Something is missing in our swirling national debate about gun control: an appreciation of our species’ 500,000-year affinity for weapons.
I have never owned a gun or lived in a household with one. The only time I can remember pulling a trigger is a few .22 shots at a YMCA camp in about 1959. My rational faculties shout that it’s crazy for us to allow the widespread circulation of marginally useful implements being used regularly to murder children.
But loudly announcing my rational views will change the mind of precisely ... no one. The prominent social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has taught us that where political values are involved, our rational faculties are like a rider trying to control an elephant. Political progress requires gaining the perspective to see the elephants of instinct and deep-seated sentiments that all of us are riding.
We can start seeing the elephant of gun ownership by looking at a peculiar historical development that has puzzled evolutionary scientists. Our closest evolutionary cousins, chimpanzees and gorillas, typically live in hierarchical bands dominated by an alpha male with perhaps a couple of allies. But the human hunter-gathers that evolved from the same ancestor as the apes almost invariably lived in egalitarian groups with no hierarchy and where resources were shared. What happened?
Anthropologist Christopher Boehm, head of the Goodall Research Center and who worked with her at Gombe, has proposed a persuasive explanation. The combination of language and weapons made it possible for a coalition of rebellious subordinates to depose any bully who attempted to dominate the band. A cave painting in Spain from some 10,000 years ago depicts 10 figures with bows and a body on the ground with 10 arrows in it.
Weapons have been such a long-standing and important feature of our evolution that they have probably contributed to physical changes — shrinkage of the canine teeth used in weaponless combat, loss of the body hair that bristles in displays of prowess, and reduction in the size difference between males and females.
It is likely, then, that we are the descendants of people who successfully used weapons to preserve their autonomy and achieve a measure of equality. After the 20,000 generations of genetic shuffling since weapons first appeared, we are likely to have developed some pretty strong instincts about the importance of being armed.
Recognition of this evolutionary past can contribute two insights to the debate about gun control. First, guns won’t go away quietly, at least not in a culture with America’s frontier history.
Is Australia, which had success with gun controls after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, an example of public policy overriding evolutionary instincts? The Australian model is worth study, but the differences are profound. Australia has nothing comparable to the Second Amendment, and gun ownership there was always a fraction of what it is here and far less symbolic.
The New Yorker recently reported on research showing that many male gun owners in Michigan considered firearms crucial to reclaiming a sense of purpose. Almost half of American gun owners say that ownership is essential to their identity.
Second, you can’t help but have some respect for this modern expression of the moral instinct that has promoted liberty all these centuries. When Brutus and his co-conspirators killed Julius Caesar with the words, “Death to tyrants,” and the Declaration of Independence accused George III personally of two dozen “injuries and usurpations,” they were expressing the same instinctual hatred of bullies that gun owners surely have in the back of their minds somewhere.
In 40 years of watching disputes being resolved in and out of courtrooms, I have observed that coercion and disrespect are the enemies of cooperation. Under attack, adversaries revert to batting back and forth simplified black-and-white positions.
Rather, it is empowerment and respect that typically bring out the most reasonableness.
A sincerely expressed appreciation of the deep moral sentiments behind the Second Amendment — so that gun owners did not feel that every control measure was another step down a slippery slope toward losing their weapons — would surely create a better climate for progress on the sensible measures most people clearly agree on: improved mental health screening and treatment, reaching out to alienated kids instead of expelling them, enhanced school security. And, yes, serious controls for particularly dangerous kinds of guns and gun buyers.
As a start, we need to recognize that the badly needed federal gun research will always generate reflexive opposition as long as gun owners mistrust its purpose and fairness. A trust-building approach might be to form a working group of experts from all points on the political spectrum to plan the research — as was done in the 1990s to resolve the long-standing debate on the effect of early child care.
We are a large, diverse nation held together not by religion or ethnic history, but by an intangible adherence to a democratic system and the human rights it protects. Like the family members you don’t choose, we are stuck with each other to make this work. And any workable community starts with mutual respect.
Bruce Peterson is a Hennepin County judge who teaches a course on Lawyers as Peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School.