It is easy enough to connect this failure to America’s general turn to a partisan politics that is more about which political tribe you identify with than the exchange of ideas and arguments about the public good, or to cite the pernicious influence of the NRA’s election spending in Republican primaries. However, such explanations are both too easy and rather unhelpful. I think I have something better to offer – better both because it embodies a more idealistic view of democracy and because it is more likely to be politically successful.
Of course it is up to Americans to decide what kind of society they should have - not philosophers, and certainly not foreign ones like me. Indeed, part of my argument is that the place of guns in America has to be decided politically - by the people - and not by appeal to the special authority of sacred constitutional principles, or social science, or even philosophy. Philosophers’ pronouncements of truth and rightness have no special authority over politics, nor should they. What philosophical analysis can do is offer new perspective and argumentative resources by which a political debate such as this one might be improved from its toxic stalemate.
So what does my philosophical perspective come down to?
First a diagnosis. America’s decades long national argument about guns is so pernicious and acrimonious because it is not just a policy debate about what the government should do to best fix some problem (like an opioid epidemic or a high level of car accident fatalities). It is also about what kind of politics to have: how citizens should relate to each other and the state. Politics with a capital P. This ideological dimension is explicit in the arguments of the gun rights movement but has been largely neglected by the other side.
Second, some positive advice for the advocates of gun control. Talk about civic values is not a squishy second best to the objective statistical facts of gun violence. It is an essential ingredient for building a committed political majority. Winning this debate requires showing that a society without guns is a better society, not merely that it is a safer one.