I had planned to take the weekend off because I became mildly ill Friday night and I'm not quite over it yet--don't worry, not COVID, I checked!--but the morning's New York Times changed my mind. A well-researched lobby details how gun manufacturers changed the marketing of the products over the last 20-30 years (while the crime rate was, until recently, falling) from an emphasis on hunting to an emphasis on self-defense. The story emphasizes the use of masculine imagery to sell weapons but has to add that female purchasers are increasing more quickly than male ones. The manufacturers take advantage of every mass shooting to increase their sales of semi-automatic rifles and pistols just in case they are banned again. I was more interested in the theoretical implications of all this.
More than a century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber defined the state as an entity exercising a monopoly of the legitimate use of force. Half a century ago I think a large majority of Americans accepted that definition whether they could recite it or not, and it was reflected in my own life. Nearly the only time I ever fired a gun was during basic training for the Army Reserve in 1971--and my superiors treated it as a very serious business. Every magazine (and they were relatively small magazines) of ammunition was loaded and every single bullet was fired on command. The end of every day's training featured a ritual to insure that no had taken either empty or full cartridges away from the range. Our sergeants, in short, kept our use of potentially lethal force firmly under the control of competent authority.
Earlier than that, as a child, I had read a number of children's or young-adult books about the United States, including a biography of Wyatt Earp. Long before the gunfight at the OK corral he had made his name by restoring some order to frontier cow towns like Dodge City--by making the cowboys check their guns when they came into town. That marked, quite simply, the advance of civilization. Yet incredibly, 150 years later, state after state is allowing any adult to purchase a weapon and carry it wherever they wish, concealed.
Gun manufacturers and the NRA are not the only groups trying to take legal authority away from elected officials and bureaucrats. The "restorative justice" movement in urban America wants to replace arrest, trial and incarceration with negotiations between the perpetrator and the victim or the victim's family to agree on proper restitution. That reminds me of what I learned about medieval England, where everyone's life had a fixed value depending on their station in life and a murderer owed that value to the family. It's another regression away from the ways of modernity.
I am not detailing these changes to insist that something must be done about them. They seem to me to be part of a profound historical rhythm. It took a long time to bring pre-modern ways of resolving conflicts under control,and the ebbing away of modern ways will take a long time as well. It is probalby connected to the rise of our new aristocracy, although so far that aristocracy depends on metaphorical hired guns--attorneys--rather than real ones, to protect its interests. It also generally settles government claims against itself for wrongdoing in a good medieval manner--by paying seemingly large but quite affordable fines, rather than surrendering its personal liberty. I am merely identifying these trends, which I obviously dislike, but which I am not sure that any of us can stop.