The most troublesome and lasting forms of violence and social distress often emanate from social traditions, beliefs and practices that become legitimized through the perceived needs of society, or from flawed policies.
They are extremely difficult to uproot, but there is hope.
There are many instances throughout the history of mankind where people have recognized how a long-standing social tradition, or “the way we’ve always done it,” has become part of a larger social problem — slavery in the United States, the caste system in India, communism in Eastern Europe, pollution on a global scale — and taken steps to fix it.
We now need to add our culture of absolute gun ownership and the violence associated with it.
Guns have been part of American society for three centuries, emerging from the social need of hunting as well as a revolutionary ethos. Dating back to the Revolutionary War, guns have been a rite of passage for many American males entering adulthood. Gun use sprouted and was nurtured by the tenets of democracy, capitalism and security against perceived threats.
Our societal needs are very different from three centuries ago, and are no longer served by a culture of absolute gun ownership. Today, many modern communities are drifting away from rural living and have no need to hunt for survival. The military protects the security of our nation and law enforcement personnel secure many rural and urban communities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “the U.S. homicide rate declined by nearly half (49 percent), from 9.3 homicides per 100,000 U.S. residents in 1992 to 4.7 in 2011, falling to the lowest level since 1963.”
Criminals will manage to get guns, and there are many law-abiding citizens with a need for guns because they live off the land or in areas not accessible by law enforcement personnel. Tougher limits and enforcement also will provide more obstacles for those trying to illegally get guns. Americans can still have a right to keep and bear arms, but hasn’t the time come for stricter limits (and better enforcement) to the types of guns available, who can own them and where people can purchase them?
There’s also a culture of violence that as a society we need to phase out.
Our homes, schools and churches should be places where we teach respect for human life, human rights, peace, global citizenship, civil discourse and respecting the differences of others. Through educational and grassroots efforts, we can provide a broader understanding of how gun violence infringes on basic human rights.
The gruesome violence occurring in some cities and institutions of learning, worship and hospitals with increasingly more lethal types of guns can’t be explained and justified by traditional gun-culture arguments. We can’t wait entirely on legal and political remedies to eradicate gun violence. We need to go beyond public announcements of “thoughts and prayer” for the victims and their families.
By phasing out a mindset of absolute ownership of guns and creating a mindset of nonviolence, we can start on the path toward a safer and more secure society.
Binod Kumar is a member of advisory council of the University of Dayton Human Rights Center, with an interest in the philosophy of nonviolence. This is adapted from his chapter in upcoming book “Understanding America’s Gun Culture,” edited by Craig Hovey and Lisa Fisher (Lexington Books).