The Chronicle Review

Armed in Anxiety

What philosophy can tell us about guns

Dave Plunkert for The Chronicle Review

February 11, 2013
Armed in Anxiety

Dave Plunkert for The Chronicle Review

What do guns do for us? Many opponents of new gun legislation argue that they make us safer. Proponents of gun control hope to promote public safety by keeping guns out of the hands of bent young men who worship projectile power and senseless death. Most of our public-policy debates about guns have focused on safety, but in my opinion, not enough has been said about whether guns make us sound.

Our word "safe" has roots in the Latin word salvus, which means not just "secure from harm" but "whole, well, and thriving"—that is to say, sound. This is one of philosophy's oldest concerns, to examine and foster this kind of sound, flourishing human life. This question is at the heart of Aristotle's ethics, for example. The opening lines of his Nicomachean Ethics declare that it is possible to regard life as having a kind of excellence, a sense of human flourishing and wholeness to which all of our sciences contribute. As Aristotle puts it, failure to reflect on this will make us like people who shoot without considering their target. (Yes, he really says that.)

Part of what makes us continue to admire Plato and Aristotle is just this confidence that it is possible to live a life oriented toward something that cannot be taken away from us. In Plato's Republic, Socrates mocks men like Herodicus who devote their lives to the futile attempt to preserve their youth, health, and safety forever. Even if we don't know what the best goal of our lives ought to be, it seems foolish to strive for what we know we can never achieve. Significantly, toward the end of his Ethics, Aristotle devotes several chapters to an examination of friendship or, as he calls it, philia, the Greek word for the love we have for our friends. After all, love and friendship seem strong candidates for qualities of life at its most excellent and most enduring.

Now it's probably true that in many circumstances guns make us safer, or at least make us feel safer, and that's not unimportant. But I do wonder whether they make us better people, in the more enduring sense of being whole and well. I don't think that question is easily answered.

It's not hard to imagine someone developing great skill, self-control, and confidence through target-shooting; many hunters know the land on which they hunt and the food they shoot themselves in ways most of us never will; and the police officers who raised me regarded their guns as tools that helped them to make their communities better places. It's hard to deny that there are people who bear arms in a disciplined way that contributes to their flourishing. But a passage from Kerouac's On the Road offers another possibility. Kerouac's protagonist Sal Paradise (Kerouac's fictionalized autobiographical persona) describes what it was like to be alone in San Francisco, thousands of miles from home:

Several times I went to San Fran with my gun and when a queer approached me in a bar john I took out the gun and said "Eh? Eh? What's that you say?" He bolted. I've never understood why I did that; I knew queers all over the country. It was just the loneliness of San Francisco and the fact that I had a gun. I had to show it to someone. I walked by a jewelry store and had the sudden impulse to shoot up the window, take out the finest rings and bracelets, and run to give them to Lee Ann. Then we could flee to Nevada together. The time was coming for me to leave Frisco or I'd go crazy.

It's not the gun that makes Sal threaten strangers or want to steal, but the gun doesn't help. It becomes a catalyst for something else that ought to concern us. When Sal feels lonely the gun becomes the organ that articulates his pain. It might make him safer, but it does so by increasing the distance between Sal and his neighbors. His trust contracts as his pain dilates, and the gun facilitates the expression of his alienation. My eyes keep pausing on the line "I had to show it to someone." Pointing it at strangers in the men's bathroom is at once a threat of violence and a plea to be known, a disclosure of a secret.

Hard times can make us wary, and when fear governs our decisions, our concern for safety can distract us from the work of fostering wholeness in ourselves and in our communities. Fearing for our safety, we focus on our individual rights, without thinking about the best way to exercise those rights, like the men who bring assault weapons, to political rallies, or like the guy who brought his AR-15 into a Kroger in Charlottesville, Va., recently, simply because he could.

Yes, the Second Amendment safeguards the right "to keep and bear arms," but the exercise of that right is also a bit like flexing your muscles or pissing on a tree to mark territory. It makes animal sense, as all questions of survival do, but it doesn't help to strengthen neighborly trust. If anything, it only seems to make us more afraid. (At least one woman fled the Charlottesville store and dialed 911.)

I'm reminded of a line in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, another novel about men facing hard times in America. When Steinbeck's iconic drifters Lennie and George show up at a farm to look for work, the man who hires them remarks on how unusual it is for men to care for one another as they do: "Slim looked through George and beyond him. 'Ain't many guys travel around together,' he mused. 'I don't know why. Maybe ever'body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.'"

Maybe so. If you know the novel, you know the complicated ways in which guns, trust, love, and fear figure into it. If you don't, I won't spoil it for you. Instead, let me rephrase the question I began with: What do guns do to us? Do guns expand our sense of community, or cause it to contract? Perhaps owning a gun helps us to practice the virtue of protecting our families, but if we're not careful, it might also simply fertilize our fear.

Don't get me wrong. I have some sympathy for those who say we need guns to keep our families safe, and for those who say that guns help to secure a free state. There's historical evidence for both those points. My father and grandfather proudly bore arms to serve our nation; my mother and her boyfriend enjoyed long careers as police officers. All of them bore arms at work, and all were gun owners who kept guns at home to defend those they love.

My point, once again, is not about laws, but about us. When we dwell on all that can go wrong, it's too easy to neglect all that we could be doing to help things go right. I thought long and hard about following in my family's footsteps by joining the Army or becoming a police officer. I chose a different career because it seemed to me that the best way to honor those who have sacrificed so much to defend our nation from its fears is to spend my life unfolding its greatest hopes. They kept it safe; I want to make it sound.

The question of laws in relation to safety is important. But so is the matter of being not just safe but sound. Our debates about laws that will keep us safe are often—as they are now—provoked by images of life at its worst. That can distract us from the philosophical task of reflecting on human life at its best, and striving to achieve that.

Aristotle reminds us that "where there is friendship, there is no need for laws." As our focus turns to laws, we are right to suspect that friendship and communal love are neglected. When we give ourselves over to taking aim at one another, we miss life's target completely.

We certainly need better laws; we always do. But just as important, we need to become better people. We need to become people who "travel around together" in difficult times, because it is better to do so than to spend our lives safely scared of the whole damn world.

David L. O'Hara is an associate professor of philosophy and classics at Augustana College, in Sioux Falls, S.D. His most recent book, with Matthew T. Dickerson, is Narnia and the Fields of Arbol: The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis (University Press of Kentucky, 2009).