When is a culture crossing the line from reasonable danger to dangerous reasoning?
Every year in the Swiss Alps, some ill-fated skier careens off a cliff and falls to his death. Scores more perish in avalanches or in unexpected crevices in the glacial ice. But that doesn’t stop the people of the Alpine region from skiing and climbing. To the contrary. Continuing to scale the dangerous slopes is precisely what makes them who they are.
By the same token, in Spain, more than 500 professional bullfighters have been gored to death over the last four centuries. Yet matadors keep getting back into the ring. And who knows how many teenage boys from the Maasai tribe in East Africa have died trying to kill a lion with a spear? They did it because it’s dangerous. Because that’s what it took in their culture to be considered a man.
So societies are defined not so much by how people live but rather by how they are willing to die. a key thing that defines us — that sets us apart from the rest of the world — is our willingness to die by gunfire.
Where else in the world can you buy a shotgun at a Walmart? Or get a Mac-10 machine gun on a layaway plan? Where else can you get “YouTube famous” by shooting an
iPad with an assault rifle?
Like it or not, we live in a gun culture. Part of that comes from our history. After the Revolution, every white, able-bodied man was not merely allowed to own a musket. He was required to so that he could help defend the fledgling nation.
Guns are so much a part of who we are that we would rather risk dying in a shooting like the one that took place in Aurora, Colo., last week than pass laws that would make it harder for people like James Holmes to kill.
About 30,000 Americans die each year from gunfire, many in multiple fatality killings that don’t get nearly the attention as the “Dark Knight” massacre. Just days before at least 70 people were shot in a movie theater, a gunman sprayed bullets across a crowded bar in Tuscaloosa, Ala. In May, a concealed handgun permit holder opened fire at a cafe in Seattle, killing four. In April, a former nursing student in Oakland, Calif. sprayed a classroom with bullets, killing seven.
Yet — like the skiers of the Alps and the bullfighters of Spain — we Americans soldier on. Those victims are the price we pay for our culture, which says that being able to own guns and shoot them is part of what it means to be free. To be a man. To be an American.
Our willingness to risk being on the wrong side of the barrel of a gun stands in stark contrast with our unwillingness to accept death in almost any other way.
When a new synthetic drug was linked to a couple of deaths last year, both houses of Congress leapt to action, passing bills to ban it.
When research showed that second-hand smoke can cause cancer, lawmakers across the country passed smoking bans on airplanes, in offices, even in bars. Cigarette companies have been forced to finance advertising campaigns against their own products.
It has also become unacceptable to die at the hands of a drunk driver. All 50 states ban driving under the influence. In some places, including Massachusetts, a bartender can be held accountable for serving the last drink to a driver who kills. An open can of beer in your car can get you arrested in 43 states, yet openly carrying a gun in your car is legal without a permit in about 25 states.
America’s gun laws seem crazy to much of the rest of the world. They even seem crazy to a significant swath of the United States.
But no matter how many mass shootings we live through, the laws will never change as long as guns occupy such a central place in our culture. So the real discussion we ought to be having is not about what the laws should be, but whether we like the fact that this is who we are.
Because it’s illegal now to kill a lion in Kenya. And Spain is in the midst of a national debate whether bullfighting is too barbaric. As deep and meaningful as such traditions can be, they also can change with time.
Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.