In the wake of mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, the GOP has doubled down on its often-repeated gun mantras: “guns aren’t the problem, people are” and “gun control isn’t the answer to gun violence.” They’re right, albeit not in the way they mean. To effectively address violence in the most dangerous nation among industrialized countries, we must confront the fact that guns are a symptom of a deeper, underlying disease in the American public.
What is this disease? Public distrust.
One of the reasons that so many Americans cling to guns, police, and prisons as the centerpieces of public safety policy is that they do not trust the state or their neighbors. This is in part because the GOP has spent decades deliberately promoting institutional distrust and racial paranoia as cardinal virtues. Republicans have crafted their identity by telling us that individual citizens must take responsibility for their own safety and welfare. Not only is the government not responsible for protecting the welfare and safety of its citizens, the story goes, but the government is a direct threat to our ability to protect ourselves—both from the state and from one another. “Small government,” then, and doomsday individualism in which citizens are armed to the teeth are the perversely desired ideal.
Consider, as Dahlia Lithwick observed on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, that “2021 was a banner year for vigilante violence.” From Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to the men and women driving election workers from their posts, “the menace of those who believe that the time has come to take the law into their own hands has become part of the daily political calculation of what it means to be part of a democracy,” Lithwick wrote. The right has also introduced a bumper crop of state laws that encourage residents to rat out, turn in, and sue their neighbors and kids’ teachers for doing anything from terminating a pregnancy to talking about their sexual orientation.
While this agenda isn’t shared by the Democratic Party, it has been convenient for the party’s own priorities. Since the Clinton administration’s attempts to privatize the U.S. welfare system in the 1990s, the Democratic Party has also been eager to divest of public responsibility for care in order to maximize private profits and voluntary displays of “corporate social responsibility.” Consider, for example, intense opposition by Democratic leadership to “Medicare for All” and its insistence that health care in America, regardless of how inefficient and harmful it is, should be determined by private markets rather than public systems (like it is in all other industrialized nations). Similar political strategies focused on privatization, deregulation, and low taxes for wealthy individuals continue to also shape other essential social services, including housing, child care, workplace protections, addiction treatment, and education.
The problem with this bipartisan faith in markets as substitutes for the public provision of services is that they don’t give us good reasons to trust anyone. Our “free market” system, one that maximizes profit and efficiency at the expense of higher-order considerations like the public good, depends on competition. Exploitation and harm, whether of workers or of the environment, are typically addressed only after the fact, if at all, with piecemeal regulations. Our relationships in this competition-obsessed and market-based society are organized around winning and losing such that one person’s gain necessarily depends on another’s loss.
This system of social organization provides no basis for mutual trust. And over time, it progressively erodes the interpersonal connections, cultural fabric, and welfare infrastructures required to support public trust. Consider that in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened and cooperation with government guidelines became arguably more important than ever for protecting the public, Americans’ confidence in key institutions—such as public schools and the health care system—declined, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. The widespread resistance to vaccines and public health guidelines that we’ve seen for the last two years reflects a troubling national truth: We are literally plagued by distrust.
If we are to have any chance of building collective safety in America, we need much more than gun regulation. Guns and our over-reliance on failed policing systems are part of a broader pattern of infrastructural and cultural decay. Yes, we need rational gun laws. No one should have automatic rifles. But to make even the most basic regulations plausible in a nation that is already home to more guns than people, we can’t simply criminalize gun possession and deepen our reliance on policing and incarceration—institutions that undercut public health and safety in myriad ways.
Calls for gun control have to confront the fact that Americans have become decidedly less supportive of restrictive gun laws over the last three decades, even as the frequency of mass shootings has dramatically increased. For example, in 1959, 60 percent of U.S. residents approved of banning private ownership of handguns. Now, less than 20 percent of the U.S. public is in favor of such a law. Voters have signaled again and again that they are reluctant to restrict gun access, even as they bemoan gun violence.
To change peoples’ minds about guns, we must give them reason to trust. This means investing in public systems that give people cause to believe that they will be appropriately protected so that they might loosen their defensive grip on guns and embrace gun laws that protect us all.
What constitutes such trust-building investments? If we understand trust to be the foundation of effective public safety and gun control, then universal health care is gun control. Public policies that guarantee rights to housing, addiction treatment, and basic income are gun control. Reducing funding to harmful and racist systems of policing and punishment while reallocating funding to supportive social services is gun control. So too is the task of building infrastructures to care for those who require assistance in everyday life, including individuals whose safety (and that of those around them) requires supervised living arrangements premised on supportive care rather than punishment in prisons.
Investments in people add up to more than the sum of their parts. They don’t just improve health, safety, productivity, and quality of life; they also give people a reason to believe that we live in a community that collectively values each one of its members’ lives and unique potential. Public systems for tangible services yield an intangible common good: a sense of ethical connection and responsibility to one another. This is the basis of true community and of the mutual trust it enables. For this reason, leaving debates about public services versus market-based private ventures to economic reasoning alone is a dangerously shortsighted decision—the consequences of which we are now reaping in bullets and body counts.
As demoralizing as it is to wake up each morning to news of yet more violence in America, there’s reason to believe we can change course. Even as a growing share of Americans acknowledge declining levels of trust in the government and in one another, according to Pew Research Center, an overwhelming majority also believes that this decline in trust can be turned around.
The bottom line is this: We cannot police, punish, or control one another into a world of public safety. But we can build another world, one in which we are able to live together rather than be buried alone beneath the weight of our fears. It is out of our recurring violent nightmares like the scenes in Buffalo and Uvalde—and other near-daily mass shootings that never make it into national news—that we must generate the courage to do so.