The Newtown Tragedy and the Emperor’s New Clothes

18 Dec

We’ll get to that fairly tale in a minute, for it embodies a deep truth about living in society. But let’s first think about guns. That gun ownership has been such a controversial issue in American politics suggests that it speaks to our sense of who and what we are.

What kind of phenomenon is gun ownership? Obviously, it’s a fact about human beings. Some own guns and some do not. The question becomes: Is gunownership related to other characteristics of a person or not? It might be the case, for example, that gun owners are more likely to have blue eyes than non-gun owners. It that’s the case–and there’s no reason it is, this is just a hypothetical example–what’s that about? Is there a common causal factor behind blue eyes and gun ownership?

Polling data indicates that there IS a relationship between reported political affiliation and gun ownership: Republicans are more likely to own guns than Democrats. This has changed over time: Gun ownership has diminished considerably over that last 40 years among Democrats but NOT Republicans. What’s THAT about and is it correlated with anything else.

Nate Silver reports:

In 1973, about 55 percent of Republicans reported having a gun in their household against 45 percent of Democrats, according to the General Social Survey, a biennial poll of American adults.

Gun ownership has declined over the past 40 years — but almost all the decrease has come from Democrats. By 2010, according to the General Social Survey, the gun ownership rate among adults that identified as Democratic had fallen to 22 percent. But it remained at about 50 percent among Republican adults.


The poll makes clear that gun ownership is deeply embedded in political identity, and vice versa. Some other variables, such as whether a voter lives in an urban area, also strongly predict gun ownership. But the differences between the parties remain even after accounting for these characteristics.


But the differences are most apparent in suburban areas. There, 58 percent of Republican voters said there was a gun in their household, against just 27 percent of Democrats.

It seems, further more, that “gun ownership rates are inversely correlated with educational attainment.” That is, the more education one has, the less likely one is to own a gun. Why?

And then this:

Perhaps last weekend’s mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., will serve to partly reverse the partisan split in attitudes toward guns; early polls on Newtown find relatively modest differences between Democrats and Republicans on what they see as the causes of the shooting.

Interesting, very interesting. Why should such a senseless tragedy have this effect? Gun ownership is ‘about’ something, and whatever that something is, it’s not just self protection, or hunting, or even the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, though that amendment is the focal point for legislative efforts.

My buddy Charlier Keil pointed out that that amendment speaks to a “well regulated Militia.” Well, these terrible mass murders are cases where regulation has gone wrong. But regulation where? In one lone individual, or in society, or both? Certainly the first. But possibly the second, but in what way?

Notice just what Silver reports: “relatively modest differences between Democrats and Republicans on what they see as the causes of the shooting” (emphasis mine). Not that anyone actually knows the causes. But beliefs about causes seem to converge in the immediate wake of such losses of regulation.

Such matters, alas, are only fleeting: “But after moments of healing, the partisan divide in attitudes toward guns has seemed only to accelerate after similar past events, as in Columbine, Colo.” And THAT’s just as strange. One could see, to the extent that one can SEE anything through these mists, why attitudes would return to normal once this tragedy had passed. Think of a pebble dropping into a pond. It sends ripples across the surface, but they die out quickly and the pond returns to normal. In the case of such tragic shootings, we get ripples of agreement across the body politic, but then they die out. And not only does the former polarization return, but it gets worse. Why?

Remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes? The Emperor parades before the town proudly display his costly and gorgeous new outfit, NOT! For, as everyone sees, he’s naked. But no one says anything for fear of displeasing the Emperor. And then one little boy blurts out “he’s bloody naked!” and the whole delusion collapses.

Everyone saw what the boy saw, but no one knew that their neighbor saw the same thing. Everyone was quaking in their boots in fear that they, and they alone, couldn’t see the Emperor’s fine raiment. Therefore, there must be something terribly wrong with them. But there wasn’t. Their eyesight was fine. The little boy’s cry showed them that.

These terrible gun tragedies are like the little boy’s cry. Now we all can see IT. But what is this IT that we can see, and why do we so quickly forget that we saw it? Why does seeing IT seem to make this failure of vision even worse? For that’s what it does: “But after moments of healing, the partisan divide in attitudes toward guns has seemed only to accelerate after similar past events, as in Columbine, Colo.” Just what is it that’s been polarizing the American body politic over the last forty years?

Silver concludes:

It might seem strange that ownership of a single household object is so strongly tied to voting behavior and broader political attitudes in America. But America is an outlier relative to other industrialized nations in its gun ownership rates. Whatever makes this country so different from the rest of the world must surely be reflected in the differences in how Democrats and Republicans see the nation.


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