Charles W. Collier

Volume 70, Issue 3, 671-88

This Article provides a selective introduction to some of the main social, cultural, historical, and intellectual issues surrounding gun violence and the desultory policy “debates” over gun control in America.

Unregulated gun violence, unrestricted gun violence, unlimited gun violence: these are the grave “new normal” (a term coined in financial economics) on the otherwise pastoral landscape of America. Sociologically speaking, this level of gun violence is no longer considered deviant, such that “special sanctions” would be imposed to prevent it.

Gun violence and the lack of gun control have also been described as “tragic”—a cultural tragedy—and so they are, though not in the sense usually meant. The tragedy is not that something awful and terrible happened that should never have happened, but that, as Georg Simmel puts it, “the forces threatening a culture arise from deep within that culture itself; that with its destruction an inner destiny is fulfilled, which represents the logical culmination and completion of that very structure on which the culture’s most brilliant achievements are built.”

Today’s armed society owes its vitality to the brilliant achievements on the American frontier—from the resourceful and courageous conquering of a new world to the spirit of independence that was thereby nurtured. Yet, as a commentator on Alexis de Tocqueville cautions, “[f]or many reasons America was ill-equipped to deal with the hazards created by the ill-disciplined freedom democracy was bound to produce. . . . [Tocqueville] concludes with an almost admiring account of the risk-taking spirit of the Anglo-Americans as they swept West and then looked for worlds to conquer. He thought this spirit was bound to conquer all that lay before it. It was the expression of a recklessness, an abandon, that ran deep within the culture. This temper, or distemper, of American culture troubled him. If it was creative, it was also destructive.”

A reckoning is long overdue.