Our Broken Understanding of Freedom Fuels Gun Violence

Millennial writer Elizabeth Bruenig writes:

After the mass shooting before last, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly articulated what anti-gun-control politics seem to presume but rarely admit: that blood is the cost of the right to bear arms. “This is the price of freedom,” O’Reilly wrote on his blog, referring to the dozens killed in Las Vegas. “Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are.” He went on: “The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection. Even the loons.”

This is a special, even radical, type of freedom — the kind that entitles a person to own the means of mass killing and the kind that compels society to grant that right….

Older readings of freedom may feel dark and alien to us now. And we probably wouldn’t trade our world for theirs. But it’s helpful to ask of our freedoms the same questions our forbearers asked of theirs: What are they really for? It’s hard for us now to see how the right to purchase a lethal object might damage our freedom in the classical sense, by serving as a temptation easily aggravated by fear or anger. But perhaps it’s easier to see how we seem less free operating on the modern view of the Second Amendment: Parents are buying bulletproof panels for children’s backpacks, and people are visiting psychiatrists complaining of fear, anxiety and dread sparked by random mass killings. The freedom advocated by people like O’Reilly certainly isn’t subordinate to the good, and it no longer even appears to reliably add to our overall freedom.

If we’re trying to build a free society for the sake of being free, or so each person can pursue their own tastes, no matter how evil, then we’re doing an excellent job where firearms are concerned — and reaping the results in ghastly headlines. But if we’re trying to build a society in which people are free specifically to flourish and live long and well, to be virtuous and educated citizens engaged in the task of creating lasting peace and greater understanding, then we’re stumbling, and we’ll keep tripping along a bloody path until we can decide what our freedom is for.