In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, a minority issue has come before the majority. In a democracy the majority passes the laws. In a democracy dedicated to justice, the majority is careful when passing these laws to protect the rights of the minority. Gun control, now as in the past, defies democratic rule. An intransigent minority has a stranglehold on making the law and blocking reform.
It’s worth making such basic points, which everyone knows, because a silent majority has been acquiescent in the culture of violence that everyone is decrying now. The phrase “silent majority” was invented in the Nixon era to ignite widespread resentment against the anti-war movement, a rise in crime and drug use, and general permissiveness. It gave permission for scattered, unfocused anger and resentment to come together. For anyone on the left, this was moral chicanery, a way for right-wing politicians to exploit the underside of social antagonism while wearing a mask of pious rectitude.
It’s time to test if there is a silent majority that is willing to come together for issues that stand for a healthy moral sense – not social resentment and “values” issues that revolve around prejudice and reactionary religion. In his speech last week on gun safety, President Obama rightly said that incidents like Newtown reveal a complex issue, where guns are entangled with issues over mental health, the Second Amendment, police safety, school security, and more. But he was also right in saying that complexity isn’t an excuse for not acting.
The public has become lax over the past thirty years. The shock of the Newtown shootings has suddenly created a shift. According to the latest CNN poll, 62% of respondents favor a reinstatement of the ban on assault weapons, and the same majority would support a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips. But opinions don’t create action when an entrenched minority wields political power. The NRA is doing what it has always done when the public gets aroused by a mass killing – they lie low for a while, wait for the outcry to die down, and then move in to make sure that Congress is still under their control.
We need to strip away us-versus-them thinking on guns, which only leads into endless arguments over personal values. The gun culture in this country is implacable. They have no interest in compromise. Sensible gun laws galvanize their paranoia. On TV one hears the prevailing conspiracy theories: guns are needed so that individual citizens can protect themselves when an oppressive government turns on its citizens. Take away assault weapons, and it’s a slippery slope to taking away all guns. And so it goes. Guns don’t kill, people do. Every family needs a gun to protect itself from home invasion. A majority of Americans don’t buy into these arguments, but they silently acquiesce to them.
Grief and shock should lead to an aroused majority that doesn’t aim to change gun culture but simply to exert the will of the country. In 1996, Australia reacted to the crazed killing of 35 people in Tasmania by passing stiff gun control that included buying back semi-automatic weapons. Australia has a Wild West culture that dates back to its frontier days, and so there were plenty of semi-automatic weapons out there. The buy-back amounted to 600,000 weapons. The same thing needs to happen here. We can’t shrug our shoulders once more, using “culture of violence” as an excuse for doing nothing. The rights of the minority have been tolerated too far when that minority stands for intractable intolerance itself.