The January 6 hearings, designed to shed light for Americans on an orchestrated armed and violent attempt to overthrow the U.S. government, coming on the heels of the Uvalde massacre, draws into relief a cultural and political dynamic in America we need to recognize: the relationship between a violent and even obsessive gun culture in America and a penchant for an authoritarian politics that is seemingly hacking away at our democracy and democratic culture day by the day, even as I write.
While gun rights advocates—well, corporate lobbyists and Republican pawns—distort the Second Amendment and argue for people’s ability to buy and own assault rifles in the name of “freedom,” it should be becoming increasingly clear to Americans that a proliferation of guns, particularly military assault weapons, does not represent a realization of freedom for Americans but rather a destruction of freedom and democracy—not to mention American lives themselves!!–that is already underway.
The gun, in many ways these days, has become the symbol and means of tyranny, a tool for taking down democracy.
When our founders carefully theorized and arduously worked to implement our constitutional democracy, they premised it on Enlightenment principles of reason. They needed to imagine a form of government different from a tyrannical and authoritarian monarchy, one that made authority and liberty compatible. In doing so, they imagined not just a new form of government—one that derived its authority from and represented, indeed embodied, the people—but they also imagined a new kind of citizen, a new kind of person, one that would act according to principles of reason and virtue.
The gun represents the antithesis of reason and virtue, as our founders thought about these terms.
Our constitutional democracy, as our nation’s original intellectuals devised it, insisted for its functioning on processes of deliberation and reasoning, hence the Madisonian term “deliberative democracy.”
Reason and virtue were understood as principles needed to counteract and restrain the passions, which they defined as anti-social appetites such as self-serving avarice and ambition that aligned with an individual’s private interests rather than the public good.
The gun is, in fact, the tool of the passions. It allows people to enforce and impose their individual perspectives and interests through mere brute force rather than through a process of persuasion, deliberation, and reasoning.
The gun is not deliberate but immediate. I can pick it up and exercise my itchy trigger finger without thinking, acting in the heat of passion, especially if there are no waiting periods or background checks to insist upon a reasoned and deliberate process for determining one’s suitability for possessing a gun.
The gun says I don’t care what others, even the majority, think, and I don’t even want to listen to or deliberate upon their reasons for thinking as I do. It only matters what I think and what I want right now. It’s not about the lives of others, not to mention any conception of the public good.
The gun says and acts upon such words and thoughts as:
I don’t like LGBTQ folks.
I don’t like Black people.
I don’t like the election result.
Therefore, I will seek to impose my private and individual belief through force, with no respect for what many if not the majority of Americans believe and want.
The gun is the tool for denying others the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And we can see the gun functioning as the tool individuals use to act of their hate of others—and this hate must be seen as a chief passion undermining democracy, the democratic rights of others and all.
Democracy, rooted in a restraint of the passions, requires one accepts not getting one’s way, putting allegiance to the deliberative collective process ahead of the immediate realization of one’s political wishes or ideological beliefs.
Noted historian Gordon Wood, in his work The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, highlights the importance of virtue as an essential and guiding principle of republican government, drawing on the many voices of the time.
Here are the words of one voice he cites regarding the importance of virtue:
“Without some portion of this generous principle, anarchy and confusion would immediately ensue, the jarring interests of individuals, regarding themselves only, and indifferent to the welfare of others, would still further heighten the distressing scene, and with the assistance of the selfish passions, it would end in the ruin and subversion of the state.”
These words, this voice, from the early republic, are hauntingly prescient.
January 6 was just such a “distressing scene,” where people’s selfish passions sought to subvert the state with no regard for others’ welfare.
And hate-motivated militias such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers led the way, even stockpiling guns in Virginia they were ready to use.
Indeed, as Wood writes, again elaborating the importance of reason and virtue and drawing on a voice of the time, “A man racked by the selfish passion of greed, envy, and hate lost his conception of order; ‘his sense of a connection with the general system—his benevolence—his desire and freedom of doing good, ceased.”
Is this not where we are? The January 6 hearings are pointing out how a slew of political leaders and so-called citizens lost their “conception of order,” racked by hate.
The Uvalde shooter, for sure, lost his connection to a system, to others.
The gun symbolizes this anti-democratic movement, but we should recognize where it starts—with people like Mitch McConnell refusing to bring Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination to the Senate, with state legislatures passing voter suppression laws, and so on—with a disregard for our democratic system and other people’s democratic rights.
We see in January 6 the culmination of a person’s and a party’s desire, anti-social passion, to hold on to power at all costs, even at the destruction of our democratic processes, even at the destruction of lives.
The gun embodies this tyrannical passion, and we need to see this connection between January 6 and the gun-crazed culture of violence for which some advocate.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.