Four years ago essayist Helen Andrews wrote a critique, for the religious journal First Things, of what she described as “bloodless moralism” — meaning the decay of public moral arguments into a kind of a vulgar empiricism, a mode of debate so cringingly utilitarian that it can’t advance the most basic ethical claim (“Do not steal”) without a regression analysis to back it up (“… because bicycle thieves were 4 percent less likely to obtain gainful employment within two years of swiping their neighbor’s Schwinn”).
Since Andrews noted in passing that this tendency had infected not only proud utilitarians and explanatory journalists but even reputed conservative moralists like, well, me, I’ve tried to keep her critique in mind ever since. In last week’s column, for instance, which argued that the #MeToo movement should turn its ire against pornography, I decided not to bore my readers with research papers and simply appealed to moral intuition and recent cultural experience, which make as strong a case as any study for the viciousness of porn.
But now that the massacre in Florida has made mass murder the week’s pressing subject, Andrews’ essay also offers a useful way of thinking about some of the problems with the gun control debate — on both sides, but particularly among conservatives like myself, who often pick apart specific weaknesses in liberal gun control proposals, relying on studies and experiments that show the limits of prohibition, taking a clinical and somewhat bloodless approach to an issue that rouses liberal zeal.
There is value in clinical critiques, as there is in the rebuttals to my porn argument that emphasized the problems with enforcing smut restrictions. But technical issues and practical concerns are not the heart of the gun debate. The reason that mass shootings aren’t leading to legislative action is that we have a chasm between two sweeping moral visions, one pro-gun and one anti-gun, that is now too wide to be easily bridged by incrementalism.
The anti-gun moral vision regards America’s relationship to gun ownership as a kind of collective moral madness, a love affair with violence, a sickness unto death. Liberals increasingly write about gun ownership the way social conservatives write about abortion and euthanasia — it’s a culture of death, a Moloch devouring our children, a blood sacrifice to selfish individualism.
The pro-gun moral vision, meanwhile, links arms and the citizen, treating self-defense as an essential civic good, a means of maintaining Americans as free people rather than wards (or prisoners) of the state.
The pro-gun vision is linked, of course, to practical concerns — support for gun ownership is higher in rural areas where police are far away. But it’s essentially a moral-political picture in which the fullness of citizenship includes the capacity to protect and defend, to step in when the state fails and resist when it imposes illegitimately.
If you asked me to defend only one of these moral pictures I would defend the pro-gun vision. I am not a gun owner but I can imagine many situations and political dispensations in which a morally responsible citizen should own a weapon; I have encountered many communities where “gun culture” seems healthy and responsible rather than a bloodthirsty cult. And the claim, often urged on anti-abortion writers like myself, that guns and abortion should both be opposed on “life” grounds seems like a category error, since every abortion kills but guns sit harmless in millions of households and many deter violence or turn back evil men.
However: A fetishization of guns and violence is also a real American cultural phenomenon, perhaps especially among alienated, isolated young men. And for them and for others (including the NRA these days), the guns-and-citizenship ideal can curdle into a crude myself-alone libertarianism for an age of polarization and mistrust.
Which leaves me wondering if there’s a way to adapt a high-minded vision of guns and citizenship to our era of extended adolescence and young-male anomie.
For instance, instead of debating gun regulations that would apply to every gun owner, we could consider limits that are imposed on youth and removed with age. After all, the fullness of adult citizenship is not bestowed at once: Driving precedes voting precedes drinking, and the right to stand for certain offices is granted only in your 30s.
Perhaps the self-arming of citizens could be similarly staggered. Let 18-year-olds own hunting rifles. Make revolvers available at 21. Semi-automatic pistols, at 25. And semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 could be sold to 30-year-olds but no one younger.
This proposal would be vulnerable to some of the same practical critiques as other gun control proposals. But it is more specifically targeted to the plague of school shootings, whose perpetrators are almost always young men.
And it offers a kind of moral bridge between the civic vision of Second Amendment advocates and the insights of their critics — by treating bearing arms as a right but also a responsibility, the full exercise of which might only come with maturity and age.
Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.