Hyper-rugged individualism & the terror of the 2nd Amendment

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I never liked playing Monopoly. The premise seemed so contrived and downright contrary to a country that promoted itself as a land of freedom and liberty. Why, I thought, does a player have to pay someone money – fake or not – for merely landing on another’s property? This wouldn’t happen in real life; well, at least that’s what I thought.

In fact, the price for merely stepping onto someone’s land is higher, much higher, than forfeiting a couple of valueless pieces of Monopoly currency, as we have witnessed over the course of the last week.

Ralph Yarl, a 16-year-old Black teenage boy in Missouri was in the process of picking up his younger twin brothers on April 13. Yarl mistakenly rang the wrong doorbell, and the 84-year-old white homeowner shot him in the head. After he immediately fell to the ground, the homeowner shot him again in the arm. Seriously injured, he limped to nearby homes for help. After the first two homeowners turned him down, a third finally offered the teenager assistance.

Kaylin Gillis, a 20-year-old woman, and her friends mistakenly drove up the wrong driveway in New York state on April 15, and a homeowner opened fire on their car. Police found Gillis dead after being alerted by a 911 caller.

Two high school female cheerleaders approached the wrong car in a Texas parking lot on April 18, when a man in the car fired upon them, seriously wounding one. Payton Washington, 18, was critically injured and taken to the hospital. The other young woman, Heather Roth, was treated at the scene.

A North Carolina father, Jamie White, and mother, Ashley Hilderbrand, as well as their six-year-old daughter, Kinsley White, were playing basketball in their driveway when the ball rolled into their neighbor’s yard. For this simple action, the neighbor fired and hit the girl in the cheek. Both her parents also suffered injuries.

Wringing the wrong bell. Driving on the wrong roadway. Approaching the wrong car. Losing a ball in the yard of another. These and other “wrong place at the wrong time” events can get you shot in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

No, this is not a board game, and the stakes are much higher than turning over strips of worthless paper.

The Gun Violence Archive found that on average, 50 people die every day in the United States from non-suicide gun-related violence. Approximately 100 more are injured. In 2022, there were 20,200 firearms-related homicides or accidental deaths, with 38,550 injuries and 22,292 suicides.

Let’s connect the dots: Hyper rugged individualism in the context of fear and hatemongering within national firearms culture produces a severely fractured sense of community where property rights hold sway over human rights, resulting in ever-increasing gun violence, injury, and death.

Individualistic vs. collectivist cultures

Every country maintains its own national culture, which is in part defined as “the norms, behaviors, beliefs, customs, and values shared by the population of a sovereign nation.” Cross-cultural psychologists classify nations along a wide continuum, from individualistic to collectivist.

Some common traits of collectivist cultures include defining oneself in relation to others as a member of a group and in loyalty to that group; group consensus based on what is best for the everyone; promotion of communications in which compromise and avoidance of conflict and embarrassment is supported; emphasis on common rather than on individual goals and pursuits; and having the rights of families and the larger community come before the rights of the individual.

Examples of countries maintaining collectivist cultures include most Asian countries, including China, Japan, and South Korea, plus many South American countries.

On the other hand, individualistic cultures share commonalities in which the individual who is dependent upon others is considered an embarrassment or even shameful. For these cultures, independence, self-sufficiency, and personal achievement is extremely prized, individual rights are valued over the rights of the collective, and great emphasis is given to people who stand out as unique.

Some countries exhibiting Individualistic cultures include the United States, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, and Australia.

A culture of firearms

While the Founding Fathers crafted what many consider today as a brilliant and enduring blueprint for a new nation, the Constitutions of the United States, they were nonetheless products of their times with their individual human shortcomings and biases.

Just coming off a war of independence against one of the world’s great colonial powers, leaders thought it reasonable to ensure the “free” people the capability of defending themselves against any potentially tyrannical government. In this regard, they established the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights, granting people “the right to bear arms.”

These same men owned large parcels of land, and many gained wealth from engaging in the slave trade.

In her book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, historian Carol Anderson argues that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was crafted by James Madison “…to mollify the concerns coming out of Virginia and the anti-Federalists, that they would still have full control over their state militias – and those militias were used in order to quell slave revolts.”

In other words, the “right to bear arms” was only meant for white people to repress forms of resistance, including uprisings by enslaved Black people.  

Since then, firearms and the culture supporting it has been encoded into the very DNA of the U.S.-American identity and what it means to be “an American.” But what was not even reasonable in the 18th century without substantial reform stands as an existential threat today.

How free are any of us as thousands are murdered annually, and many more thousands lose their lives by guns through accident or suicide? How free are we as the gun lobby purchases our politicians in the service of firearms manufacturers in their quest to acquire even more power and profits? 

With the relatively easy access to guns in the United States, few of us have not already been touched by the ravages of gun violence. Hardly a day goes by that we do not hear of yet another high-visibility mass shooting, which does not even begin to reflect the seemingly countless number of lives taken in small towns and large cities throughout the nation that don’t make it to the national spotlight.

