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.
Where does the fear in question come from? One possible source is the confluence of materialism and egotism in American society. For decades, influential forces and narratives from politicians and the media have increasingly celebrated self-agency and the power to act in one’s self-interest over civic care and love for others. Ayn Rand’s brand of cut-throat selfishness in her novels like Atlas Shrugged, which made virtues of the ego’s baser impulses, is one of the many plausible culprits. The right to express oneself freely and to act in one’s own interests have been exaggerated into priorities that exceed all others, including reflecting on the consequences of such expressions and actions on others. The right to exercise freedom of choice, which extends to buying firearms, is now ubiquitous and seen as an expression of strength. But all this comes against the backdrop of a culture and media that valorize anger and violence.
Much has been documented about the toxic conflation of confrontation and physical force with masculinity or strength—a perennial issue among American social critics. Guns are the ultimate corporeal manifestation of this delusion. The urge to overpower, dominate, confront, or hurt someone to “win” some kind of victory (and the converse fear of losing) is embedded in the seductive narrative of good versus evil. Blaming an identifiable enemy for personal, economic, and social woes is much easier than inward reflection and spiritual self-critique. As a result, it is not hyperbole to assert that contemporary America is now swamped with amplified mental projections of fear, ego, and anger.
Buddhism need not align itself with the politics of the day or any country, but its insights help to identify the spiritual delusions that run through individuals and adversely affect society’s well-being. There is an urgent need to come together and talk about fear in all its forms, and explore why American society is saturated with it. The vicious cycle of manufacturing and procuring firearms with its illusory undercurrents of fear, ego, and anger needs to be broken. Only then can there be any significant political or cultural shift on the American landscape. Such an immense spiritual transformation requires historical sensitivity, honesty, and bold imagination and critique.
For more information, see:
Hidden History of the Second Amendment (Wisdom Quarterly)