Gun control and sustainable communities

BRATTLEBORO — Predictably, the horror of the Newtown killings has once again raised the cry for gun control as the way to deal with the mass murders that have afflicted our nation.

According to Mother Jones, at least 62 mass murders - where the shooter killed four or more people - have taken place in 30 states since 1982.

Even though public support for gun control has dropped over the last decade and didn't improve after other mass shootings, it appears that some kind of policy might emerge from Washington this time.

The New York Times reported on Dec. 19 that “President Obama said he will submit broad new proposals on gun control no later than January and will commit his office to overcoming political opposition in the wake of the shootings in Newtown.”

U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., has pledged to introducing an assault-weapon ban in this new Congress. The bill will include limits on high-capacity ammunition clips (10 bullets or more).

It boggles the mind, of course, that assault weapons are legal in the first place, and that the AR-15 that was used in the Newtown massacre is one of the most popular rifles in America according to gun dealers.

This fact does not engender feelings of security and safety, for what does it say about us as a society, as well as the prospects of gun control legislation successfully addressing the deeper issues here?

* * *

As sane as a ban of these weapons of war in the civilian world would be, such government edicts are limited in their effect.

I'm reminded of Prohibition and the illegal but highly profitable sale of booze that followed. It's not unreasonable to foresee that, given the glut of weaponry in the world (much of it thanks to our tax dollars, but that's another story), and the international underground for such that already exists, assault weapons will continue to be obtained easily by anyone who so desires.

This scenario is further complicated by the pervasive gun culture of our own nation. A 2007 study found, for example, that of the 178 countries surveyed, the United States had by far the highest guns per capita - 88.8 - of any other country, 30.6 and 35 per capita more than the next two countries, Serbia and Yemen.

More importantly, however, gun-control legislation doesn't really address the rage, despair, or desperation of the people who resort to these horrific acts.

It doesn't talk to the larger context of the growing tenuousness and isolation of everyday life: the erosion of personal relationships that is endemic to our petroleum-based civilization, with its automobile, shopping mall, and social-media culture. Our way of life so compromises the face-to-face community relations and connections that are the essence of a socially sustainable community.

The issue of gun control is really an issue about violence, and the role it plays in our larger society. Libraries of books have been written about this subject, analyzing why America is such a violent society, and in ways that painfully evidence that guns are but one of the symptoms.

* * *

We buy guns to protect ourselves from the one another, an understandable behavior when we see the world as threatening and unsafe. It is the perspective of a gun culture.

But it's also the outlook of an unsustainable community, something that is no small matter as we enter a period of unprecedented change, when coming together as cooperative, collaborative citizens is especially essential to successfully transitioning to the post-petroleum world we've already entered.

It's not just a matter of people meeting our basic material needs through their collective efforts - though it is that, too. More basically, it's about people who sufficiently trust one another to effectively work together, in the first place, to meet our common need to both survive and thrive.

We are only able to do so when we're behaving with a level of integrity that elicits trust. Such behavior must include the absence of violence in our everyday interactions with one another.

Sustainable communities - self-sufficient, resilient, collaborative, just - ultimately arise from people who first recognize the importance of living their lives this way, and then intentionally acting on that awareness, doing something together, however modest this might be initially.

It is about people acting on their lives.

Action is important to becoming more sustainable - not only because intentional effort is required in order to be successful, but also because it provides actual experience with one another.

We're less removed, more involved, less prone to be judgmental and to stereotype, more likely to get to know others.

And, as it is with human relationships, in general, we will sooner or later bump up against the issue of trust.

However challenging and uncomfortable that will be at those times (however rewarding and satisfying it can also be), there is no substitute for personal experience with one another. It provides the necessary grist for the sustainable community mill.

Along with the need for trust, the potential for violence also grows at these times: from the temptation to exert power over the other through looks and words, or the use of other, more lethal, power instruments.

* * *

These will be moments of creative tensions, ones in which we could resort to old habits, but also ones that, because they present us with opportunities to risk new behaviors, could move us closer to the trust we need - and want! - with one another.

That is when we begin to effect true gun control and to successfully deal with the larger issue of violence in our society.

We are most fortunate that, living where we do, we have something to build on. We live in communities where people do care about one another, where people step up to the plate and help one another in a moment of crisis, where people build and nurture deep and important relationships. We have a history of community, and the values they represent.

This is a foundation upon which we can move to the next stage.

* * *

But as Newtown so graphically illustrates, no community is immune to the social depredations that a petroleum-based society inflicts on people, eroding as they do the social cohesion necessary to a sustainable existence.

Despite our reputation for rising to the occasion in the face of disaster or misfortune, we cannot depend solely on spontaneous behavior to create sustainable communities.

For the long haul - which is what sustainability is all about - we will have to act intentionally and with greater purpose.

We can build sustainable communities, but only if we commit ourselves to doing so.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates