.
The first major change took place when I was in the Boy Scouts. There, for the first time, I fired .22 rifles. There, too, I was trained rigorously in the safety rules, and learned to respect firearms as a tool. There was no talk about self defense; we were shooting at paper targets, after all. But guns went from an abstraction to something very real for me. I wanted to find out more, most of all because shooting was fun. As well, the idea of self defense began to grab hold of my mind; this was both because I had grown up with the histories of the Jewish ghetto resistance in WWII, or the revolts in Auschwitz or Sobibor, and because I had very little confidence in my own physical prowess. Guns, I realized, are the great equalizer. The weak man need not fear the strong, nor the small woman the would-be rapist; with a gun, all that mattered was opportunity and skill.
But still, the idea of self defense was theoretical, even if I could grasp it clearly in my mind. Growing up in California, guns were simply not part of daily life. The next major breakthrough happened when I took my first year of college in Israel. I can hardly describe how I felt for the first few days, surrounded by men and women (most scarcely older than myself) nonchalantly carrying around M-16's on their shoulders or pistols on their hips. I was probably near more guns in the first ten minutes on campus than I had ever seen in my life. They made me nervous, just because I had never seen anything like it.
Soon I accepted it as a normal part of life. It was strange going to the central bus station and seeing large stacks of rifles sitting near olive-drab dufflebags, as soldiers waited for their ride; but at the same time I felt safer than at any other time in my life, because I knew that if someone would cause trouble, he would be surrounded by dozens of people with guns. (The rabbi we studied under carried a Glock at all times. On the other hand, the only time my psychology professor wore his pistol openly in class was during Final Exams... but I digress.)
Returning to the United States, and particularly a bad neighborhood of New York (where I go to school), I felt oddly naked without the protection of armed neighbors. I was at the mercy of any thug who decided he liked my jacket. It is not a good feeling to have, and it constrains my behavior to a degree. We all know that some parts of the city are no-go zones, plain and simple.
At about that time, I discovered The High Road, a firearms forum. I learned there of the continuing struggle over gun rights against those who wanted to ban firearms entirely. I also read the speculations of members on how shooting firearms has affected their personalities.
Based on my own experience, I have come to the following conclusions:
A gun is a tool for projecting force, or power. Force can be used for good or for ill, but in any event only force can counter an opposing force.
Possessing power means that first, you are capable in theory of confronting opposing power and defeating it. Second, it means that you now have the responsibility of deciding when to use force. This means grappling with the thorniest moral problems that we face, and making clear decisions on what is right and what is wrong. Third, because you have power, you have a reciprocal responsibility to use your power for the good of others. By carrying a weapon, you are accepting an obligation to protect those around you.
Not possessing power means that first, you are completely dependent on others for your own survival. Anything you do must be in concert with them, or else you become defenseless. Second, you need never seriously confront the problem of using force, because you personally will never need an answer. Crucial areas of your moral code will remain vague and theoretical, because nothing is making you draw clear lines in the sand. Finally, because you have no defense against force if used against you, you will do your best to banish force from your world entirely, except for those whose protection you rely upon.
Those who carry guns are, in general, resilient and self-reliant. Many also are deeply ethical, and infuse their daily lives with their ethics, because they could at any time be forced to choose between life and death, simply by virtue of the weapon they carry.
There are more practical reasons for firearms use, or course. But we must not forget that when we fight for the right to bear arms, we are not only fighting for a physical tool. We are fighting to determine the very character of the American mind—whether we want our children to grow up fearing power, or using power to fight evil.