by Jordan Poyner

Debates over the rights of current and future gun owners are grounded in a superficiality. Those who propose greater restrictions speak as if the issue were one of common sense–alluding to gun violence statistics culled from European states and discussing the issue as one of simple ethical arithmetic. Meanwhile, proponents of minimally regulated gun ownership seem content to invoke the Second Amendment and confidently assert the inviolability of their right to possess firearms without government interference. Not only do these arguments miss each other completely–failing to comprehend the other’s logical position and moral orientation–they fail to address a deeper point of disagreement. If we hope to make any collective progress on the issue of gun violence and ownership, we have to start by speaking to, rather than past, each other.

At the heart of this debate lies the fundamental tension of our freedom and responsibility to others. An American understanding of political freedom emphasizes certain rights each citizen necessarily possesses, which the government is restrained from violating. But the free exercise of these rights requires the citizen’s self-restraint. Without a conscientious regard for the well-being of others–and how our actions might affect it–society is liable to collapse. Given the immense public and private freedoms Americans enjoy, it is essential that personal moderation be inculcated as a virtue. We must remind ourselves and others that living together requires we not take freedom for license to act in excess and expect accommodation from our peers.

So what shouldn’t we do in these conversations: begin the debate by emphasizing the righteousness of our position. One reason this issue continues to be utterly intractable is the deep and lasting hurt that stems from gun violence (especially in the form of mass shootings), coupled with the moral certainty that gun owners feel in defending the Second Amendment. Both sides claim a higher good is at stake (e.g. freedom vs. security), but to start the argument by claiming moral primacy is to open the discussion at an impasse.  

This is not to claim that emotion must be carefully excluded from the debate–that would be inhuman. But when righteousness or emotion are invoked as essential means of persuasion, they change the character of the debate from one which prioritizes a collective search for truth to one wherein truth is possessed exclusively by a specific faction. This was necessary for the American Civil Rights Movement, where an entire demographic was being systematically denied rights their Constitution was meant to guarantee. In debates that turn on the question of revising our understanding of–rather than denying–certain rights, a collective resolution is hindered by an emphasis on the exclusive and competitive righteousness of each position.

On this note, citing statistics also gets us nowhere. Even if there was universal agreement that the lower homicide rates in Sweden (as just one example) were primarily due to its legislative approach to gun control, this would not convince many Americans that such restrictions do not require the sacrifice of a greater, less tangible good. If we were collectively agreed that the most important object was simply to eliminate gun violence, then banning guns altogether would clearly constitute the most effective political reform. There are other prime concerns here though–one being the maintenance of a certain American conception of individual liberty. Utilitarian or strictly rational arguments about reducing gun violence fail to address the beautiful irrationality and inefficiency of democratic freedom.

Arguments about the meaning of the Second Amendment will continue to be essential in the context of the courts and the legislature, but they have become an obstacle, rather than an aid, to current public discourse. Constitutional scholarship, investigation, and skepticism are vital, but with so many citizens convinced it is their right to bear arms, a more fruitful foundation for private discussion lies in the idea of voluntary, individual compromise. Instead of disagreeing about what the Second Amendment really means, we might discuss what the responsibilities of gun owners are, and how these are inextricable from a public good.

The primary question for both sides of this debate should be: what do we owe to each other? In other words, what does it mean to be responsibly free? Attempting to collectively address these questions may not yield final resolutions on the subject of gun control, but it will help us find a common ground on which to develop a better conversation. That conversation must necessarily outgrow these narrow remarks and address complex phenomena such as despair, nihilism, anti-sociality, mental health, conceptions of masculinity, etc. Guns are not the only means by which humans enact violence on one another; at some point the conversation about gun control will need to move beyond guns and touch on other forms of widespread social violence. But if the initial conversation never gets off the ground, it will be impossible to find a resolution which doesn’t alienate a significant number of the affected parties. Given the gravity of both sides’ concerns, we have to start having the kind of conversation that strengthens our sense of community, as opposed to undermining our faith in it.

Jordan Poyner is a recent graduate of Indiana University, where he studied English literature, film theory, art, and anthropology.

Since you’re here, consider reading Terry Tait’s reflection, “Grief and Gridlock: Where Does America Go From Here?” Published by The New Herald after the tragic Parkland, Florida, school shooting, Tait’s reflection ties similar themes to a national debate.