top of page

The Cost of Autonomy


A few days after the July 20 mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, I heard a hauntingly perceptive comment to the effect that the occurrence of such an incident about every 1-2 years is what our society is willing to put up with for the sake of our attachment to guns. In other words, there is an unspoken yet seemingly unassailable agreement to accept tragedies on a public scale as a matter of course, a necessary evil of sorts, in exchange for the sacrosanct right to possess firearms.


Photo by Greta Ceresini; some rights reserved.

Have public shootings become an expected social phenomenon? A recent news article from Reuters presents a timeline of major shootings worldwide during the past 20 years. Of the 23 incidents listed, one each occurred in Australia, Nepal, the Netherlands, Norway, and Belgium; two each in Great Britain, Germany, and Finland; and twelve in the United States. This is not, then, an exclusively American problem, nor is it an entirely predictable or clockwork-like occurrence, yet it does reflect a disturbing trend. Between 1999 and 2012, the longest span of time between shootings in the United States has been three years and three months. This was the span between a less-publicized apartment shooting in Wisconsin in October 2007 (half a year after the much more infamous Virginia Tech shooting) and the attempted assassination of Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011. Since then, the trend appears to have worsened: while garnering more national attention, the Colorado shooting is the third in the United States this year, followed by a fourth just two weeks later at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

Nearly as disturbing as the shootings themselves, or perhaps even more so in terms of the priorities it reflects, has been the now-predictable political pattern that surrounds them. Every time a shooting makes national news, questions about gun laws come up. And every time someone asks whether perhaps there should be more legal restrictions on the possession of weapons, the suggestion is met with countless vehement cries of protest. In fact, gun sales have spiked the most after public shootings, giving a cold, steely tangibility to the wave of fear that follows in the wake of such tragedies.

Those who fear increased restrictions on gun ownership have little to worry about. Politicians in both parties are themselves afraid to take any public stance that would challenge our national firearm fetish. The incidents of this year and last have inspired noncommittal comments from President Obama on the need for an end to violence, with no suggestion of any policy changes for that purpose.

Of course, it is not only fear of tighter gun laws that is behind the increase in sales following a mass shooting, but also the fear for one's own safety that such tragedies naturally evoke. Yet looser gun restrictions for the sake of self-protection are a double-edged sword, as the same laws enable people like Aurora gunman James E. Holmes to build their own arsenals as easily as anyone else can obtain the same weapons with a view to protecting themselves. Far from making us safer -- or even making us feel safer -- the legality of semiautomatic weapons such as those used by Holmes is only keeping us enslaved to fear. Making a similar point, a recent editorial in the Jesuit magazine America offers an incisive observation about our society's priorities: "After a massacre, questions about the collective good are typically raised. Yet they are put aside once the gunman is portrayed as a lone actor among millions of law-abiding gun-owners, whose constitutional rights ought not be infringed because of one oddball's misbehavior. Thus society allows individuals to build an armory, heedless of the rights of all Americans to live in safety. . . . Extreme individualism underlies the tendency to extend personal liberty at society's expense. That attitude also distorts other public policy debates, like those over taxation and health care."

I had my own moment of clarity regarding the broad implications of individualism while taking a cultural anthropology test several years ago, in which the essay question read something like, "What would the repeal of motorcycle helmet laws say about American cultural values, and how does this relate to issues such as abortion and gun control?" Having discussed in the class the question of what happens when different cultural values come into conflict, I realized that in the case of either abortion or gun control, U.S. laws give precedence to the autonomy of the individual over even the protection of human life.

How many more lives must be sacrificed on the altar of individualism before we are willing to instead sacrifice some degree of personal autonomy for the sake of the common good? As the editors of America have said, "If some say that gun violence is the cost society must pay for citizens to exercise the constitutional right to bear arms, then others must insist that the cost is too high." This is one timely implication of the broader principle, so desperately needed in response to all forms of violence that are prevalent in society, that nobody's personal choice is worth more than anybody's life.


Reuters, “Timeline: Mass Shooting Incidents in Last 20 Years,” August 5, 2012.

Patience Haggin, “Gun Sales Spike in Aftermath of Aurora Movie Theater Attack,” Time, August 9, 2012.

Reuters, “In Colorado, Obama Calls for End to ‘Senseless Violence,’” August 8, 2012.

The Editors, “After Aurora,” America, August 13, 2012.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

bottom of page