The whole gun control issue that the Newtown tragedy has brought to the forefront of the American political conversation has, for me, coincided with some thoughts I’ve been having recently on America’s disturbing trend of military sycophantism. While these two things may seem a bit unrelated, I believe that a there is a common solution to both, but first some lists!
First, what has the Newtown tragedy (and the Aurora shooting, and the Oak Creek Sikh temple shooting, and the Gabby Giffords shooting, and most inner-city shootings etc) taught us?
- These shootings are carried out by young men
- These shootings are carried out by those who are mentally disturbed
- The shooters use military style weapons (not guns normally used for hunting)
- The shootings are planned ahead of time
Second, what do I mean by military sycophantism?
- Unquestioning “support for the troops” without defining what this “support” consists of (is it more body armor and better equipment, or an unquestioning support of anything they do? Are they really “heroes” just for serving?).
- A willingness to make excuses for terrible behavior by American soldiers.
- A sycophantic obsession with showing public support for soldiers (in ways that sometimes make the soldiers themselves feel uncomfortable).
- The way the media was so easily impressed with a general (who wore a LOT more medals/ribbons than other generals in recent us history).
So, what’s my point here? We need a civic republican response to both of these, required national military service. Now, let me point out that I don’t say this lightly, as a pacifist myself; this puts me in a very awkward position. I believe however that, 1.) these twin problems aren’t a concern for committed pacifists and 2.) the idea of Civilian Public Service that most Peace Church members participated in during World War II would provide an acceptable and proven alternative.
With that caveat, let me move on to my main point. The mass shootings that have been carried out very publicly over the last few years (and the shootings that get less attention, usually involving poor, brown, inner city youth) are carried out by young men of military age. I propose that we, therefore, put them in the military, put them through all of the analysis and training that soldiers go through, and, in the process, find out which of them are mentally disturbed. Having done this, the US would have a relatively accurate handle on those who can handle the responsibility of gun ownership upon completing military service, and those who cannot. If you weren’t allowed to handle a gun during your military service, you don’t get to handle one when you complete it. Those who own guns after military service will have the proper safety training and respect for the power and responsibility that gun ownership entails. If you’d like an example of this, look no farther than Switzerland, which has a deeply civic republican tradition (though that tradition certainly has its dark aspects: it led to some pretty terrible religious repression during the Reformation and the decades after). There, all young men are a part of the military, when they leave active service, they are part of the militia, armed with fully automatic weapons until age 30, and if they wish, after their stint in the militia, they may keep their weapon after it has been modified to make it only semi-automatic. Their rate of homicide by gun 0.52 per 100,000 citizens Ours? 3.0 per 100,000. The point is that this is a two-pronged approach rather than the typical conservative wild-west response of “ARM EVERYONE EVERYWHERE!” this civic republican ideal would arm responsible citizens while ensuring the mentally disturbed can’t get powerful military-style weapons easily.
The second aspect that national military service solves is civilian America’s sycophantic obsession with the military. Rather than seeing service members as a higher class of unquestionable heroes, the military will be a common experience for almost every member of society. This I believe has two advantages; first, it would limit the number of wars America would engage in. It’s all fun and games to declare war when it only affects a small number of volunteers, it’s quite a different thing to propose mobilizing an entire generation of young Americans. Second, I believe it to be much more democratic. The problem right now is that we’re creating a two class system: a military class that does almost whatever it wants without question (for to question is to not “support the troops” which is verboten), and a civilian class which sycophantically adores its “heroes.” There’s a reason that most of the founders were against a standing army: they lived through its potential for oppression. While the world situation has changed and a standing army is required, the better solution is to have as many people as possible involved in the process.
I don’t expect anything like this to ever happen, of course, but the point is that there are solutions other than the typical left-right liberal ones proposed after a tragedy like Newtown. Rather than looking at guns in terms of the liberal language of “rights,” perhaps it would be more productive to look at them in terms of the idea of civic virtue, how members of society can become better, more responsible gun-owning citizens by serving society.