Well, my daddy left home when I was three
And he didn’t leave much to my mom and me
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze
… I grew up quick and I grew up mean
And my fists got hard and my wits got keen
… He said, “Son, the world is rough
And if a man’s gonna make it he’s gotta be tough
“A Boy Named Sue,” 1969
I’ve spent most of this year traveling around the country convening discussions between conservatives and liberals about American politics today. The goal is for red and blue Americans to talk with, rather than simply at or about, each other. There have been many fascinating moments, but for me one of the most fascinating occurred several weeks ago in Hendersonville, North Carolina, when the liberal side asked the conservative side this question: “What policies do you favor to reduce gun violence in society?”
The conservative side offered two main answers. The first was that, since the root cause of violence is the breakdown of basic social institutions, the most important being the family, the best way to reduce gun violence in the long run is to implement policies to reinvigorate those institutions, starting with marriage and the family.
The second answer was that, due to the continuing and by now dangerous levels of family and social breakdown along with a terrifying rise in the number of mass shootings, it may be necessary for conservatives to rethink some of their strong anti-gun control positions. One conservative woman said, in essence: “Things in society have deteriorated so much that we [conservatives] may have to accept some gun policies we’d rather avoid.”
To abbreviate, let’s call the first of these proposed solutions “family values” and the second “gun control.” The task of the liberal side in that moment was to ask a sincere question and listen respectfully to the answers, without engaging in debate or rebuttal – so, I don’t know what the liberals that night in Hendersonville thought of those two ideas. Nor could I, as a neutral moderator, say at the time what I thought about them. But now it seems permissible for me to say that I like both of them quite a bit, especially when considered together.
I like the family values answer, with its emphasis on strengthening what some scholars call mediating institutions, or civil society, because of what I understand to be the likely causal links between gun violence and social trust. It seems that, in general, low trust and high gun violence are societal trends that hang together, with each both a cause and a result of the other.
A study of gun violence in a high-crime area of New Haven, Connecticut, finds that nearly everyone surveyed had heard gun shots at some point; that half had a family member hurt or killed by a violent act; and that more than two-thirds believed that they “could not trust their neighbors.” A national study from 1998 finds that both low social trust, as measured by agreeing that “most people would take advantage of you if they got the chance,” and greater social isolation, as measured by non-participation in voluntary groups, are associated with a greater likelihood of being involved in firearm violent crime. A 2001 study similarly finds that “states with heavily armed civilians are also states with low levels of social capital,” including low levels of trust (for example, agreeing that “you can’t be too careful in dealing with people”) and low levels of civic engagement.
Another study from 2001 finds that Americans who say they don’t trust the federal government are significantly more likely to own guns than Americans who say they do. 
And then there’s the recent presidential election. Several studies of last year’s Republican primaries have found that, as Michael Barone put it, “Trump’s support [came] disproportionately from those with low social connectedness,” while other analyses have shown that gun ownership may be the single most powerful predictor of support for Donald Trump.
And what does this story of the untrusting, socially isolated, and armed-and-ready American have to do with family breakdown? A lot, it would seem.
Trends in trust correlate at least partially with trends in family structure. As family structure deteriorates, so does trust – in one’s parents, and also in others. For example, as the family scholar Sara McLanahan puts it, the “first and most important” consequence of current family structure trends in the U.S. is the “weakening connection between the child and the father.” And as Judith Wallenstein and others have shown, a core aspect of this “weakening connection” is the child’s loss of trust in the father, which also appears to contribute to a loss of trust more generally, including in the possibility of loving and being loved.
For us humans, trusting others begins as a precious, fragile thing, first evidenced in me trusting my mother (who at first seems essentially a part of me), and then extending to my trust of a few intimate others, the first and most important of whom is my father. If this early, primary trust is weakened or betrayed, much is lost and much for me is likely to be at risk in the future, including my capacity to trust others and trust the world.
Is it merely coincidental that, among the rich countries, the United States is an outlier regarding both the extent of our family disintegration and the frequency with which we resort to gun violence? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.
