Guns in Modern Day
Once again becoming a nationwide issue, presidential candidates, lobbyists, and internet bloggers (i.e. us) have all attempted to contribute to this discussion of what we should do about it. With two sides taking a firm stance on the issue, our nation finds herself in gridlock on yet another cultural divide.
To date, much of the public discourse about firearms has revolved around policy issues. My goal in this two-part article is to draw attention to what lies beneath (or behind) the current political dynamic surrounding gun violence. More specifically, I want to assert that the "gun" has become a sacred symbol born out of our unique history as a country. Part 1 of this article will focus on the idea that guns serve as a symbol of American individualism. Part 2 will focus on guns as a symbol of American dominance and superiority.
Guns as a Symbol
Philosophy in human development find roots in the assumption that people were designed to "make meaning". Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner, all conceived of people as "meaning makers" in some form or fashion. We observe this tendency throughout history in the symbolic nature of America's Eagle, the Soviet Union's Hammer & Sickle, the Crescent Moon & Star of Islam, the Star of David, and the Cross of Jesus Christ.
A list like this is nowhere near exhaustive. In fact, we can theoretically make meaning out of anything if we wish it. Often the symbols we use are parts of our everyday lives, and we attach them to our values so that we feel like our physical existence is significant. I believe this to be a wonderful gift given to our species. Still, we must evaluate the symbols passed down to us and determine if the meaning behind the symbol is still applicable; or if we need to exercise our talent once more and change history. This is up to us as a country, but I think our starting point is the firearm as a symbol of dominance and individualism.
Guns as a Symbol of Individualism
Muller (2015), as a German resident of Greece, notes a curious difference between Greek and German values, and American values. Germans find their identity around "duty", whereas the Greeks find their identity around "virtue". Both ideologies are readily observable in each country's history and mythology. In turning our focus to American values, one could say that Americans find their identity in autonomy. Patrick Henry's words are forever emblazoned in our ears, "Give me Liberty, or give me death!"
American historians note that there were two mindsets that arose out of the colonization of America. One was a collectivist mindset that called for limited government so that group religious values might be more actively adopted without consulting a monarch. The other was an enterprising, individualistic mindset that valued individual freedoms and autonomy (Dooley, 2014). Dooley (2014), states that the former mindset was instituted by Puritanical settlements in the north where everyone was equal before God. The latter was founded by the offspring of the Jamestown settlement farther south. These two opposing viewpoints found a common enemy during the American Revolution and formed a philosophy around the concepts of Freedom (South) and Equality (North). This historical interpretation dates to Alexander De Tocqueville in 1805.
It seems to me that these two groups have never quite reconciled themselves. As the American Revolution has become more of a legend than a recent historical event, the Mason-Dixon line has regularly served as a rough dividing line of political ideologies. The current progressive movement has continued past religious freedom to social freedom as a whole, whereas the South has maintained its stance on maintaining individual freedom. We still see this divide between Red and Blue parties' geographical strongholds. Both sides use rhetoric that can be traced back to colonial America.
Among the political issues of today, gun violence has become a prominent issue. Liberal progressives argue that the safety of the group depends on restricting gun sales, ownership, and ammunition. There is an implicit, collectivistic undertone to this belief which asserts that if individual privileges are tightly controlled then the group will be safer. On the other hand, those advocating for gun rights argue that more people trained to effectively operate a firearm will reduce violent crime. This belief is an ancestor of the more traditionally southern focus on the individual rights of a citizen. Both sides allegedly seek the good of the people in different ways, and both are seen by their rivals as nonchalantly (at worst, intentionally) putting our people in danger. Once again, both answers to the gun violence problem can be traced back to "good old-fashioned American values".
The gun debate offers a curious insight into how our country was formed--a dynamic that has already resulted in a Civil War when these two ideologies clashed. The question repeatedly poses itself to us as a nation: can there be total equality without restricting the rights of the individual? Are these two concepts not antithetical to each other? It may seem as if there are two different nations, a socialist one and a libertarian one. This might not be far from the truth since both ideologies find their genesis in two very different cultural movements.
Since the firearm is an object employed by an individual, it is no surprise that those who value individualism over collectivism will more naturally seek to defend what has become a symbol of the protection of individual rights. In the next article, I will explain how the firearm has become so sacred to the defense of individualism because of its effectiveness in using force and exerting dominance. As we will see, this potency helped form our nation and became dear to our hearts.