Learned fear and hatred

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear

This song from the Broadway musical South Pacific is preceded by the line that prejudice is “not born in you! It happens after you’re born.” Though the lyrics in this song referred to racism and ethnic biases, it can and does refer to other forms of social prejudices and discrimination as well.

Yes, according to FBI reports, crime rates remain relatively high, but right-wing media peddles fear and exploits its viewers’ hatred of anyone who does not look and act like them to whip up a terrorizing frenzy.

A severely fractured sense of community

The United States is structured as a hyper-rugged individualistic community along the lines of the mythical frontier or the myth of the Wild West: a romanticized and idealized image in story and fantasy.

Scholar and historian Richard Slotkin defines the myth of the American frontier as “a wide-open land of unlimited opportunity for the strong, ambitious, self-reliant individual to thrust his way to the top.”

Yet, there is a basic misunderstanding of the western frontier. Actually, places like Tombstone, Deadwood, and Dodge had very restrictive gun control laws, much more than today. When entering these towns, gun owners had to drop off their firearms on the outskirts of town or leave them with the local sheriff. People were then given a token to be redeemed for their guns when they were to depart from the town.

But the myth of the hyper-rugged individualist with unlimited access and control of their rifle or handgun in an era of desperado vigilantism continues to the point of individuals demanding the right of open and closed carry of automatic and semi-automatic weapons of war in the defense of one’s property.

Hence, the so-called “castle doctrine” (also known as a “castle law” or “defense of habitation law”) is a legal doctrine and statute designating a person’s abode or any legally occupied place (home or vehicle) as a place where the person maintains protections and immunities that permit, in specific instances, the use of force (up to and including deadly force) in defense against an intruder, free from legal prosecution for using that force.

In strengthening the “castle doctrine,” Florida was the first state in the U.S. to pass its “Stand Your Ground” law in 2005, which legally permits those “who feel a reasonable threat of death or bodily injury to ‘meet force with force’ rather than retreat.”

Approximately half of the states have the equivalency of this law, and more state legislatures have proposed its passage.

Some municipalities have enacted their own “duty to retreat,” or “requirement of safe retreat” statutes, which require that persons cannot harm another in self-defense (especially extreme lethal force) when it is possible to retreat to a place of safety.

In a nation of approximately 440 million firearms for 340 million residents (approximately 1.205 firearms per resident), the chances of “standing one’s ground” over “retreating” within our hyper-rugged individualistic culture remain extremely high. And as we have seen, the chances for firearms injuries and death to people who simply happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, while posing no harm to anyone, remain extraordinarily high.

Whiteness as property

Residents of the United States live in a country where property rights hold sway over human rights.

A major tenet of Critical Race Theory investigates Whiteness as property; that white racial identity is deeply interrelated with the ownership of property and unearned privileges.  Living in the United States, however, one does not have to be white to subscribe to this tenet, since this doctrine saturates the cultural, social, and political landscape as a mandate for assimilation and success.

During the early years of the new republic, with its increasing population and desire for land, political leaders, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, advocated that indigenous Indian lands should be obtained through treaties and purchases.

President Jefferson in 1803 wrote a letter to then-Tennessee political leader, Andrew Jackson, advising him to convince Indians to sell their “useless” forests to the U.S. government and become farmers. Jefferson and other government leaders overlooked the fact that this style of individualized farming was contrary to Indian communitarian spiritual and cultural traditions.

Later, however, when he inhabited the White House, Jackson argued that white settlers (a pleasant term for “land thieves”) had a “right” to confiscate Indian land. Though he proposed a combination of treaties and an exchange or trade of land, he maintained that white people had a right to claim any Indian lands that were not under cultivation. Jackson recognized as the only legitimate claims for Indian lands those on which they grew crops or made other “improvements.”

The Indian Removal Act of May 28, 1830 authorized President Jackson to confiscate Indian land east of the Mississippi River, “relocate” its former inhabitants, and exchange their former land with territory west of the River. The infamous “Trail of Tears” during Jackson’s presidency attests to the forced evacuation and redeployment of entire indigenous nations during which many died of cholera, exposure to the elements, contaminated food, and other environmental hazards.

In addition, though Jackson founded the Democratic Party and brought greater popular control to the government, as a farmer, his wealth increased enormously through his enslavement of Africans, and he abused any who attempted to escape.

Earlier, the Naturalization Act of 1790 excluded Native American Indians from citizenship, considering them, paradoxically, as “domestic foreigners.” They were not accorded rights of citizenship until 1924 when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, though Asians continued to be denied naturalized citizenship status at that time.

As long as property rights hold sway over human rights in an individualistic nation with easy access and ownership of firearms, none of us are safe to knock on a neighbor’s door, drive in a driveway, play ball out of doors, or walk down a street.

Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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