Civic Virtues, Not Guns, Nurture the Republic

A good guy with a gun isn’t the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun

When House Speaker Paul Ryan announced last week that “We are not going to allow stunts like this to stop us from carrying out the people’s business,” his dismissal of his Democratic colleagues’ sit-in on behalf of gun-control legislation was striking partly because the Republican-dominated House has done so little of the people’s business since 2010.  More often, it has actually obstructed it in order to facilitate certain other interests’ business, not least involving guns, whose regulation overwhelming majorities of “the people” want carried out, not impeded.

But still more striking than Ryan’s and his colleagues’ fealty to the gun lobby is their captivity to a basic misunderstanding of power that resorts too readily to violent force.  Contrary to what they and many Americans have been taught to think (as Daniel J.H. Greenwood and I argued a few years ago in the Atlantic and in a subsequent NPR interview), by gratuitously violent entertainments as well as by the self-fulfilling cycles of real violence that they prompt, coercive violence doesn’t nourish or sustain power.

The notion that legitimate power rides on violence is ancient and widespread and tragic, and it gains far too much credibility from our national story of the American Revolution’s redoubtable Minutemen, who “fired the shot heard ‘round the world,” but after a long and deliberate wait. That misplaced justification of our all-too-ready resort to violence these days is reinforced by National Rifle Association Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s insistence that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

When half-truths like this drive our politics, people cling to them so tightly that they spawn lies. The strength of a republic grows from ordinary citizens and legislators’ belief, not in violence, but that they can accomplish things together that they couldn’t accomplish only as economic competitors and consumers. What we need is open, honest, and robust communication within restraints nourished by republican habits of the heart.

Those habits are always fragile. A liberal capitalist republic has to rely on a critical mass of its citizens to voluntarily uphold certain public virtues, beliefs, and practices — reasonableness, forbearance in listening to one’s opponents, and a willingness to discover one’s self-interest in serving the public. These virtues are not nourished by either the liberal state or the capital markets alone. Instead of nourishing and defending public deliberation, Congress, by denying a vote on gun control and a hearing to a presidential nominee to the Supreme Court, is thwarting them in ways that can only accelerate our society’s rampant atomization into a whorl of mistrustful loners and warring ethno-racial camps.

Time and again, “the people” do still try to advance non-violent cooperation against the seductive but false clarity of the “good guy/bad guy” approach and the armed-militia “Minuteman” strategy. When they do it, citizens and the republic grow stronger in ways that wealth and armies alone cannot defend.

Take the “good guy/bad guy” approach first. In December, 1993, Colin Ferguson, an enraged and black man from Brooklyn, took aim at white passengers on a Long Island Rail Road train, killing six and wounding 19. “That night, Brooklyn followed them home,” Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote memorably, encapsulating a long history of racism that preceded and surrounded Ferguson’s stalking of those commuters.

Yet, voters in the area’s traditionally Republican Long Island congressional district rejected the logic of retaliation in 1996 by electing Democrat Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband had been killed in the massacre. McCarthy ran on a gun-control platform, defeating by a 17-point margin an incumbent who had voted to repeal a ban on assault rifles. McCarthy retired in 2014, having lost many legislative battles, but having stalled a descent into racist demagoguery that would have destroyed safety and freedom itself.

Last year, Dylann Roof, an enraged white man, gunned down nine black people, including a state senator, in Charleston, S.C.’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Coming after a spate of police killings of young blacks, the church massacre might have prompted a more violent reaction by blacks, if not for the congregation’s Christian forgiveness of Roof. Likewise, their forgiveness mystified and, one could say, “disarmed” whites who had been bracing themselves for potential black retaliation, thereby forestalling would could been a spiraling cycle of violence.

If the sit-in by House Democrats’ summoned any of the spirit of the Civil Rights movement, it was thanks partly to Carolyn McCarthy and the Emanuel A.M.E. church, as well as to Rep. John Lewis, the heroic veteran of the movement’s non-violence who led the sit-in, at which participants sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Wouldn’t at least some lives have been spared on Long Island and in Charleston if the railroad commuters and members of the church Bible class had shot Ferguson and Roof instead of wrestling them to the ground?

Not as many lives would have been saved as will be lost if more and more people carry guns into schools, businesses, meeting halls, entertainment centers, shopping malls, and restaurants and bars. When the perverse “logic” of retaliation is ignited by human misunderstandings and bad moods, it destroys the logic of trust (without which no one is free) and the logic of power (the legitimacy of which comes ultimately from people’s acting voluntarily in concert).

