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Mike Johnson, Thomas Hobbes, & Guns by David Williams

It is hard to open up the daily paper anymore without seeing another mass shooting plastered on the front page. This is the United States. And hey there, Mike Johnson, you are now the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the third in line to the President of these United States!

Did you know, there have been more than 2,500 mass shootings here since the horror of Sandy Hook, in 2012. Yet, mass shootings make up only 2% of America’s gun violence, which means that suicide, murder, cases of domestic violence, and firearm accidents, make up most of the rest. The U.S. has the highest rate of firearm deaths in the developed world, nearly five times that of the second-highest country, France. Eight times more people in the U.S. die from gun violence than in our northern neighbor, Canada. But then the US has more guns that anyone else on earth. We have 67 million more firearms than citizens! No one else has guns like we do. And only 3 countries in the world protect the right to bear arms in their constitutions: the US, Mexico, and Guatemala. But our “beloved” 2nd amendment, if you read it carefully, will reveal that it was actually enacted to maintain, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, [so] the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” But the 2nd was not about people defending themselves from Britain, or from the newly formed United States they were part of. No. It was a deference given to Southern slaveholding states who routinely employed patrolling militias to hunt down human beings who might try to escape the unbearable depravation of slavery. The 2nd amendment ensured slave owners that they could quash any rebellion of Blacks, who (of course) were denied ownership of guns.

But the guns we are talking about during the 2nd amendment’s rise were like this—

“In order to fire your 1792 gun you had to pour a measured amount of black powder down the barrel, wrap a lead ball with either a piece of cloth or paper, use a ramrod to jam the ball down to the bottom of the approximately three and a half-foot-long barrel, pour a small amount of primer powder into the firing mechanism, and then you could aim and pull the trigger. But to retain accuracy, after every five to ten shots you had to clean the barrel before resuming shooting.”

Compare this to the assault weapons of today (firearms of choice for mass murderers), which can spit out 600 bullets a minute. Did the founding fathers really anticipate guns like this some 200 years ago when they drafted the “sacred” 2nd? Did they really mean that everyone should be entitled to a machine gun?

Nowadays, nearly everyone in the US has been affected by gun violence. For me personally, a student I once had worked with in a high school shot several of his classmates, killing one. In the same lecture hall where I had many of my college classes, a gunman mowed down dozens of students. The King Soopers where I sometimes shop had a mass murder catastrophe only a year ago. And on and on. Plus, most of us know someone, or many someones, who killed themselves with a gun, or who was shot or shot at by a gun (like my cousin who accidentally shot his sister but luckily didn’t kill her). A madhouse epidemic of terror has been unleashed in an America that will do nothing to stop it. But why such feverish devotion to these instruments of death? Why did such an obsession for firearms arise in our country that is relatively absent in other Western and developed nations?

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) wrote extensively on the nature of man, at a time when science was beginning to emerge. Hobbes saw that every human being is capable of killing someone else. Even the strongest must sleep; even the weakest might persuade others to help him kill another” (Leviathan, xiii.1-2). He saw humans as living in a constant state of threat (which Hobbes imagined, wrongly, without any evidence, to also be the state in which primal indigenous cultures lived). For Hobbes, without a monarch, chaos and anarchism would ensue, for people tend to be selfish, and many would use violence to better their condition at the expense of others—if no arm of government was there to stop them. Hobbes saw morality as utterly unmoored from any absolute, for it was entirely relative, depending upon who was decreeing what is right or wrong. Two men fighting over an apple would each believe they were justified in having it; hence, a fight would ensue. And for this reason, it was impossible for humans to come together to establish a social contract; rather, a sovereign was required to rule over them who could create and maintain order and justice. Hobbes believed that the natural state of man is a “time of war, where every man is enemy to every man; where all live in ‘continual fear, and in danger of violent death; and the life of man, [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” [Mr. Speaker, is your answer an authoritarian President Donald Trump, who would rule like a tyrant king and take away everyone’s guns to protect himself?)

So much for democratic rule. But John Locke “the father of liberal philosophy” came along, shortly after, denying the divine legitimacy of monarchs and purporting a more agreeable view of human nature that was crucial to the development of democracy. Luckily, his views and language were embraced by our founding fathers. Hobbes view is grim, denying the more friendly aspects of our species. But Hobbes got some things right. He was a materialist (believing that only real things existed, not paranormal ones—spirit, God), while Locke was weak on that subject. Science itself is built upon the bedrock of materialism, and Hobbes was a realist, seeing that selfishness is inherent to life. Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, explains this hundreds of years after Hobbes, that even at the lowest levels of life there is an innate desire in living things to thrive, even if it comes at the expense of other genes or cells. There is extreme competition amongst living creatures, and the most vigorous competition comes within the same species (like a male elk battling another male elk during rut). This is part of Natural Selection, and the reason why males, from tiny jumping spiders to blue whales, fight each other, grow antlers, feathers, and perform elaborate mating rituals—to persuade a female that is HE is IT. Yet, going back to the cell, it’s also true that some selfish cells united with other selfish cells to form multicell organisms, for there was safety in numbers. This allowed more complicated animals (like ourselves) to evolve, as well as social societies, such as ants, termites, social birds and mammals, for whom the group demanded allegiance, as well as some spirit of altruism from individual members toward others in the tribe. This is Sociobiology.

