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Editorial from The Tablet (London) / 21 April 2007

Right after the shootings at Virginia Tech, editorials appeared all over the world about the terrible gun violence that we experience in America. This editorial from London’s The Tablet for April 21, 2007 points out how in America the values of individualism overshadow the values of the common good, as compared with most other countries.

Locally, we have a chance to make a statement about the common good taking precedence over individualism. There is public hearing scheduled for May 29th, 2007 that would close the loophole in the present gun laws that forbid a ‘private citizen’ from selling a gun without a background check. See Mothers Against Gun Violence for more details on The Responsible Gun Ownership bill and the hearing.

Guns and American values — Editorial
The Tablet (London) / 21 April 2007

It is almost too easy to hold American gun law responsible for American gun crime. The ready availability of firearms is undoubtedly one of the reasons why a student at Virginia Tech shot and killed more than 30 university members - fellow students and academic staff - before turning his weapon on himself. But it also has to be noted that the pro-gun lobby is saying that if more students carried guns, he could have been stopped sooner. Indeed, self-protection is the most common reason why Americans buy guns in the first place.

Those who seek tighter control of guns, and not just in Virginia, which is notoriously lax in these matters, are asserting that certain liberties of the citizen have to be curtailed by Government for the sake of the common good. In contrast, the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” arose from the perception that British colonial power had become a threat to individual freedom, which only an armed citizenry could effectively hold at bay. Thus the debate about gun control touches something very deep in the American psyche. It is a generalisation, but one bearing much truth, that Americans have never trusted their own government, whether colonial, federal or state, and they do not trust each other.

The national frame of values encourages an individualism, even atomisation, within American society that may relate to the Puritan origins of the first colonial settlements. Some American commentators speak of a streak of paranoia in the national personality, and a tendency to suspect conspiracies in high places. Guns are no less prevalent in the hands of ordinary people in peace-loving Canada and law-abiding Switzerland, but gun crime is low in both places. But neither the Swiss nor the Canadians have a national culture that emphasises the sense of individual competitiveness, of “each against the whole”, that characterises America, nor a film industry that glamorises gun violence.

Although this competitiveness may be the source of American economic success, it clearly has its negative side. The feeling that one’s monetary worth reflects one’s merit explains the relatively low emphasis in American politics on welfare and policies for overcoming poverty. Compassion dictates that no one should starve, but most of the people who find themselves in a hole are expected to dig their own way out of it.

In other countries, a feeling for the common good gives a government an unchallenged right to regulate gun ownership even to the point of prohibiting it in principle, as in the United Kingdom. That implies a degree of trust among citizens themselves, and between citizens and the state, that America manifestly lacks. So gun control is not about to become an American election winner, even if ghastly campus mass killings like that at Virginia Tech were to happen again.

In the very long term what could change these basic American cultural values would be a shift from a mainly Protestant individualistic to a more Catholic communitarian understanding of the relationship between the state and the individual. The Catholic population is predicted to go on growing, largely through Spanish-speaking immigration, to the point where it could even become a majority in half a century. So such a cultural shift is not inconceivable. But until now American Catholics have seemed keener to embrace American values than to criticise them. Where gun control is concerned, a strong assertion of the primacy of the common good is overdue.

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