As I warned at length recently in an essay about Donald Trump, this poison has already metastasized in our public life to produce a presidential nominee who boasts, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and my supporters wouldn’t leave me.” Although he probably won’t shoot anyone, his taunts and insults have shot new holes in the liberal democratic fabric of dialogue and trust, separating words from deeds more brazenly than folkloric American political snake-oil salesmen and sleazy senators ever did.

But if people were to disarm themselves, wouldn’t that leave the state with a potentially totalitarian monopoly on violent force?

The Minuteman/militia insistence on that possibility has its kernel of truth, just as the good guy/bad guy approach does. But the poetry of that shot heard ‘round the world’ can’t eclipse a more important truth noted by founder John Adams: “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.”

So, too, were the victories of the almost-wholly unarmed peoples who’ve brought down vast, national security regimes — in British India, apartheid South Africa, Communist Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union itself, not to mention in the segregationist South, which even Justice Clarence Thomas, who grew up there, characterized as “totalitarian.”

Republicans and the gun lobby can’t explain how this happened. The late Jonathan Schell’s book The Unconquerable World does, and it shows why those, left or right, who insist that power grows only from the barrel of a gun lose – not immediately, but inevitably.

Years ago, in a forum at Berkeley, the writer Czeslaw Milosz pondered the Polish dissident Adam Michnik’s “unbending commitment to non-violence” even after long imprisonments and harassment by Communist authorities. That commitment had been inspired — as it was in John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. — by the spiritual and strategic example of India’s Mahatma Gandhi. But Milosz asked, “What is the efficacy of non-violence… applied to the conditions of our daily life? Purely peaceful movements – the Prague Spring of 1968 and Solidarity of 1980-81 – have been smashed.”

Milosz answered his own question by cautioning impressarios of violent intimidation and retaliation that “habitual notions of links between causes and effects enclose us in simplistic, mechanistic, and desperate dilemmas. The history of the century provides us with a number of proofs to vindicate… actions that appear insignificant and likely to fail, yet are potentially fecund.”

When Michnik’s friend, the dissident Vaclav Havel, came to power as Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist president and oversaw the reintegration of former Party operatives, including those who’d imprisoned him, “he assumed good and humanity in everyone,” the political scientist Jane Leftwich Curry has noted, because he understood “that each and every one of them, himself included, had been part of making the Communist system work [and] that the fault was shared by all and that each person had to account to himself for what he had done or not done. For Havel, then, the ultimate power was the power of the powerless.”

Non-violent movements win by mobilizing their own oppressive society’s widely shared myths – Communism’s promise to champion a free workers’ state, or the segregationist South’s claims to practice Christian love and charity – against those who, to shore up unwarranted power, have betrayed those promises even while paying lip-service to them. Non-violent movements also win support from abroad, where people cast ballots, not bullets.

Which brings us back to how congressional Republicans balance ballots and bullets.  Why don’t the same legislators who claim that they’re rescuing voting rights with “Voter I.D” laws also try to rescue the Second Amendment rights from corruption by passing “gun owner I.D.” laws for would-be purchasers of assault weapons and “concealed carry” pocket guns?

The truth, of course, is that voter I.D. laws are tactical feints to disenfranchise as many black and other non-white poor voters as possible. The same legislators may yet find some analogous way to curb the Second Amendment rights of black and other non-white poor citizens in the guise of purifying them for everyone. But they can’t do it without betraying the civic-republican premises, practices, and virtues they claim to cherish and losing themselves in the “idiot wind” of the candidate the NRA is supporting for president.

The word “idiot” is often used to characterize someone as too retarded or otherwise deficient to engage in elementary reasoning. But in the original Greek, it designated even a “normal” person – such as a lonely soldier or farmer – who was prevented by long isolation or ignorance from joining other citizens in practicing the arts and graces of citizenship, of respecting the give-and take of public life.

“Reader, suppose that you were an idiot. And suppose that you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself,” wrote Mark Twain in 1882. I doubt that he was thinking of members of Congress like John Lewis, but the word’s original meaning seems to fit those who imagine that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun or that armed militias are the only way to check an overbearing state. Those aren’t the only solutions. And we’d better learn the alternatives quickly.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.