America is a violent place. Always has been. Violence plays a seminal role in our national story. To establish the nation, the founders took up the gun to wage a revolutionary war – our founding Declaration is, among other things, a call to arms. Whatever else one can say about both the killing off and subjugation of Native Americans and the uses of chattel slavery to help found the country, it’s clear that both were deeply violent projects.
The constantly westward-moving American frontier, which for most of our history decisively influenced how Americans saw themselves, was a shockingly violent place, so often all but defined by young unmarried men with guns. The great sociologist Elijah Anderson, who studies African-American communities which today are dominated by guns and gangs, told me that the culture from American history most similar to the inner-city culture he studies is … the 19th century American frontier. These are deeply American templates.
Mark Twain in his masterwork more than a century ago helped the country understand itself by giving us Huckleberry Finn, the fatherless boy, who is eager most of all to “light out for the territory,” because “Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.” A century later, Charles Portis in True Grit did the same thing by giving us Mattie Ross, the determined Christian girl who heads for the territory carrying her father’s gun, intent on killing or capturing for hanging the man who had shot and killed him.
Probably our most enduring and historically popular literary archetypes are the cowboy and the detective – both of whom stand consciously apart from civilization and its gentling ways, and both of whom carry and regularly use guns. Their modern-day successors, our movie and video-game action heroes, are typically cut from similar cloth – disconnected from society, self-sufficient, and on intimate terms with violence. These are deeply American templates.
I like the “family values” solution to gun violence because it points us toward first things, toward root causes. It focuses on institutions that “sivilize” us. It reminds us of the long-standing connections, going back to Durkheim and the beginnings of modern sociology, between the weakening of pro-social norms (Durkheim’s “anomie”) and socially deviant acts such as suicide and violent crime.
This proposed solution points out that the family is the seedbed of our social values. It further tells us that we need to become better throughout society at cooperating with one another – better at mutual trust, which makes possible what the social scientist Robert J. Sampson calls “collective efficacy.” It tells us that the American archetype of the isolated person facing adversity with a code and a gun is not all that we can admire or aspire to, nor what we most need to become.
I also like the “gun control” solution of which the Hendersonville conservatives spoke. I grew up hunting with my father. I learned to shoot when I was ten years old. I enjoy it today. I would no more want to take guns away from legitimate hunters and shooting enthusiasts than fly to the moon, and if today I lived in a rural or semi-rural area where the nearest police car might be ten or twenty minutes from my home, or even in an area where I might occasionally encounter a snake or similar varmint on my porch or in my yard, I’d almost certainly keep a gun in the house. I believe that our Constitution does and should protect the individual’s right to own guns, while I also note with interest that the “Militia” of which the Second Amendment speaks should be “well regulated.”
Saying “well regulated” is another way of saying that no right is absolute. Every right carries with it a corresponding responsibility, just as every right carries with it a defined set of restrictions, in part because any right conceived as absolute, or carried by its proponents to an extreme, will endanger other rights. A stand-alone or unregulated right is a contradiction in terms. Or at least, so I believe.
I don’t know whether tighter regulation of certain forms of gun ownership will reduce gun violence. I’m not very familiar with the research literature, and those who are tell me that the evidence is mixed. But I do suspect and hope that some well-considered new restrictions would reduce the number of guns in ways that could have a small but measurable effect on the prevalence of gun violence in the society.
It also strikes me that we’ve gone so far in the direction of permissiveness that some rebalancing is in order. For example, while I may be missing something, I can’t see why even the most red-blooded, freedom-loving American civilians need the right to use automatic, military-style weapons, or the right to carry a concealed gun into a bar, or the right to visit my state with a weapon and / or a way of carrying it that isn’t permitted in my state. So, count me as supportive of the Hendersonville conservatives who said that some rethinking of this issue on the right may be in order – particularly since, as they also noted, renewing our civil society is a tall order which government may be poorly equipped or even unable to do, whereas more regulation of guns is a shorter-term task that government can more likely achieve.
