America As A Gun Culture


But perhaps more than anything else the state of American gun controls is evidence of one of the failures of federalism: the purchase and possession of guns in the United States is controlled by a chaotic jumble of twenty thousand state and local laws that collectively are wholly inadequate to the protection of the people and that operate in such a way that areas with poor controls undermine those with better ones. No such chaos would be tolerated, say, in the field of automobile registration. The automobile, like the gun, is a lethal instrument, and the states have recognized it as such by requiring that each driver as well as each car must be registered and that each driver must meet certain specified qualifications. It is mildly inconvenient to conform, but no one seriously objects to the general principle, as gun lobbyists do to gun registration. However, as the United States became industrial and urban, the personnel of its national and state legislatures remained to a very considerable degree small town and rural, and under the seniority system that prevails in Congress, key posts on committees have long been staffed by aging members from smalltown districts—worse still, from small-town districts in regions where there is little or no party competition and hence little turnover in personnel. Many social reforms have been held back long after their time was ripe by this rural-seniority political culture. Gun control is another such reform: American legislators have been inordinately responsive to the tremendous lobby maintained by the National Rifle Association, in tandem with gunmakers and importers, military sympathizers, and far-right organizations. A nation that could not devise a system of gun control after its experiences of the 1960’s, and at a moment of profound popular revulsion against guns, is not likely to get such a system in the calculable future. One must wonder how grave a domestic gun catastrophe would have to be in order to persuade us. How far must things go?