The gun control debate is much in the news these days in America. Indeed, few things puzzle my Chinese students more about America than my country’s attitude (read obsession) with guns. Since I have never fired or owned a gun, I am afraid I am unable to explain the particular appeal of guns to them. But I can verify their intuition with statistics.

The U.S. leads the world in gun ownership, with 88.8 guns per 100 citizens; roughly half of all households contain a firearm. Unsurprisingly, the amount of gun related violence is equally mind boggling. Every day in America guns claim 84 lives and wound nearly 200. The firearm death rate in the U.S. is eight times that of other industrialized countries. 

Given all of this, and given the fact that 56 incidents of mass gun violence have occurred in my country in the last thirty years, I could not say I was shocked when I heard the news that a 24-year-old graduate student walked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight performance of the The Dark Knight Rises and gunned down 70 people, killing 12. 

The Stats Bewilder Chinese Students

Bewildered Chinese StudentCredit: CanStockPhoto.comNor, in light of my students’ long standing bewilderment, was I surprised by the numerous emails I received in the days following the shootings, expressing that same puzzlement: why do Americans feel the need to own so many guns?

It’s not that one cannot make a rational case in support of gun ownership for reasons both of self-defense and sport. One can. The problem is that no one in America is making that rational argument right now. 

Instead, members of both political parties are trying to outdo themselves in arguing that there is nothing wrong with the nation’s current gun laws that allowed a private citizen to acquire, among other weapons, a Smith & Wesson AR-15 military assault-style rifle with a drum clip that could hold up to 100 rounds and shoot as many as 60 times in a minute. To add to the craziness, 56 percent of the American public believes no further restrictions on firearm purchases are necessary or warranted.



What Would the Tao Masters Say About Assault Weapons

When almost everyone around you is espousing an insane position, it is natural enough to question your own sanity. In order to reassure myself at such moments and to prevent me from doing anything drastic like joining a monastery or getting a lobotomy, I turn to the great works of the past, including the Tao Te Ching. Despite its ancient origin, I believe this classic of Chinese thought has something to say to America about guns.

Tao ModerationCredit: CanStockPhoto.comLike much of Chinese thought, the Tao Te Ching advocates the avoidance of extremes and praises instead the virtue of moderation:  “There is no greater disaster than not knowing what is enough.”  Applied to gun legislation, this ideology calls into question the attitude of the major gun rights organization in America, the National Rifle Association, which lobbies for no restriction on the type or number of weapons one can own. Instead, the Tao Te Ching reminds us that all areas of life require limits, and that those who forget this fact invariably pay a price.

In addition, the Tao Te Ching offers an explicit warning about weapons: “Now arms, however beautiful, are instruments of evil omen, hateful, it may be said, to all creatures. Therefore they who have the Tao employ them only as a last resort.”

Even the Second Amendment Prescribes Moderation

What relevance, you might ask, do guidelines that can be derived from a 2,500 year old Eastern wisdom system have for a 250 year old democracy? The Second Amendment to the Constitution, which is where the right to bear arms is explicitly stated, in fact takes a very Taoist attitude towards guns, justifying gun ownership only because they are viewed as necessary for national self-defense. Gun ownership is not depicted as something good or beautiful, but as something allowed because “a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state.”  

Not only American history but recent American law echoes Taoist sentiment. The Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, which sadly lapsed in 2004, placed significant restrictions on the types of weapons and ammunition that could be purchased, and would have prevented the Colorado killer from acquiring the most lethal part of his arsenal.

So the Tao is not dead in America, merely dormant. But if, as the Tao Te Ching informs us, once any extreme is reached things gradually turn back in the other direction, there may yet be reason to hope for a return to moderation and sanity on this issue.


Enjoy Great Reading by Peter Vernezze

Don't Worry, Be Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Troubled Times
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