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What is driving democratic decline in America? Disinformation, election subversion, Donald Trump’s authoritarian leader cult and institutionalized racism leap out at you. But there’s another factor that is all the more dangerous because it’s part of our everyday reality: civilian access to lethal weapons, and the mass death that enables.
The scale and scope of gun violence in America doesn’t just desensitize us to violence. It also cheapens the value of life. It fosters political, social and psychological conditions that are propitious for autocracy. The omission of gun law reform from discussions of democracy protection is symptomatic of our normalization of this tragic situation. The Jan. 6 insurrection shows us how dangerous that blind spot has become.
For decades we have shot each other, with Americans causing fellow Americans more harm than any foreign enemy. More than 1.5 million died of gunshots in the past 50 years vs. 1.2 million in all the wars in the country’s history. This year alone, mass shootings have killed or injured more than 1,800.
Yet no amount of loss seems enough to deter the supporters of a brutal gun rights culture that factors in harm to some so that the freedoms and privilege of others can continue, and accepts mass death and trauma in the name of “liberty.” Add in an uptick of activity by extremists that preach violence and extralegal action as a way of changing history, and you have a high potential for political destabilization. Guns were prominent at the storming of the Michigan Capitol in May 2020 by militia members. They also featured at the Jan. 6 insurrection, which brought many strains of armed political extremism together: militia members, retired and active-duty law enforcement and military and radicalized civilians.
“We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” said President Biden at a memorial service for victims of coronavirus. The same could be said of the daily tragedy of gun violence. But going numb is also a survival strategy for those who have seen much violence or have lost multiple loved ones and don't dare admit their fear that they will be next.
Fear of violence can, paradoxically, create the conditions for more violence. Gun sales have risen dramatically due to a more polarized political climate. Some 40 percent of firearms purchases in 2020 were to first-time buyers, including to women and non-Whites who fear for their safety. This probably means more deaths of an accidental and intentional nature. More children who find an improperly stored weapon or take mommy’s handgun out of her purse. More adult and teen suicides, and more hate crimes.
A September 2020 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics on the effects of active shooter drills in schools summed up the dangers that can paradoxically arise from our attempts to buffer against danger: “High-intensity crisis preparedness efforts may contribute to a distorted sense of risk in children and perspective that adults and peers need to be viewed as potential killers.” Gun culture arises in part from collective distrust, but it also engenders that very distrust, a process that threatens to become a self-reinforcing loop.
The terror-filled psychological climate created by mass death only encourages the embrace of fundamentalist and cult ideologies that promise to bring order to chaos by providing an explanation for everything that happens. A healthy democracy requires a strong civic culture and a public sphere conducive to social trust and altruism. Instead, we have generations raised with fear, suspicion of others and uncertainty — states of being perfect for authoritarian politics, which play on conspiracy theories and seek to rob populations of optimism and hope.
Exploit the hurt, make others feel as debased as possible, then rouse them to anger: This is the strongman formula. Such leaders know that it can be easier to try to control the world through violence than to stay still and grieve, and easier to find a scapegoat than look within. That’s what happened a century ago, when fascism arose among veterans in Italy and Germany who had been ravaged by World War I and formed far-right militias rather than transition to civilian society.
We have no recent comparable conflagration. Yet our ongoing experience of mass death primes us for a political order backed up by extrajudicial violence. Gun control is thus not only a public health, economic and social issue but an urgent matter of democracy protection. When violence is accorded a patriotic value; when mass death of your fellow citizens is considered an acceptable price to pay for possession of lethal weapons; when a leader has convinced people to follow his dogma even if it jeopardizes their own well-being; when the very thing that frightens is the thing primed to save you from your fear; when the value of life itself has been cheapened … then the conditions are right for authoritarian rule.
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