Does the current state our culture wars mean that, with respect to gun violence, liberals must be reflexively hostile to “family values” solutions and conservative must be reflexively hostile to “gun control” solutions? I hope not. I’m even optimistic. Based on the grass-roots conversations I’ve heard this year, in Hendersonville and elsewhere, I believe that we can and will do better.
Our task is to make gentler a violent society. One plausible strategy is better regulation of guns. Another is better regulation of ourselves, which in a free society starts with the trust-building institutions of civil society. Why not do both?
- Edmund Burke famously called them “little platoons”: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790.) Some scholars today favor the term “civil society,” which we can define as the web of relationships and associations that mediates between the person and the state—including families, civic and religious groups, economic organizations, and many others. Ernest Gellner describes civil society as “a total society within which the non-political institutions are not dominated by the political ones, and do not stifle individuals either.” (Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals (New York: Allen Lane, 1994), 193.) Others have used terms such as “voluntary associations,” “intermediate associations,” and “social sector.”
A rich literature exists on this topic. For introductions, see Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1977); A Call to Civil Society (New York: Institute for American Values, 1998); Don E. Eberly (ed.), The Essential Civil Society Reader (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2000); Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities (New York: Institute for American Values, 2003); and Virginia A. Hodgkinson and Michael W. Foley (eds.), The Civil Society Reader (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2003).
- Carley Riley, et. al., “Community Resilience Teams: Leveraging Social Cohesion to Address Gun Violence in New Haven Neighborhoods,” Conference Paper (November 2014).
- Bruce P. Kennedy, Ichiro Kawachi, Deborah Prothrow-Stith, Kimberly Lochner, and Vanita Gupta, “Social capital, income inequality, and firearm violent crime,” Social Science & Medicine 47, no. 1 (July 1998). See also Richard Rosenfeld, Eric Baumer, and Steven F. Messner, “Social Trust, Firearm Prevalence, and Homicide,” Annals of Epidemiology 17, no. 2 (February 2007).
- David Hemenway, Bruce P. Kennedy, Ichiro Kawachi, and Robert D. Putnam, “Firearm Prevalence and Social Capital,” Annals of Epidemiology 11, no. 7 (October 2001).
- Robert M. Jiobu and Timothy J. Curry, “Lack of Confidence in the Federal Government and the Ownership of Firearms,” Social Science Quarterly (March 2001).
- Michael Barone, “Does Social Connectedness Explain Trump’s Appeal?” National Review, March 29, 2016. See also W. Bradford Wilcox and Jon McEwan, “Marriage, Single Parenthood, and the 2016 Vote,” Institute for Family Studies, December 7, 2016.
- Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones, “Two-Thirds of Trump Supporters Say Nation Needs a Leader Willing to Break the Rules,” Public Religion Research Institute, April 6, 2016. Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy, “Nothing Divides Voters Like Owning a Gun,” New York Times, October 5, 2017.
- Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up With a Single Parent (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 3.
- Judith Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (New York: Hyperion, 2000). Judith S. Musick, Young, Poor, and Pregnant: The Psychology of Teenage Motherhood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. Susan E. Jacquet and Catherine A. Surra, “Parental Divorce and Premarital Couples: Commitment and Other Relationship Characteristics,” Journal of Marriage and Family 63 (2001). Valarie King, “Parental Divorce and Interpersonal Trust in Adult Offspring,” Journal of Marriage and Family 64, no 3 (August 2002). Elizabeth Marquardt, Between Two Worlds (New York: Crown Publishers, 2005). Tara K. Viitanen, “The divorce revolution and generalized trust: Evidence from the United States, 1973-2010,” International Review of Law and Economics 38 (June 2014).
- Robert J. Sampson, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 127, 151-153.
David Blankenhorn is president of Better Angels (www.better-angels.org), a citizen’s initiative aimed at reducing polarization. Follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.
Related TAI article by David Blankenhorn: Where’s the Trust?
This article originally appeared in The American Interest