Here’s the truth—we’re a mixed bag with dual character traits in opposition—Friendly and Ferocious. Hobbes was wrong about the possibility of egalitarian societies forming without sovereigns (that’s the way people lived for 99 % of our life on earth), and he was wrong in speculating that indigenous people lived without rules and regulations (as they all have them). But he was right in seeing that even in the most altruistic societies malevolent behavior can and will arise, for human nature always contains the possibility for violence, selfishness, and greed. And when anyone is designated as The Other—a colleague, a spouse, a public servant, a political group, even a country—that entity loses its cloak of humanity. And once the notion of The Other is triggered by an angry brain, our normal prohibitions against murder and mayhem get run over roughshod. The Other is no longer a “thou.” And who amongst us is not capable—at some time in his or her life under the right circumstances—of committing an act of aggression stemming from anger? A shout, a yell, a fist, a hurled rock, a plate thrown in the air, a fork, a knife, a pistol, a machine gun, an atom bomb? This is one place statistics don’t lie, for the greater access to greater weapons leads to more death. There is no comparison between throwing a rock and pulling the trigger on an AK-47.

Watching the current Netflix documentary this past week, Ape Empire, on the chimps of Ngogo, I found it astounding to see the way they prepared for brutal “war “with another troop—and how males would connive to form alliances to obtain power within their own troops. The chimps reveal to us the underlying mental architecture and motivations of our own species—and it’s not pretty–the Other is anyone not in your own troop. Give each male chimp an AK-47—and well—in minutes they’d wipe all chimps off the face of the map. We’re hardly better. Yet, a good portion of our population equates God with Guns as if the two concepts are intertwined, even though Jesus himself said, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” (What would Jesus say about assault weapons?). There is no logic, no rational thought in the assault gun culture, which is based upon fear of and domination of The Other, with the impetus for violence going back to our primate roots.

This is what you said, Mr. Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, after the recent mass shooting in Maine, the largest this year: “The problem is the human heart. It’s not guns, it’s not the weapons . . . . At the end of the day, we have to protect the right of the citizens to protect themselves, and that’s the Second Amendment, and that’s why our party stands so strongly for that.”

Under Hobbes view of homo sapiens, one could easily make the case that we all need protection from one another, but everyone being armed would immediately violate what Hobbes also saw as essential—a sovereign who could ensure peace—and arming the entire population would also put the sovereign at risk, so that’s no option! No sane person would call for everyone to have a gun, as that makes everywhere and every minute we’re in a potential disaster area. The grocery store, the school, the church—all recent places where mass murders have occurred. We’re in Nowhere To Hide mode. Claiming only “mental illness” as the culprit behind our deadly gun culture is to be both blind and dumb. Real mental illness lies inside the head of anyone who would even want to own an assault weapon—a weapon created for mass destruction—only manufactured to kill others of our species—not to hunt opossums—or squirrels. The human heart Mike Johnson speaks of stems from our primate/animal nature and is not some aberration—for we are all capable of committing an act of violence under the right conditions—and if a gun is handy, any of us might reach for it and pull the trigger.

Yes, we have evolved brains larger than our chimp cousins—including a more robust prefrontal cortex—allowing “higher” thought.  But our emotional states, which most of the brain is devoted to creating, are deeply primal and much the same as they were in the primate past.  It is those primitive parts where our darkest desires arise, from the stimulated amygdala, producing fear to ensure our survival.   Fear drives America’s obsession with guns, and it is fear that prevents us from banning assault weapons.  But we should be much more afraid of getting shot in a parking lot at Walmart, or going to buy bananas at Kroger, or sitting in a theater to see a show.  Having everyone able to own an AK-47 will not protect us.  That just turns every disagreeable encounter into a potential mass tragedy.  So, Speaker Johnson, I would like you to meet Thomas Hobbes, and the chimps of Ngogo, and to also meet the hundreds shot dead from assault weapons who lived here in the Land of the Free, where owning an assault rifle is considered sacred, but where “we the people” aren’t free from that same weapon of mass destruction mowing us down.

David Williams, author of The Trickster Brain: Neuroscience, Evolution, and Narrative, holds a BA in Anthropology and PhD in English. He has worked in an interdisciplinary fashion his whole life: Emmy winning songwriter for his environmental work with PBS, cartoonist for many newspapers and magazines, children’s author with Random House, fiction writer, gypsy jazz & blues guitar & violinist. He is also an americana songwriter, and has been a professor of Creative Writing and American Literature at a number of universities in the US. Delving into neuroscience and evolutionary psychology some 15 years ago, David began to feel that many of the paradigms he learned from the Humanities were wrong and that the Humanities and Sciences needed to come together. This led him to a more biological approach regarding human nature, following scientists (such as biologist E.O. Wilson and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio), so that the theoretical ideas of the Arts converge with current advances in neuroscience, sociobiology, and genetics, to provide a more unified and factual explanation of who we are.


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