There are unique experiences in the American heritage that have decisively influenced its culture: the encounter and conflict with Native Americans as the Other, slavery and civil war, and ascendancy into the world’s first hyperpower. However, even this militarized historical context is not enough to explain why Americans suffer from the worst gun violence in the industrialized world. As of last year, for every 100 Americans there are a staggering 90 privately owned guns. The mass proliferation of firearms exercises a tyrannical hold over the American imagination. It is both a cause and effect of the many social problems afflicting the country.
With the country in political and ideological gridlock (throw in vested interests and lobbies with too much business to lose like the National Rifle Association), how can there be any resolution to the mass proliferation of firearms and so many gun crimes?
While wars of self-defense and geopolitical deceit are a reality of samsara, it is basically impossible for Buddhism to defend the arms trade in any form. Weapon proliferation is antithetical to religions that promote peace. When examined from a historical-critical perspective, the frontier mentality and the Second Amendment’s narrative of the right of civilian militia to bear arms turn out to be a simplified framing of American history. Yet this is upheld as a national founding myth, and the capabilities and symbolism of guns, from pistols to semi-automatic rifles, continue to exert such an irresistible allure that the more deaths that occur from shootings, the higher gun sales rise.
The Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut on 14 December 2012 were considered a turning point in the debate about firearm proliferation. Adam Lanza’s brutal murders of 20 innocent elementary schoolchildren and six teachers were predicted to force some kind of legislation curbing gun proliferation at last. Yet although the debate was renewed, the higher echelons in American politics have remained hesitant to take significant action. In the time between that tragedy and June 2014 there were already 74 incidents of school shootings, but there is still little appetite to enact meaningful restrictions on firearms sales. Indeed, many who believe in the founding myth of the Second Amendment would condemn such an attempt as a government takeover, an attempt to impose tyranny. Of all the constructs in American society—fear of the black community, fear of the Arab, fear of China—the fear of government tyranny casts a darker shadow over the American imagination than any other.
From a spiritual perspective, the fundamental reason why mass firearm proliferation cannot be solved by government legislation, lobbying, or even cultural changes is because gun culture has become a manifestation of the profound fear permeating so much of the United States. Fear arises as a mental formation, with ignorance as its root. When mistaken as real, the illusion of fear incentivizes the proliferation of arms. The perpetuation of gun culture is the illusion of fear given form. Understanding that this fear’s true nature is insubstantial will help dispel our self-created demons.