Most people who know the phrase “bonfire of the vanities” do so in connection with a Tom Wolfe novel of the 80s or the movie that was made from it. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie but I do know the historical reference that Wolfe used. Vanities, said Christian teachers, were unworthy things that distracted believers from what was ultimately important, eternal salvation. Vanities could be any kind of luxury which absorbed the believer's attention. On occasion revivalist preachers would call upon their congregations to collect those vanities, bring them to a central location and burn them. The most famous of these preachers is the friar Savonarola who at the beginning of the sixteenth century preached in Renaissance Florence against her wealth and art and luxury that characterized Florentine life at the time. He is not my favorite historical figure by any means, but the phrase bonfire of the vanities I primarily associate with him has suggested the following line of thought about the gun crisis in the United States.
I won’t argue the point that there is a gun crisis. That’s my starting point and if you disagree, you might as well stop reading now. But the large-scale arming of America, and the development of an ideology sees mass ownership of heavy-duty weaponry as an essential guarantee of American freedom have attracted my attention for a long time. I remember some time in the 80s I was talking with my friend Phil Paine about this phenomenon and its effects on Canada. I made some observation about regulation, and he responded that when you have a large-scale popular movement like this it is difficult to do anything about it through legislation.
As we look at the situation in the United States today, the truth of that statement is evident. I think it would be quite possible to create legislation and regulations that might have a positive effect, make it more difficult for angry or crazy people from working out their dreams of mass murder. But the fact remains that there are hundreds of millions of guns in the United States and it simply would not be possible to take those guns away from their owners, short of civil war.
Indeed there is only one way that a large reduction in the availability of truly dangerous guns could be, and only one group of people who can make it happen.
That group of people is gun owners. A significant reduction in the supply of guns can only be accomplished by burning them on the bonfire of the vanities. The popular movement that has armed or over armed America can only be counteracted by another popular movement.
Two groups will have only a marginal role in the creation of such a popular movement if indeed it ever takes place. People who are opposed to private gun ownership have no influence on their gun owning fellow countrymen. People on the other hand who believe that gun ownership is a practical and necessary guarantee against government tyranny, an essential element of their identity as Americans are certainly not going to take any initiatives to reduce the number of guns in circulation. Both of these groups have fundamentalist convictions not shared by the majority of Americans, and because those convictions are absolute they are unlikely to become the majority position.
But there are many people in the United States who think that gun ownership, practiced responsibly, has a place in their lives. I live in the country and although I don’t have a gun, I understand why some farmers might want to have one. In fact, I think it’s a good idea that some of my neighbors have them; I might someday need to find somebody with a gun to, say, kill a rabid animal. I think arming yourself at least in Canadian conditions probably leads to a net loss in personal safety, but I can understand that people might disagree. And long ago, I shot guns for fun in the context of a Boy Scout camp, and learned gun safety in a program sponsored by the NRA. I didn’t follow up on this, but I can see it.
I think that such people very seldom have tremendous numbers of guns and ammunition, and seldom foresee shooting down the agents of their own elected government in defense of their freedom; not as a real possibility. If this large group of people who share the majority opinion that guns by themselves are not an intolerable menace, but things that can be useful in certain circumstances turns against the over arming of America, they will have an influence on the culture of guns that the out and out opponents of gun ownership will never have. But they will only have that positive influence if they abjure the other fundamentalist position, which justifies heavy armament, rather than any other political principle, as the source of political liberty.
If many gun owners look around one day and conclude that some armaments are vanities, unnecessary and even dangerous to good old-fashioned American liberty, and decide that some of what they personally own should go on the bonfire, and begin to urge their fellow gun owners to take that perspective, then the overarming of America may be rolled back.
And if not, not.