THE ATAVISTIC ROMANCE OF THE ASSAULT RIFLE.
Apparently the United States’ Founding Fathers might have had reservations about the right to bear any sort of gun or high powered weapon in a queue outside the Empire State Building, at a Washington State supermarket, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin or at a Batman premier in Colorado. At least that’s the impression given after the Batman atrocity by US Supreme Court Justice Scalia. The conservative justice was referring to “originalist” views contemporary with the writing of the Second Amendment of the US constitution. The originalist perspective would cover the times and places in which a respectable yeoman in 1776 might be prohibited from bearing a musket or a head axe. As if Minutemen in tricorne hats at their front doors with muzzle loading muskets might somehow apply to a mass murder at a Sikh temple or at the presentation of huge, electronically projected images of a man in a bat costume using weapons that can spray multiple shots per second. With all due respect to Justice Scalia’s good intentions, why do we have to peer back into the mists of the eighteenth century for a precedent?
In the face of mass murders, easy access to truckloads of ammunition, military grade weapons and the repeal of a ban on those same weapons, the psychology of the gun lobby seems just as worthy of forensic examination as the minds of the killers. The gun lobby seems to hold that the easy availability of lethal weapons is the price of freedom. Perhaps there’s something at work here other than rational ideas about criminals and safety. Could there be a measure of emotion, nationalism and historical nostalgia, indeed romanticism behind the right to bear arms?
Let’s start with everyone, not just the gun lobby. Many law abiding people, especially men (and recently a Washington woman) harbour an unconscious desire to kill heroically with right on their side. It may be well suppressed, even vestigial, but it’s there. And there’s almost certainly a measure of exhilaration in killing in self-defence. Absent a just cause, there are even a few of us would look for an excuse.
We’re not as far as we think from the massive invasions of the Bronze Age and we still need sports, games and all kinds of legal competition to siphon off the old urge. It lingers, after all, in the wake of six thousand years of nearly non-stop violence. The urge subsists in the cerebral cortex at the base of the brain and now and again we find a pretext for it. We still have to resist the vigilantism that delivers a thrill from the past, the exultation in freedom that’s defined by the right to kill with only a little provocation, the sense of pride and well being bestowed by a side arm. The honest, ordinary man who carries a gun looms darkly in everyone’s mythology: think of those who support George Zimmerman in his killing of Trayvon Martin. While there is certainly no moral equivalence between the gun lobby and pathological killers, there is still the universal link of heroic wish-fulfilment, however thin, between the gun lobby and the mass killers in Colorado and Wisconsin. Between righteous bearers of arms and Anders Brevik, who murdered in the name of an all-white Norway while dreaming of the Knights Templar.
The heroic ideal is almost always justified by its roots in the past. Moreover, it’s a past that many feel has been crushed and diminished by progress. So Justice Scalia, and all those who search for precedents in another age, might consider that freedom in America in 1776 is not the same as freedom in America in 2012; that the Minuteman prepared to defend the new republic has little to do with a high tech age of armed citizenry defining freedom as the right to bear weapons of mass killing. The sole link, it would seem, is the romantic heroism.
An entire gun-carrying population, enforcing the law with shoot-outs, would constitute no one’s idea of freedom- except that of the few who exult in the old romantic frisson of a very dark past. In fairness to the romantics however, there’s a much deeper problem, a problem too big for most to face: the modern world, in its own way impersonal and vicious, is often a very, very hard place to bear.