The sacred value of gun ownership

So, being a political scientist, I went right to the PS literature to see what insight could be offered on all this.  Not all that much, of course.  That said, easily the most interseting research I came across was Morgan Marietta’s “From My Cold, Dead Hands: Democratic Consequences of Sacred Rhetoric.”  Here’s the abstract (emphases mine):

Political rhetoric often appeals to sacred values, or nonnegotiable convictions grounded in transcendent authority rather than reasoned consequences. Sacred convictions are treated as absolutes that resist normal value tradeoffs and cast doubt on the moral standing of citizens who violate them. This study examines the political meaning of this form of persuasion in political domains such as guns, gay marriage, the death penalty, and the environment. Experimental evidence suggests that the distinctive effects of sacred appeals are on citizens’ political reasoning and motivation rather than on their expressed opinions. Sacred rhetoric is not more effective in changing minds, but in shifting the nature of public discourse and increasing levels of political intensity. The democratic consequences of sacred rhetoric include greater citizen participation but lesser prospects for meaningful deliberation, a contradictory influence on the health of American democracy.

What’s happened with the debate over gun ownership in America is that gun ownership has come to be seen as a sacred value (rather than a consequentialist value).  Sacred values are absolute values which leave no room for compromise or negotiation.  They’re sacred!  To compromise would be profane.  Gun rights reasoning falls perfectly into this category.  Meanwhile, gun control advocates generally take a much more cost-benefit approach that considers social and political realities.  Of course, that doesn’t get people excited and entrenched in their positions– sacred values do that.  And if you’ve read NRA types waxing about the fundamental value of gun ownership, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  Here’s a bit from the article:

The rhetoric of nonnegotiable boundaries—the language of limits—is an enduring facet of American politics, from the Revolution to Abolition to the Culture Wars. The much-noted shift in contemporary political discourse from redistribution to the recognition of identity has included the prominence of intense, unyielding, and nonnegotiable claims that go far beyond the bounds of the religiously or traditionally sacred. Modern sacredness has come to comprise both the religious and secular sacred, grounded in pluralistic sources of authority that establish for different individuals and groups the limits of the tolerable and negotiable, the boundaries of the sacred…

The sacredness of an argument centers less on its content than on its process of reasoning. Sacredness does not depend on the position taken or its ideological direction, as one can take a sacred stand against abortion just as one can oppose it in a consequentialist or negotiable fashion. The same applies to the anti-abortion side, or to arguments both for or against the death penalty. Because sacred rhetoric is characterized by the form of argument rather than its ideological direction, it may follow that its greatest influence is on citizens’ process of reasoning…

Sacred rhetoric employs absolutist reasoning, while nonsacred or negotiable appeals employ consequentialist reasoning. Absolutist reasoning is characterized by applying established principles or boundaries to a given situation and then privileging these principles over the consequences of the decision. It may also entail citing specific authorities for the principle and engaging in expressions of anger or moral outrage at perceived violations. Consequentialist reasoning, on the other hand, begins from the expected effects or outcomes of the decision and applies a give-and-take form of negotiation, with authorities seen as pluralistic and expressions of moral outrage being limited…

We can define absolutist reasoning more clearly as a combination of the following attributes:

1) Protected status: placing a value beyond question and set apart from trade-offs with other values;
2) Nonconsequentialism: privileging values over costs or consequences;
3) Noninstrumentalism: rejecting calculated self-interest;
4) Nonnegotiability: denial of the legitimacy of compromise;
5) Citation of boundaries: invoking a boundary of what is acceptable or tolerable;
6) Citation of authority: invoking the relevant authority for the boundary; and
7) Moral outrage: referencing anger, especially at a boundary violation.

Trade the Constitution for God and the sacred and absolutist nature of gun rights arguments is absolutely clear.  What this all means in practical terms is that those favoring easy and widespread gun ownership see it as a sacred value where compromise is not something to be negotiated but a genuine moral failing.  And furthermore, it means adherents will be more engaged and active on the issue than the gun control advocates who take a constitutionalism position.
I was originally going to post this yesterday, but good thing I waited, as I came across a Gary Wills essay last night that fits perfectly with this theme.
Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch…

That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?…

Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.

The fact that the gun is a reverenced god can be seen in its manifold and apparently resistless powers. How do we worship it? Let us count the ways:

1. It has the power to destroy the reasoning process. It forbids making logical connections. We are required to deny that there is any connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands and the greatest number of deaths from them. Denial on this scale always comes from or is protected by religious fundamentalism. Thus do we deny global warming, or evolution, or biblical errancy. Reason is helpless before such abject faith.

The whole thing is brilliant and not that long (and a great companion to the Gopnik piece I posted).  You should read it.
I have a good friend– former student– who was so angry when he read the Gopnik piece I linked on FB he told me he was shaking with anger and indignation.  I’m not backing down on this one.  Do I think my friend wanted this or similar massacres?  Of course not.  But I stand by the proposition that encouraging such widespread and easy access to guns makes a moral choice in that one of the consequences is massacres like this.  The empirical evidence is pretty damn clear.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

4 Responses to The sacred value of gun ownership

  1. itchy says:

    “Sacred values are absolute values which leave no room for compromise or negotiation. They’re sacred!”

    A Facebook thread that I resisted the urge to join had a commenter saying, “This is serious. This is about you violating my Second Amendment right.”

    I was thinking, “Why, yes, because shooting children in their classroom is not as serious as that.”

  2. Mike says:

    I’ve been calling it “gun worshiping”. Like some religious people, you simply cannot reason with them or see that there is more then one viewpoint.Their minds will not be changed. Nor will they agree that a higher firearms death rate and spree shootings are the cost of their religion. Just like Republican politics, they don’t even agree on the facts. Many don’t agree that the US has a higher death per capita due to guns, or a higher spree count. They blame the media for over reporting.

    It doesn’t matter what you say, what numbers you show, what evidence you have. They have an entire universe of alternate information built around them to keep out unwelcome information.

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