Back in the 1930’s, a Belgian medievalist and archivist, Henri Pirenne, began publishing a series of articles which tried to provide an answer to the basic issue of Western history: Why did Western Civilization, which had emerged and been rooted in the Mediterranean (Greece, Rome) suddenly turn its back on ‘mare nostrum,’ moved inland and to the North? When the Pope travelled to Paris in 800 A.D. to crown Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, a new chapter in the entire history of Western Civilization opened up.
These articles, which came to be known as the ‘Pirenne thesis’ provoked a thirty-year debate among historians which probably accounted for more doctoral dissertations, publishing credits and tenure appointments than any other subject in the entire universe of historical research. The debate ended not because anyone came up with a definitive explanation of why this transition occurred, but because with the emergence of more sensitivity to the growth and importance of national states in China, Latin America and Africa, the whole notion of ‘civilization’ fell into disuse.
I have been following the gun debate for more than twenty years, and it is reminding of the debate about the ‘Pirenne thesis’ more and more. On the one side we have public health research, beginning with formative articles by Kellerman, Rivara, et. al., which ‘prove’ that access to guns increases injury (suicide, homicide) risk. On the other hand, we have criminologists like Kleck and Lott, claiming that guns represent a benefit (protection from crime) that far outweighs any risk.
There are all kinds of ways in which these two, basic arguments have spawned various subsidiary discussions and debates. On the one hand we have endless attempts to figure out whether some gun regulations are more effective than others in reducing gun violence. On the other hand, we have the continued academic drumbeat about how guns not only provide an extra margin of safety, but also fulfill the basic Constitutional guarantee known as 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’
Meanwhile, the debate drags on seemingly independent of the fact that gun injuries are not only endemic to American society, but as of late appear to be going up. For twenty years or so, the pro-gun gang could claim that while more guns were being sold every year, shootings were going down. Unfortunately, since 2014, the annual rate of intentional gun injury has increased by nearly 15 percent. Oh well, another good argument bites the dust.
For that matter, it’s not as if my friends in Gun-control Nation have fared all that much better with their attempts to explain the value of what they want to do. What’s the Number One item on the gun-control agenda? Universal background checks. These checks happen to be effective in eleven states. Which of these eleven states have experienced an increase in gun violence since 2014? Every, single one.
What I am beginning to wonder is whether we need to step back from this debate and refer again to what finally brought the argument about the ‘Pirenne thesis’ to an end; namely, looking at the way in which we define gun violence pari passu, which is a fancy way of saying, in and of itself. Because it seems to me that behind the argumnts on both sides is a basic assumption about the use of violence; i.e., that it can be a good or bad thing.
When Gun-nut Nation promotes gun ownership for protection against crime, they are basically saying that if someone attacks someone else, the deservey to get shot – the shooter is doing a good thing for himself, for his family, for society, blah, blah, blah and blah. Conversely, when gun-control advocates decry the 125,000 injuries we suffer from guns every year, aren’t they basically saying that any kind of violence caused by a gun is bad?
At some point either we agree whether violence is a good thing or not. Until we figure that one out, the argument about guns is just a more contemporary version of the argument initially provoked by Henri Pirenne.