President Obama’s frustrated tears over the endless flood of victims of mass shootings seemed human and appropriate. When it comes to gun violence, our country is in the grip of a collective madness. Imagine constitutional law prohibiting automobile regulation: no licenses, age limits, training, turn signals, insurance, or traffic lights. In the highway anarchy that would ensue, millions of us would begin to demand some common-sense changes to end an unacceptable chaos.
But because one powerful organization with murky motives holds sway over a majority of legislators, nothing is allowed to change in the gun-control arena. The Second Amendment actually uses the word “regulate”: “a well-regulated militia. Were I a Supreme Court originalist, would it be so difficult for me to consider such language a solid precedent for stricter gun control? It seems hard to tell for certain what motivates Wayne La Pierre’s objection to even a sliver of gun law reform. Signs point to an unspoken confederacy between dealers, manufacturers, congress people, and the NRA, using the Second Amendment as convenient cover for making millions.
Something similar exists in the gross lack of progress toward the reduction and worldwide abolishment of nuclear arms. Legislators represent states where weapons manufacturing counts for significant employment, so the momentum for renewing our nuclear arsenals contributes to a perpetual motion machine divorced from common sense. The tail of presumed economic necessity wags the dog of international policy. Decades pass as the world grows ever more dangerous. Generals like Colin Powell, admirals like Eugene Carroll, secretaries of state like George Shultz or Henry Kissinger, retire from office and suddenly start speaking out for abolition, because they know from experience that the weapons are strategically useless—either against other nuclear powers, or against terrorism. Demagogues use fear to silence anyone who dares to say our international system of deterrence is without clothes, forgetting that if even one percent of the world’s arsenals are detonated, the entire earth will suffer the agricultural effects of the tons of nuclear soot in the atmosphere.
In a recent TEDx talk, Daniele Santi imagined a pyramid of violence with nuclear weapons at the top. “As the pyramid spreads downward, it reaches into our daily lives. Conflict and mistrust between communities, crime, domestic violence and abuse, even a single rude comment to someone, are all part of a larger culture of violence. The broad base of the pyramid is the silent violence of apathy, our willingness to live comfortably while ignoring others who are in pain.” The notion of a seamless continuity between world-ending weaponry, down through the pain of the thousands of unnecessary gun deaths plaguing a nation which prides itself on its exceptionalism, to the wide bottom holding up everything above it by means of the “silent violence of apathy”: this is a profoundly useful metaphor to help us begin to overcome our assumption that we cannot make a difference. We can’t help making a difference. We make a difference by doing nothing—by allowing ourselves to be the foundation on which the pyramid is built.
Much evidence (see Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature) suggests that we are gradually evolving toward less violence as a planet, even taking into account the horrors of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram. An overwhelming majority of earth’s citizens heartily fear and hate war. Thousands of organizations are working for environmental sanity, for an expansion of universal human rights, for equality of race and sex. The international system is awakening to the need for a new level of cooperation on climate change if we are going to pass the planet on to our grandchildren in reasonable shape.
Nuclear weapons, as the late philosopher of nuclear extinction Jonathan Schell emphasized, are a smaller subset of the environmental challenge. If nations can see the need for progress on the larger issues of rising seas and starvation-inducing droughts, nuclear abolition starts to look almost easy by comparison. It even looks easier, at least numbers-wise, than reducing the grotesquely unnecessary pile of weaponry owned by American citizens. There are only about 17,500 nuclear weapons in the world. In 2009 it was estimated that there were 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles, and 86 million shotguns in private possession in the U.S. alone. Just as the planet would be safer if no nation possessed nuclear weapons, the United States would be safer if strict regulation limited guns to hunters and a few others who needed them for protection. And far fewer of us would need them for protection if there were less guns overall—duh!
Change begins with you and me, especially if we have participated in the “silent violence of apathy.” We can change our thinking from an us-and-them mindset (“They” are trying to take our guns; “they” will attack us if we don’t have thousands of world-ending weapons) to a mindset that says “we’re all in this together; let’s work toward the common goal, at every level of the pyramid, of creating a safer world for ourselves and our kids. Absent this change of thinking, get ready for more tears.