In half the states in America, it is now legal to openly carry a handgun, without getting a permit or receiving any training. The New York Times reported on October 26 that the law in Texas, which went into effect in September, 2021, is making law enforcement officials nervous, because people without skill or experience are allowed to wield dangerous weapons. Champions of the new law cite instances when law-abiding citizens have thwarted crime because they were carrying firearms; whereas those opposed to the lack of restriction around guns point to incidents when innocent people have been accidentally shot (and in some cases killed) because so-called defenders of property and people are firing recklessly and impulsively in stressful situations.
If there is grace in the horrors of gun violence (and it is often hard to find it) is that both sides in the gun debate seek agree that the violence is, in fact, horrible. There is agreement that we need to work at reducing gun violence. How to do that is, well, another issue. One side maintains that more guns – with fewer restrictions on access, make people safer; while people on the other side say just the opposite.
There is a fundamental difference between the two approaches, which usually gets lost in the hostile rhetoric and the deepening disdain that each side has for the other. In his book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, authors Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett describe how American society moved from an “I” culture in the late 1880s (during the so-called gilded age) to a “We” culture, which lasted through the mid-1960s. A “we” culture recognizes that we live in community – which means that we are accountable to one another; and that our actions and desires have implications for others. In recent decades. Putnam and Romney Garrett contend that that we have consistently and inexorably moved back to an “I” culture: my rights, my guns, my freedom, my truth; which results in a neglect, even a hostility toward those outside of one’s small circle. The trend toward allowing people to carry weapons openly, without permit or training, is – to my mind, the ultimate manifestation of an “I” culture.
There is a lot of talk and commentary in public spaces about privilege. We often hear and read about white privilege, privileged upbringings – and at holiday time appeals are made to remember (and make gifts to) kids who are underprivileged. Critiques are issued, which often results in resentment, especially for people embedded in an “I” culture. The concept of privilege makes little sense for those living in an “I” culture, because privilege suggests that some people – because of race, income, legacy, zip code or some other factor, have a built-in advantage over others; that there are comparisons to be made and need to be dealt with. But a component of an “I” culture is to limit one’s focus on oneself and one’s circle; comparisons are unimportant, if not a waste of time. Besides, this vein of thinking continues, we get to where we are because of hard work, grit and perseverance. People who have fallen behind haven’t tried hard enough or are inherently inferior. ‘I didn’t get a boost up’, the thinking goes; ‘why should anyone else?’ ‘And I need to protect myself – by any means necessary’.
I have a friend who says that privilege is being in a position to hear only what you want to hear. Privilege becomes even more rarified if one’s world is constructed to limit exposure to other viewpoints; and that one can easily cordon off anything and anyone outside “my” sphere of life. And carry weapons to protect it.
I know the temptation to seal myself off, and to limit what I hear and read to positions that conform to my siloed perspective on things. To take up residence in an “I” world for a time, especially when I am fearful or anxious. And when that happens, I tend to grab on tighter to my privilege, and even try and reinforce it, because I think it is one of the only things that will protect me.
Whether we like people or not; whether we agree with people are not, we are nonetheless accountable to each other. We share the same humanity. Martin Luther King gave his life witnessing to that challenge. So did Jesus.
It is hard work. It is necessary work. Putnam and Romney Garrett give some recent examples of movements toward a “we” culture, even in the face of the vehement and sometimes vicious demands to retain the “I” culture. We would do well to build on their fragile optimism, and invest in “we”. And trust in hope, which, as writer Jim Wallis has said, is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.