According to Thucydides (c.460-c.395 B.C.), author of The History of The Peloponnesian War, all the ancient Greeks originally went about armed - something that was “as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians.” It was the Athenians who were the first to lay aside their weapons. Thucydides associated that step with the Athenians’ embrace of a more comfortable style of life – or, as we might say, civilized life. Throughout history, urban life has been associated with civilization, and one of the hallmarks of civilization has been the progressive delegitimizing of individual violence and the replacement of revenge by individual, family, or clan by justice exercised by the state, to which civilized societies have transferred the legitimate monopoly of violence. Thus, according to Saint Paul, the ruler beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. (Romans 13:4).
Of course, this process hasn’t been easy. Witness the long struggle to eliminate dueling – a custom rooted in private, individual honor, inherently at war with the greater good of the public community, the “commonwealth.” Indeed, as Kwame Anthony Appiah has demonstrated in The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (2010), the eventual elimination of dueling depended ultimately upon a society-wide transformation of that classically aristocratic concept of honor. (Appiah’s attention to the moral significance of honor is a brilliant contribution to contemporary moral discourse).
In the aftermath of last week’s Colorado tragedy, pundits of all stripes are weighing in on the perennially neuralgic subject of Americans’ access to guns. Predictably, some pundits have seized on this event as an argument for greater governmental restrictions on access to guns. Equally predictably, others have pointed out the atypical character of this kind of crime and how unlikely it is that legislation would be able to stop this sort of perpetrator. There is something to that, to be sure. But no law can prevent all crimes, and the argument that an illegal action will take place anyway is usually more of an excuse than a reason for opposing legislation. It also misses the main point, which is that, however horrific this particular crime may be, the larger social problem is actually the many “ordinary” killings that take place daily in our society – with far less planning and perhaps even without premeditation – killings which, however, happen more easily because of individuals’ easy access to guns. It is that larger daily drama of death and mayhem, which stricter gun legislation realistically aspires to address.
As with dueling in early modern Europe, however, effective change will require a genuine transformation of common cultural values. At the time the Bill of Rights was adopted, the United States was a predominantly rural society, in which citizens had to rely largely on themselves for protection against both foreign threats (Indian tribes) and domestic criminals – not to mention the need for protection from wild animals and the obvious need for weapons to hunt for food, etc. Unless they lived within a well protected city, they were in a situation not unlike that of the ancient Greeks that Thucydides described. For the most part, there was no professional police protection nor – in the case of external threats – much of an army either. In fact, it was the free citizens themselves who policed their homesteads and united as a militia in the common defense. And, like ancient Greek citizen soldiers and medieval knights, they provided their own weapons when mustered to serve the commonwealth.
What has changed, of course, is the way we live now. Most of us live in places with professional police protection, while we rely on a nationally maintained army for our external defense. As the social situation has changed, so too the motivation for the private possession of weapons can no longer be presumed to be the same as it was in 1791.
There are, of course, legitimate recreational uses for guns. Unfortunately, some advocates of a more restricted approach to gun access appear at times to evidence a cultural disdain for such legitimate recreational pastimes as hunting. As a product of a totally urban environment, I have never hunted; and hunting holds no particular attraction for me. It does not follow that I should disparage hunting or hunters, however. Actually, as a product of a totally urban environment, I am much more viscerally hostile to the automobile – the culturally destructive effects of which I have witnessed all my life long - than I am to hunting, an activity largely peripheral to my experience. The analogy is actually not inconsequential. Like guns, cars kill and injure lots of people each year. Like guns, cars also have legitimate uses. But, like guns, cars are treasured in our society way out of proportion to their legitimate uses and with obviously harmful consequences.
Both guns and cars represent individual liberty for many. Like guns and cars, liberty too is legitimate – up to a point. But cut off from its moral moorings in human community, liberty becomes but ideology - and a morally problematic one at that. As expressions of an ideology of individual liberty that has lost its moral moorings in membership in society, guns (like cars) can become dangerous fetishes. And, as with dueling in pre-modern Europe, a serious solution will require more than mere legislation. As with honor in the case of dueling, what is required is a genuine renewal of our conception of liberty, resituating it where it belongs in the moral framework of men and women who are first and foremost social and political beings.