A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.
So says the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1791. Once again this right is in many people’s minds both in the US and across the world, following yet another school massacre at Newtown, Connecticut: this one all the more poignant for taking place in a primary school and involving the slaughter of children as young as six, and all the more symbolic for occurring just before Christmas, which is associated with Herod’s massacre of the innocents.
What psychological process lies behind the retention of a right that had a relevant purpose in 1791 – a purpose stated in the amendment itself, and a purpose that is clearly no longer operative – a right that leads to extraordinarily high rates of death involving guns in the US, both intentional and accidental? None other, I would suggest, than those that motivate every other metaphysical claim: the identification with a representation of the world that provides both a sense of certainty and a sense of group solidarity. The original massacre of the innocents is used in Christian tradition to show God’s favour for the infant Jesus in escaping it, and give a stronger impression of an evil world in need of a redeemer. This one, though no less demonstrative of metaphysical identification, is a more direct result of absolute identification with a right that has lost its original context.
In the case of the Second Amendment, the absolute identification with a moral right enshrined in a sacred constitution is reinforced by its association with various other metaphysical beliefs. One is the belief in self defence with its associations with the absolute status of a self to be defended and the utter rejection of the ‘enemy’ to be defended against. Another is the ideological rejection of the state, and the idea that weapons can help to maintain a citizen’s independence against the state. Thirdly, there is the belief in absolute responsibility based on absolute freewill, expressed in the US conservative view that “people kill people, not guns”. Put these four bits of metaphysics together in interlinked support – an absolute right regardless of context, rigid belief in the self, ideological commitments, and metaphysical freewill – and you have a powerful combination that is difficult to shift, because even if you undermine belief in one of those four the others will make the position effectively rigid.
This is yet another example of how religion has no monopoly on metaphysical rigidity. A religion might have a similar set of interlinked metaphysical beliefs (e.g. in God, absolute revelatory ethics, freewill and cosmic justice) which would be just as hard to shift, but human patterns of belief and identification will set up these patterns of metaphysical belief in all sorts of contexts. Such patterns can occur in ‘secular’ contexts just as easily as in religious ones.
The conservatives who say that banning guns will not change the human heart are right in some ways. However, the opening up of human hearts and minds to the extent that would be required for American conservatives to let go of the Second Amendment is what would be required to produce more effective gun laws in the first place. More effective gun laws might then limit some of the effects of the extremes of the obsessive human heart, and help to create a less polarised social and political climate – not to mention saving a few innocent lives.
I’m not much given to quoting Buddhist scriptures, but a couple of verses near the beginning of the Dhammapada do keep springing to mind here. They focus on the retrospective of hatred, but could be applied just as much to the prospective of fear that inspires an arms race of self-protection.
“He abused me! He injured me! He overcame me! He deprived me!” For those who entertain such thoughts, enmity does not abate.
Enmities do not abate at any time through enmity: they abate through friendliness
Picture: Massacre of the Innocents from Tapestry in Collegiale de Notre Dame, Beaune, France: photographed by Mattana (Wikimedia Commons). Picture only freely reproducible under Creative Commons licence.