The massacre in Las Vegas has prompted broad discussion, both in the US and the rest of the world. The constitutional right to gun ownership has become an evil ladder for the indiscriminative killing of innocent people. Claims that “guns don’t kill people, people do” don’t conceal or console people’s confusion and fury. The nationwide debate over gun ownership and gun control has been reactivated, but people are no longer hopeful that any change can come from it.
Discussing the mass shooting requires a comprehensive critique of western political modernity. Understanding it requires understanding several key factors.
First, the idea of the natural state. Behind the widespread gun ownership in the US is the Anglo-American militia tradition and an attachment to Lockean liberalism. Gun rights in the US are often justified as being a “defense against tyranny.” Due to this natural state idea, freedom is Thorough and comprehensive, but order and security are compromised. The disagreements over gun control and gun ownership, or whether the latter is a collective or individual right, indicate tremendous tensions between Lockean liberalism and Rousseauian republicanism. “Defense against tyranny” enabling mass violence is a feature of the “natural state” in Anglo-American politics.
Second, rights-centeredness. The Second Amendment itself, which provides the right to bear arms, was a collective right in the Anglo-American militia tradition, and a necessary constitutional arrangement for states to organize militias to check the powers of the central government. It does not prioritize the individual’s right to arm him or herself. However, the ambiguous wording of the Second Amendment has rendered it very difficult to reach a consensus on the specific nature of such a right, resulting in much heated debate over the past 200 years. However, the Supreme Court’s rights-centered jurisprudence changed everything. Because of its rulings on the matter in 2008 and 2011, gun ownership has become a fundamental individual right that neither federal nor state governments can restrict.
Third, vetocracy. Francis Fukuyama coined this term to summarize US constitutional politics. This dynamic results from the separation of powers, as well as partisan politics and the influence of interest groups and the mass media. Several different groups in the US have the power to effectively if not literally veto a piece of legislation, thus blocking any change. This happens especially with gun control. Most importantly, the Supreme Court’s rulings have constrained federal and state governments’ room to maneuver, greatly reducing the effectiveness of political action.
Fourth, the fear of tyranny. Gun ownership was originally meant to counter tyranny. However, it is the Constitution’s system of checks and balances as well as other basic rights stipulated in the Bill of Rights, rather than gun ownership per se, that have guaranteed American freedom and democracy. Democracy is not “armed peace” between the people and their government, but rather the former’s “institutionalized supervision” over the latter. The natural link between guns and constitutional politics has weakened. In the meantime, gun ownership is increasingly associated with violence in society.
Fifth, fear of immigrants. The US is a country of immigrants. It would not have been on the forefront of world culture and technology without being a melting pot that attracts global talent. Frequent shooting incidents, however, have seriously damaged the soft power of American culture and institutions, undermined immigrants’ sense of safety and their confidence in the government’s governance. When the government fails to effectively control gun violence, the specter of individuals arming themselves and a “war of all against all” can only grow.
The right to bear arms has already lost its significance for countering tyranny, and has instead become a weakness threatening US democratic institutions and security. Modernizing governance is not only a question for developing countries, but also one for developed nations like the US.