The President of the United States has undermined confidence in the electoral system and refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. He and members of his Administration have celebrated and encouraged political violence by their supporters. The right wing in this country has spent decades stockpiling firearms in preparation for an interchangeable horde of imaginary villains to invade and take their freedoms. And for the first time I can remember, a significant number of liberals are starting to purchase firearms and plan to use force to defend against violence that follows in the wake of this election.
In a nation where guns outnumber people, I shouldn’t be surprised that the guns are winning the argument. But to take up arms in response to an unwelcome election result is the opposite of patriotism. It undermines the democracy we all claim to defend.
The answer to disappointing elections isn’t violence. It’s more elections. It’s organizing. It’s funding. It’s creating a new culture and new norms. Even when the government is overtaken by illegitimate or authoritarian forces, there is a rich and effective history of using strategic nonviolence to reject and refuse cooperation with those regimes and their institutions. The answer is for us to engage with each other and the process and to discover and use our collective power. Given where the United States is right now, to choose violence is to opt out of democracy, to bail on the process, to bail on the idea of us.
I understand why people think taking up arms is the only way. When our political and economic system have left so many of us behind, why would we trust those systems? When the rules are written to benefit the few instead of the many, why would we follow them? When even those sworn to protect and defend us turn their weapons against us, who else can we trust with our security but ourselves? When so much of the world seems out of control, grabbing a gun seems to offer us the ultimate control and a sense of much-needed security. For people who feel powerless, guns promise power. That security and power, however, are false or, at best, temporary. The fantasy we have of defending our homes against the MAGA maniacs or Antifa anarchists rarely, if ever, plays out that way in real life. It has a greater chance of leaving us wounded, dead or traumatized.
The reality is that those guns are more likely to be used by us to commit suicide (in the U.S. nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths are due to suicide, and access to a gun triples the risk of death by suicide); to hurt the people we love when arguments get out of hand (more than half of women killed by an intimate partner are killed with a gun, and access to a gun makes it five times more likely a domestic abuser will kill his female victim); to kill our children (firearms are a leading cause of death for children and teens), or to be raised against the rare assailant only for us to miss or hit unintended targets.
Then there’s the scenario in which all our fears and preparation meet: an intruder breaches our home screaming about building a wall or tearing down statues, and we access our weapon, and we take aim, and just as we’re ready to meet the moment, law enforcement arrives, sees our weapon, assumes we are the threat, and fires on us instead.
As a black man, I think about this last point a lot. Police killed Philando Castile after he announced his weapon and his license to carry. Police killed Breonna Taylor after her boyfriend fired his weapon and hit an officer he thought was an intruder. There’s ample evidence to suggest that guns wouldn’t make me safer.
Even in the scenario where we shoot and kill our intended target, we’ll have to live with that for the rest of our lives. Researchers, especially those focused on veterans, find that the “moral injury” perpetrators of violence experience can be as real and long-lasting as the physical injuries victims of violence experience. We are told that guns will bring us a sense of security and peace of mind, but the emotional consequences of taking a life — guilt, shame, anger and depression — are never advertised in the heroic fantasies used to drive gun purchases.
Read more: Guns in America
With one side of our political divide decades ahead into weapons acquisition, the other side has seemingly rationally concluded it’s time to catch up. If my political opponents are arming up, shouldn’t I? But this arms race, like all that have come before, only serves to bankrupt the buyers and enrich the sellers. For those of us who call ourselves liberal, what moral injury do we suffer when we buy guns, drive up weapons-industry profits and feed the very machine we want to dismantle?
In August, Eric Liu, president of Citizen University and author of You’re More Powerful Than You Think, appeared on my podcast and defined power as the ability to have someone do as you would want them to, whether it’s a friend, employee or mayor. He reminded us of the many ways we can exercise power from spreading ideas to mobilizing large numbers of people to changing social norms. More recently, I hosted a discussion on strategic nonviolence with Jamila Raqib, executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution, which has identified 198 methods of nonviolent action. “We give our institutions and our leaders and our political systems power through what we do, or what we refuse to do,” Jamila explained.
We, as Americans, inherit a democracy with multiple institutions of power and accountability, with various branches, and with the ultimate ability to change any part of it to one that better matches our needs and reflects our values. We can write new laws. We can amend the Constitution. We can upgrade ourselves.
Whether we are liberal or conservative, we don’t need guns to make us more powerful. We’re already powerful. What we need more of is each other. We need to show up as citizens, not in the legal sense, but in the active, participatory sense. We need to participate in the process, which involves much more than voting. We need to invest in our relationships and make space to connect with one another. We need to understand all the forms of power we have, which are so much greater than any short-term surge of power derived from violence. And we need to deploy all this for the benefit of the many, not just ourselves. Because we can’t do any of this alone. We’re most powerful together.
We can’t shoot our way out of a political crisis. We have to citizen our way out. We don’t need more guns. We need more democracy.
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