Essay 12: America’s Crisis of Competing Rights
“Gunman Murders 19 Elementary School Children” would have been a near-impossible headline when our nation’s current seniors were small children. Americans would never have tolerated whatever cultural aberration could have birthed such an abominable tragedy. How things have changed. As heartbreaking as the Uvalde cataclysm is for all Americans, few are stunned. Everyone is afraid to say out loud what everyone knows. Unless something changes soon, it will happen again.
No other western nation comes within an order of magnitude of gun violence and gun deaths as that experienced here in America, and the citizens of those nations cannot comprehend why we accept it. People in other western countries are not more docile or more mentally stable. The difference is that they severely regulate firearms. Guns are a major factor in our murderous mayhem. This cannot be credibly argued.
It is also true that guns are not the only factor. Something in our culture has encouraged the genesis of a subset of cruel, angry young men. Candidates responsible for this phenomenon are the decline of the nuclear family, the regression of organized religion, the absence of community, and an increasing acceptance of violence in all forms of entertainment. No matter the underlying cause, it is the combination of the rise of this antisocial cadre of young men with the ease of obtaining automatic weapons that has resulted in previously unimaginable gun-related mass murder events like Buffalo and Uvalde.
As a child in 1962, I witnessed the collapse of boxer Benny Paret during a match and his death ten days later. America was visibly shaken by this event. The popularity of boxing waned as the public suffered a collective embarrassment at the brutality of the sport. Americans were seemingly turning their back on violence.
It didn’t last. The first time I witnessed a televised event of mixed martial arts, the level of violence shocked me. The tide had once again turned. Everywhere I looked, violence seemed to have regained the upper hand.
No society can survive such an onslaught. Human life, once sacred, is no longer. Within one week, a dozen unsuspecting people are viciously shot at a supermarket and nineteen children are murdered in their classroom in cold blood. You would think that the nation would collectively rise up and insist that, whatever it takes, this senseless violence must end. That did not happen after Sandy Hook and subsequent mass shootings. It is difficult to be optimistic that it will happen now. Why not? Why are we paralyzed?
It is because we have competing rights. On one side is the Second Amendment to the US Constitution which states, “…the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” On the other side are the rights promised by the Declaration of Independence. “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” That powerful statement implies that our children should be able to go to school without the threat of being murdered and that all of us should be able to go about our daily business free from the fear of sudden death at the hands of a heavily-armed madman. Those two magnificent documents–The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution–are in conflict.
If we continue to view the issue solely through the lens of the rights of the individual, we will remain immobilized. Both sides have legitimate arguments. When instead we substitute the lens of our common purpose–to transition from selfish to selfless, to put the welfare of others ahead of our own desires–the solution is revealed. My individual rights become secondary to the well-being of the community. I am guaranteed by the Constitution the right to say most anything I want, but I choose to limit my speech to prevent causing pain to others. I have the right to own a gun, but I choose to limit that right so that those who are angry, evil, and unstable will not have access to the most dangerous of those weapons and put the lives of our loved ones in jeopardy.
Reigning in the guns is critical but insufficient. Our culture is drowning in violent imagery. Television series, movies, music, and even video games are dominated by violent themes. Sports coaches tell their teams that how they practice is how they will play in the upcoming game. In the same way, how we see each other in our entertainment is how we learn to treat each other. I have known for many years that if we filled our world with violence, we would increasingly accept violence in our society. That is now our reality. This cannot continue if we care about the quality of our lives and the future we are creating for those who will follow.
We need better families. We need a return to community. We need to raise the level of our national discourse so that mutual respect is the norm and that our language reflects that respect. We need to markedly diminish the level of violence in what we watch and listen to. And yes, we need to do something about the guns. There are steps we can take to at least diminish the threat. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
Our common purpose is to evolve from selfish to selfless, from self-focused to outward-focused, to care more about others than we do about ourselves. This is how we solve our current crisis of violence. Not by decree, but by a collective agreement to put the welfare of our neighbors ahead of our own individual rights. When we give willingly, magic happens.
Next: Thank You, Will Smith
When: Wednesday, June 8, 2022