“On Thanksgiving Day, a shooter killed two and injured two in Houston Texas, one day after shooters in Philadelphia and Temple Hills, Maryland, injured four in two separate attacks, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as an event that killed or injured at least four people, not including the shooter.
The 611 mass shootings so far this year surpasses the 610 recorded in 2020, making 2022 the second worst year since the Gun Violence Archive started recording gun violence data in 2013—the highest was 690 in 2021” (Forbes, November 25, 2022).
How can such a shocking news report leave me numb and fail to evoke the most intense emotional reaction? I wish I were alone in having that reaction, but I suspect that many others also feel paralyzed. In my early experience, these mass shootings demanded answers concerning who, why, where, when, and how many, the usual ingredients of a news story. In late 1958, I was working as a news reporter for radio station KSCJ, an ABC affiliate in Sioux City, Iowa, when the Associated Press began reporting on a murder spree by Charles Starkweather that extended from January 21 to January 29. Starkweather, who was 19 years old, was joined by his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in killing ten people in Nebraska and Wyoming. As the news of these murders came over the AP wire for more than a week, I shared the terror and horror with my listeners in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota—any of whom might become one of the victims of this spree. It is impossible to recall every one of the other mass shootings that have taken place in the 65 years since Starkweather, but almost everyone today can put names to some of the most horrible such events we can imagine: Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Virginia Tech, Columbine High, Pittsburgh Synagogue, Orlando Nightclub, El Paso Walmart, Robb Elementary School, and on and on and on . . .
My first impulse is to blame my current paralysis on the feeling of helplessness these unending murders produce. The explanations and public laments that flood the media after each such event do little either to enlighten or produce a solution. Some light can be shed on the puzzle by the customary psychological, sociological, historical, and political analysis, and modest hope comes from legislative attempts to impose limits on the kind and number of weapons and who can purchase them, but these attempts do little to solve the real problem. The power of the gun lobby and the weapons manufacturers who fund them, as well as the political use of the Second Amendment, remain as strong as ever, despite the most passionate and intense appeals by parents, friends, and other genuinely concerned citizens.
Philosophical analysis seldom leads directly to a practical solution to such problems, but it might help us get closer to the source of the difficulty and point the way to a more effective response. The United States leads the rest of the world in the number and frequency of mass murders. Why is that the case? The philosophical question at the center of this podcast is an ethical question. Do individual human beings have a moral right to possess and use weapons that facilitate mass murder on the scale we see currently? For the sake of clarity, an example of the kind of the kind of weapon I mean is an assault rifle such as an AK47 or an M16. Some handguns might also qualify as assault weapons. Several others could be listed, but this should suffice for the current inquiry. The legal and constitutional questions related to this matter have received a lot of attention, but the moral question has been largely neglected. The moral issue is prior to the legal one. If it is not morally justifiable, how could it be justified legally? Or, to put it the other way around, if it is unjust for individuals to possess and use such weapons, what reasons can be given for laws that sanction such possession?
Common sense is a good guide when following this path. The purpose of an assault rifle is to kill or injure human beings in a combat situation. One can make a moral case for arming police and military forces with such weapons and instructing them when and how to use them for law enforcement and for national defense. But individuals or vigilante groups do not qualify for that purpose. It makes no more sense for an individual to own an assault weapon than it would for that person to own an aircraft carrier. Elon Musk might wake up some morning and decide he would like to purchase an aircraft carrier but allowing a single person to control that kind of weapon is absurd because no moral purpose can be served. Without being sanctioned for military defense by a legitimate legal entity, such weapons are pointless from a moral perspective. The same is true of assault rifles.
We have a timely historical example of an individual who claimed the moral authority to act on his own. Instead, he was convicted of treason and executed. Heather Cox Richardson’s Letter from an American on December 2, 2022, reminded us of the importance of that day in history: “On the clear, windy morning of December 2, 1859, just before 11:00, the doors of the jail in Charles Town, Virginia, opened, and guards moved John Brown to his funeral procession.” Two months earlier, Brown and a group of 18 followers “attacked the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia—it became West Virginia in 1863—in order to seize guns from the armory, distribute them to local enslaved men, and lead them to freedom and self-government.” Seven people were killed, and ten were injured in that raid. According to Richardson, “John Brown was the first American to be executed for treason.”
Can Brown’s use of force in his attempt to end slavery in the U.S. be justified? One philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, defended Brown’s actions this way:
“It was his peculiar doctrine that a person has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him. . . . I applaud the method of anyone who quickly succeeds in liberating the slave. I speak for the slave when I say that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy that neither shoots me nor liberates me. . . . I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s club and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So, we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts and maintain slavery. I know that the mass of my fellow citizens think that the only righteous use that can be made of Sharp’s rifles and revolvers is to fight duels with them, when we are insulted by other nations, or to hunt Indigenous Americans, or shoot fugitive slaves with them, or the like. I think that for once the Sharp’s rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them” (Henry David Thoreau, A PLEA FOR CAPTAIN JOHN BROWN [Read to the citizens of Concord, Mass., Sunday Evening, October 30, 1859.], https://www.lrdigital.dk/en/Forcing-Justice-Violence-and-Nonviolence-in-Selected-Texts-by-Thoreau-and-Gandhi-9788728204634).
