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Guns and America’s Original Ontology

The enlightenment thinkers who provided the philosophical backdrop for the ‘founding’ of America understood the world to be made of disparate and distinct things, and therefore saw humans as essentially separate, individual beings. It seems to me that this understanding of the nature of things, this ontology, is engraved in the American spirit and is at the heart of much of our political and social strife.

[ontology: the study of or theorizing about the nature of being(s)]

The issue here is that contemporary thought – science, philosophy (esp. metaphysics), and theology, among other disciplines – and human experience point to a different understanding of reality: one of considerable interrelation. We’re discovering, around every turn, that who we are and how the universe works is much more complicated and interrelated that we could imagine. I wager we're currently most acutely experiencing this politically, as it’s chafing against the deep anarchic soul of America – that of radical independence and individual self-determination.

It seems to me that our adamant demand for guns is actually symptomatic of the communally disruptive nature of our individual and individualizing ontology. On one hand it speaks to a strong vigilante spirit, and on another it speaks to a prevention of the full potential of community. Though the first reason deserves reflection, and isn’t unrelated to the second, it’s the second reason I’m interested in here.

While perhaps true for the origins of the Second Amendment, it doesn’t seem to me that bearing arms is now actually for the purpose of self-defense against a tyrannical U.S. regime, as if the unmatched tactical prowess, technological savvy, and sheer size and strength of the American military would balk at a cabinet of Bushmaster rifles. It seems gun ownership is now less (if it ever was) about protecting yourself from the American government and more about the individual having the disproportionate power to threaten existing social or political structures with considerably more than his or her involvement.

Although this disproportionate individual power is part of the logic for gun ownership, it creates an untenable parity of power between the individual and the government. If the desire is for the individual to be as powerful as the government, in what sense would the government have any power at all? Isn’t a democracy to be precisely the empowerment of its individuals, together? Then what sort of separation need exist (not that I’m implying none does) between unified individuals and the government? There would, however, be a necessary one between the power of collective individuals and the power of an individual.

I’m sympathetic to the threat of being totalized, exploited, and oppressed, but we need to think harder about resistance – which nowadays probably ought to be more about finance than firepower – and about the consequences of how we address such fears. Along those lines, I'm not here trying to argue against violent revolt. Rather, quite simply, guns, and the notion that we need them, keep us far more separate than we might be; they are, and symbolize, the means by which we might each disproportionately violently assert our radically individual will. Alas, all of this is, of course, perched upon the belief that the individual and his or her will is better and more essential than the community. It positions the individual over and above the communal.

I’m not trying to change the subject from the immediate call for action in light of the recent tragedies. This, to me, is both about actual gun laws and the felt need for guns, the latter of which seems to be under addressed. For some, gun ownership is about sport, for others it’s about protection, but most of the public conversation right now is very interestingly about neither. I’m not sure how interdependent we can get, how deeply democratic we can get, with an anxiety that’s calmed by a filled holster.

Whatever else might be wrong with America, I'm suggesting there’s something terribly wrong with its ‘original’ ontology, and that this gun control debate reveals more about that than the private right to own a gun. We need a renewed approach to government, economics, and society that takes into account our deep, essential interrelatedness. We need an approach that begins with our connectedness and recognizes our individuality, not the other way around; we need one that is the empowerment of it’s individuals together, not each individual separately.

This is clearly about more than just guns, yet the point isn’t simply that we’re better together. It’s that, without each other, we’re actually not much at all – and there’s something about ubiquitous gun ownership that runs counter to that.


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