Gun Safety is a Philosophical Issue

YES to far more sensible gun-purchase background checks and restrictions.

YES to more comprehensive mental health treatment options.

Credit: pikisuperstar via www.freepik.com

It’s not EITHER-OR.

I don’t know how we’ve gotten to the point that one of these strategies is assumed to exclude the other. (By “we,” I’m referring to the U.S. More on that later.)

On second thought, maybe I do know. Let’s take it from the top.

This is an issue of binary thinking gone amok.

Does that seem too abstract? Stay with me.

The U.S. is rooted in a binary political system. Two major parties suck the air out of the room. Every once in a while, someone floats a wan attempt at a third party. But it quickly deflates. Occasionally, third parties have made a difference — think, the Green Party, which, statistically speaking, deprived both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton of presidential victories. Yet, no third party has risen to become a major component of our political system.

Then, too, we’ve got a stubborn attachment to a binary gender system. The first question most expectant American parents ask when they have a chance — whether from the technician reading the first sonogram, or from the OB/GYN in the delivery room — is typically not “Does the baby look healthy?” but “Is it a boy or a girl?”

The trendy “reveal parties” that have become so popular in recent years are so obviously about the revelation of gender of a baby still in utero that the invitations don’t even need to indicate that “gender” is what is being “revealed.”

And the creative methods that expectant parents have concocted to reveal this “essential” fact become ever more clever versions of culturally conventional color symbolism: pink- or blue-colored something-or-other, from over-the-top balloon extravaganzas to piñata-exploded confetti.

Popping this piñata produces a shower of either pink or blue confetti

The increasingly disturbing and violent backlash against, first, gay identities and, more recently, transsexual identities signals the intense commitment to binary gender categories that marks mainstream U.S. society today.

The propensity toward binary thinking takes on more intangible directions, too. Our movies regularly promote binary thinking when it comes to morality. As all the “super-hero” movies so easily and dramatically proclaim, it’s easy to tell apart the “good guy” from the “bad guy.” On the rare occasions when the two ethical positions overlap, or their identity becomes confusing — as when Darth Vader turns out to be Luke Skywalker’s father — such complicated personae remain emotionally powerful precisely because their ambiguity is so culturally unexpected.

Instagram post by Apartment3k.com, Dec. 28, 2015

Contemporary artists get this. They easily work in the “between” zone, leaving viewers to sort through the ambiguities of what they may or may not be seeing. This self-portrait by Portuguese painter, Paula Rego, unsettles precisely because she paints herself in a stereotypical male posture, while obviously female — no doubt, as Cath Pound asserts, to assert her right to enter the mostly male art canon.

Paula Rego, The Artist in Her Studio, 1993. Courtesy of Leeds City Art Gallery and Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

All of which brings us back to that vexing issue of gun violence in the U.S., and how to reduce it. The gender ambiguity in which Paula Rego revels may suggest a philosophical path forward beyond the binary thinking that has conceptually imprisoned us.

No, reducing gun violence doesn’t mean blaming only either individuals with mental illness or their families or lax gun ownership laws or troubling cultural values.

In other words: No, one level of responsibility doesn’t negate another level of responsibility.

And, so: No, we don’t need to choose between sensible gun-purchase background checks/restrictions on the one hand, and more comprehensive mental health treatment options on the other hand.

Surely, if social science has taught us anything, it’s that complex social problems have multiple social foundations.

Meaning, complex social problems require multiple social solutions.

Does that sound too challenging?

Let’s remember: We are a clever species. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Binary thinking — it’s this OR that, but surely not this AND that — has gotten us into too many messes.

For a change, let’s imagine that politics doesn’t always have to be a zero-sum game, with one side the winner and the other, the loser.

The Democrats are right that outrageously lax gun ownership laws make it far, far too easy for Americans to legally play with, buy, and own guns.

A child aims a gun, at the 2013
National Rifle Association Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As of 2017, the U.S. has, by far, the highest rate of gun ownership on the planet: 120 guns per 100 people. We are followed, only very distantly, by the Falkland Islands and Yemen, which have 62 and 53 guns per 100 people, respectively.

By contrast, Japan has 0.3 guns owned per 100 people. Why? It’s way, way harder for a private citizen to buy a gun in Japan.

As noted in the World Population Review, “For Japanese citizens to purchase a gun, they must attend an all-day class, pass a written exam, and complete a shooting range test, scoring at least 95% accuracy. Candidates will also receive a mental health evaluation, performed at a hospital, and will have a comprehensive background check done by the government. Only shotguns and rifles can be purchased. The class and exam must be retaken every three years.”

Is it a coincidence that Japan also has one of the world’s lowest rates of gun deaths, at 0.2 per 100,000 people?

By contrast, the rate of gun deaths in the U.S. — at nearly 14 deaths per 100,000 people — is higher than that of such violent places as Iraq, Eritrea, and the Philippines.

Surely the stark comparison between the U.S. (with the world’s laxest gun ownership laws and one of the world’s highest gun death rates) and Japan (with the world’s strictest gun ownership laws and one of the world’s lowest gun death rates) ought to give pause.

Still, all these stark statistics don’t mean that drastically regulating gun ownership will solve all problems of interpersonal violence in the U.S.

The Republicans are also right that there’s a mental health crisis, and it’s time to fund mental health far, far more comprehensively, and proactively.

Well, ironically, Republicans may not actually believe this line that they like to tout. As attorney Tristan Snell observed on Twitter recently, almost no Republicans actually vote to fund mental health initiatives:

But that’s the subject for another blog post.

For now, let’s take Republicans at their (un-trustworthy) word and imagine we can transcend the binary thinking implicit in assuming that either the Republicans or Democrats are right on this issue, but not both.

If this past year’s horrendous gun death statistics are any prediction, a lot of lives depend on it.

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