It comes as a surprise to many of us that Thoreau, who is well known for his embrace of nonviolent civil disobedience, was also passionate in his defense of John Brown’s use of violence in the cause of ending slavery. Thoreau seems to be defending the act of vigilantes. On the surface, this seems to have been the same justification that launched the Civil War, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. In America, similar use of force has been defended from the beginning, starting with the American Revolutionary War, and continuing today in Ukraine. But is there not a crucial moral difference between the act of an individual or a group of vigilantes, on one hand, and a declaration of war by the President of the United States, on the other?
The mass shootings in our day cannot be defended as promoting justice, though some of the shooters have explained their actions by appealing to ideology, including racism, antisemitism, and homophobia. What these phenomena have in common is their use of force to achieve their goals. To clarify the issue, let’s consider the opposite extreme position, the pacifism promoted and enacted by another philosopher—Mohandas K. Gandhi. First, it is important to point out that Gandhi does not reject violence entirely. For example, he said:
“I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. Thus, when my eldest son asked me what he should have done, had he been present when I was almost fatally assaulted in 1908, whether he should have run away and seen me killed or whether he should have used his physical force which he could and wanted to use, and defended me, I told him that it was his duty to defend me even by using violence” (“My Nonviolence,” Forcing Justice, https://www.lrdigital.dk/en/Forcing-Justice-Violence-and-Nonviolence-in-Selected-Texts-by-Thoreau-and-Gandhi-9788728204634).
Gandhi also insisted that nonviolence is a far better means to justice than violence. He continues: “But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.” He adds: “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” Even in the face of ongoing threats and extreme measures such as fasting to the point of death, Gandhi persisted in both what he said and what he did until he died from an assassin’s bullet.
Contrasting Thoreau and Gandhi on this issue is a classic display of philosophical positions that seem to be irreconcilable. Gandhi rejected the idea of a “just war.” Based on his writings and his actions, he would probably reject the use of violence that is currently being used by the United States and several European countries to support Ukraine in opposing a Russian invasion. Aiding an autonomous country that is being attacked militarily by another without provocation seems to be the epitome of promoting the universal moral law that is the very foundation of a democratic society. Autonomy is one of the essential features of morality.
The problem of mass murder and the other forms of violence that are aided and abetted by the insane proliferation of assault weapons in the United States does not come from the legal presence of force in human society, nor can it be attributed to innate propensity toward violence in the human species. Reason and law can and should control such forces. The philosophical distinction between mythos and logos might help counter this propensity toward uncontrolled violence. The myth of violence pervades American culture, so it is important to recognize its mythic function. By mythos, I mean a nonrational or irrational appeal to a way of thinking that has strong emotional appeal that can shape our lives either in good or in bad ways. (More discussion and explanation of this distinction can be found in this article: https://www.doi.org/10.1163/9789004493377_009)
Concerning the myth of violence, films, works of visual art, stories, and television and radio programs (including the daily news) shape the fears, hopes, and aspirations especially for young males as they develop their sense of masculinity. Eventually, our entire worldview is molded by these forces, and violence captures our imagination. Like all myths, this way of thinking becomes invisible and yet remains immensely powerful.
The best antidote to such mythology is logos, the rational analysis and evaluation we can and should use to identify it, assess its true nature and function, and, in that way, break its spell. Currently, we have a clear example of how such myths work in the actual world. Another significant news story from the past week concerns the conviction of the leader of The Oath Keepers for crimes committed during the events related to January 6, 2021. Here is the version from the Associated Press: “Oath Keepers founder Stuart Rhodes was convicted Tuesday of seditious conspiracy for a violent plot to overturn President Joe Biden’s election, handing the Justice Department a major victory in its massive prosecution of the January 6, 2021, insurrection. . . . A co-defendant—Kelly Meggs, who led the antigovernment group’s Florida chapter—was also convicted of seditious conspiracy.” Rhodes and Meggs, along with hundreds of others, were in Washington, D.C. in part lured by the myth that violence could be used to achieve a political goal they favored. Force can do a lot of damage, and sometimes it can deter injustice and deflect potential damage, but it is not an effective way to achieve justice. The Associated Press also quoted Steven M. D'Antuono, assistant director in charge of the FBI Washington Field Office: “This case shows that force and violence are no match for our country’s justice system.”
Perhaps the best way to counter the paralysis we feel in the face of the uncontrolled wave of violence that is currently so destructive is to break the spell of the myth of violence and renew our trust in reason and law through political action designed to promote the common good. The media have done a lot of the damage by promoting that myth. They reap immense profits by entertaining us rather than enlightening us. Rather than rely on our current political representatives who seem to have a paralysis of their own, we can begin by demanding a fourth estate that promotes truth rather than illusion.