In the process of taming the wilderness of the New World by violent means, Americans absorbed and bequeathed to future generations some of the savagery that they determined to eliminate. Their purpose was to establish and maintain a civilization, but we have now lost this sense of purpose. Savagery is the product, then, not of pessimism but of despair.

The recent deadly shootings in Atlanta, Boulder, Virginia Beach, Orange, and Henrico County, a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, where a fourteen-year-old boy targeted and killed a thirteen-year-old girl, have reignited what by now is a well-rehearsed and wearisome political debate. Should the United States adopt more stringent gun control laws? Should Congress ban assault weapons, bump stocks, and high-capacity magazines? These questions, repeated for about two or three weeks each time Americans witness another of these killing sprees, call to mind Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation about the nature of democratic societies. Unlike other critics of democracy, who feared that its emergence would bring perpetual strife, Tocqueville believed instead that democracy would result in the stagnation of ideas and institutions concealed behind the incessant but superficial ferment of petty minds. Nothing more clearly illustrates Tocqueville’s prophecy than the arguments of lobbyists, politicians, journalists, and intellectuals about gun rights and gun control. These discussions are, if you’ll pardon the expression, dead ends.

But strife there is and strife there continues to be. Americans have a long tradition of using guns to solve their problems—a tradition that is almost as old as using guns to create them. These incidents are only the latest examples. It has become an expression of a peculiarly American form of frustration, anger, and madness to shoot innocent men, women, and children. An influential and persuasive minority of Americans is determined to assert the constitutional right to own firearms, even at the expense of public welfare and good sense. State and federal lawmakers have for the most part yielded to this pressure and acquiesced in these demands. It seems ever to be thus.

History never repeats itself, although historical conditions sometimes do, as Ramsay MacMullen’s admirable book, Soldier and Citizen in the Later Roman Empire, demonstrates. Writing nearly 60 years ago, Dr. MacMullen expounded a thesis that ought still to command our attention. “Partly as a result, but more because of the violence of the later Empire,” he wrote, “civilians had to arm themselves for their own protection. Civilian turned soldier, soldier turned civilian, in a rapprochement to a middle ground of waste and confusion.” Americans may never willingly give up their absolute right to bear arms without restrictions of any kind. But they ought at least to recognize that the authors of the Second Amendment would be appalled that in the United States an epidemic of violence, much of it mindless and random, has induced people to carry firearms to ensure their own protection. Self-defense it may be. Freedom it is not.

There is a darker reality to contemplate. Violence, even the sort of horrific gun violence that we repeatedly experience, may after all be only one symptom of a more acute disease against which legislation is impotent. Pundits and critics, including me, have lamented that a culture of violence in America is endemic. That analysis misrepresents the essence of the problem, which is not violence but savagery. A Good Samaritan may use violence to protect another from harm or to rescue another from danger. Even when it yields frightening and dreadful results, violence implies a brutal affirmation of life. Assassins act to remove an oppressive leader. Revolutionaries arise to eliminate and replace a despotic regime. Such efforts may be irresponsible and misguided, and they may yield a multitude of unintended consequences, but those who carry them out are of the conviction that violence in the end will bring greater justice, freedom, and peace.

Violence may thus be informed by intelligence as well as by emotion, and need not be an end in itself. Although perhaps an ineradicable facet of the American character, violence may originate in the naïve confidence, also part of the American character, that men and women can once and for all make the world a better place. Savagery is different in its genesis and its intent. Savagery embraces death. It reveals and animates the desire to inflict pain for the sake of inflicting pain. It seeks to humiliate by reducing its victims to inhuman objects, things that are of no importance and can be easily abused, broken, and discarded.

Americans may have resorted to violent means to tame the wilderness of the New World. In the process, they absorbed and bequeathed to future generations some of the savagery that they determined to eliminate. Their resort to violence against nature and those who impeded their progress developed from impatience. Whatever the cost of subduing the wilderness, these exertions had purpose: the struggle to establish and maintain a civilization. It is the sense of purpose that we have lost, that we have, perhaps, squandered. Savagery is the product, then, not of pessimism but of despair. It is hatred empty of meaning. As convinced as I am of the necessity to enact sensible gun control legislation, I am equally convinced that, however well-crafted, no law can address a savagery born of nihilism.

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The featured image is “Smoke of a .45” (1908) by Charles Marion Russell (1864–1926) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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