The gun debate has been raging for the past 19 years since the Columbine High School massacre, and goes around and around in circles. Mass shootings have occurred, depending on your definition, at least once a month for the last five years or more. Shootings involving 4 victims now occur daily. But it is a peculiarly American problem, not shared with any major developed nation. You have to wonder why there has been no action on gun elimination or regulation in the US until now. Everyone blames the NRA, but we know the NRA is nowhere near large enough or powerful enough to lock up the nation this way. The non-rationality of the situation indicates to me that there is a hidden, unconscious agenda that is never discussed. I have maintained in the past that we are living in a toxic culture. To my way of thinking repeated mass shootings is a blatant symptom.
The current gun debate, prompted by the most recent Parkland school shooting, revolves, among other things, around the issues of mental health and background checks for the individual gun owners. But what about the mental health of our society? I would like to add a social critical perspective that hasn’t been adequately included in the usual press and punditry.
In a recent TV interview US Senator Bill Nelson from Florida identified himself as a hunter and said, “An AR-15 is not for hunting; it’s for killing.” (The AR-15 is an assault style rifle used in the Parkland school shooting.) I hope the reader sees the irony in Senator Nelson’s statement. As far as I know, hunting is killing.
According to current social psychologists killing living things helps one compensate for death anxiety and for “nobodyness.” On the one hand, it is an ancient antidote for the dread associated with one's own mortality. Killing an animal, especially a large, dangerous animal, and killing another human, an even more powerful act, gives one symbolic immortality. This theme is explored by Don DeLillo in his 1985 novel White Noise. Killing momentarily transfers the terror of one’s own annihilation onto another creature, giving the killer transitory power over life and death. At the same time, this power imparts a sense of worthiness, of deserving more life because of the right and ability to take life away. The power to kill instantaneously, as guns provide, also has the benefit of compensating for the discomfort of being nobody important (nobodyness), a nagging uneasiness that gnaws at one’s self-esteem, the most potent defense against death anxiety. Killing satisfies two unconscious defenses against the dread of one’s inevitable death.
Guns, all guns, from AK 47s to hunting rifles to tiny derringers, are killing machines. There are euphemisms such as “gun enthusiast” to describe a pro-gun individual, someone defending the right to own a killing machine. I think, perhaps “someone with a gun fetish” would be a more accurate description.
I am not using the term “fetish” in the Freudian sexual sense, although many comparisons have been made between penises and guns, and ejaculation (life giving) and shooting (death giving). For example, in the movie Full Metal Jacket the drill sergeant has the new recruits march up and down with their rifles on their shoulders while holding their genitals with their other hand as they chant: “This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for fighting, and this is for fun.” Guns and male genitals are often linked consciously and unconsciously as in “Happiness is a Warm Gun” by the Beatles.
But I am using the word “fetish” to describe “an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers,” such as an amulet or a talisman that brings good luck. A gun fetish is a belief in the power of a gun to magically protect one from harm. Somehow the defenders of guns have neatly turned the killing purpose of a gun into a mystical power to ward off danger from others with guns. When you think about it, the idea of a “defensive weapon” is very strange. Arming ordinary civilians in the name of defense against tragedy is magical thinking taken to an extreme. If you want to equip students with defensive gear why not issue them helmets and body armor the way we do our military? If schools are to be potential war zones where killers can roam at will, perhaps we should dress our children accordingly. If one is seeking safety in one’s home, perhaps good locks, reinforced glass, a neighborhood watch, a loud dog, and burglar alarms would provide real safety.
Another way to look at it, as cultural critic Kirby Farrell might say, is to see a gun as a prosthetic device. A prosthetic is an artificial device that replaces a missing body part. In this case the part is missing because one wants to have it, not because it was lost or taken. Dr. Farrell describes a car as a prosthetic device that imparts to an individual superhuman abilities to travel long distances at great speeds. A gun also imparts the superhuman ability to instantly kill another person in the blink of an eye. Superhuman powers are an effective way to ward off nobodyness.
Advocates argue that guns in the home both deter crime and thwart it. But according to the Los Angeles Times analysis of data and studies on the subject in 2015, guns do neither. In terms of deterrence, the Times reported that states with higher levels of household gun ownership have higher levels of firearm crime and do not have lower levels of other types of crime.
As for thwarting crime, gun advocates claim that guns are necessary for self-defense, but almost two-thirds of the people in the U.S. population live in homes without guns, and there is no evidence that the inhabitants of these homes are at greater risk of being robbed, injured or killed by criminals compared with citizens in homes with guns. Instead, the evidence is overwhelming that a gun in the home increases the likelihood not only that a household member will be shot accidentally, but also that someone in the home will die in a suicide or homicide. The evidence also indicates that the safest, most effective response to a gun threat is to run away. Standing your ground can and does get people hurt. A new canard that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun is a dangerous hero fantasy. As the Parkland school shooting demonstrated, the professional police officers took cover outside the school until the shooting stopped, which was the rational thing to do. Arming teachers, movie goers, and the like opens the very real possibility of more guns causing more shooting resulting in more deaths. Cross fire is more likely than armed good guy heroics. The other large gun advocacy group consists of hunters. There were 16.9 million hunters in the United States (6% of the population) over age 16. 91% are male. Most used rifles, shotguns or handguns for hunting, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013. In 2012 hunters each averaged 18 days per year hunting, what some people would call a hobby.
35% of hunters (2% of the population) say they hunt primarily to obtain meat; the others cite recreation, socializing, being in nature, and a tiny minority to collect trophies. The argument that hunters are a major factor in conservation is equally misleading. Bird watchers, hikers, campers, and people who fish far outnumber hunters and contribute far more to conservation efforts.
In any event, hunting as a reason for gun proliferation is a red herring. According to CNS News U.S. gun owners outnumber hunters 5 to 1.
Only 22-29% of Americans own guns; and only 3% of Americans own half the country's 265 million guns. So we are talking about a minority of Americans who own guns, mostly for protection, but who aren’t protected by them, and an even smaller percentage that hunt on any regular basis. The tail is wagging the dog on this issue.
Let’s not confuse the widespread American gun fetish with constitutional rights. Gun debates are always framed in terms of the Second Amendment, and defenders of the rights it provides. The 2nd Amendment says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Enacted in 1791, this is obviously an amendment to protect the ancient system of state militias, not a wholesale gun owner amendment as we have been led to believe. Modern militias continue today primarily as the National Guard who have their own weapons and do not require American volunteers to provide their muskets in case of a slave uprising or Indian attack. [See Part 2 of this article next week for a more detailed discussion on the Second Amendment and the right to own guns of any kind.]
The other group of modern day militia organizations in the United States designated as “unorganized militias” are private organizations that include paramilitary or similar elements. The have about 100,000 members with about 40,000 active.
In nearly every state, the National Guard outnumbers unorganized militias 10-1. One might argue that the amateur militias are playing soldier with their camo outfits and military style guns. Running around, pretending to do battle with imaginary bad guys, and seeing themselves as a heroic bulwark against an autocratic government (one armed with tanks and fighter planes) must outstrip similar video games. But their pastime is hardly a reason for Americans to have two hundred million guns. The idea that gun ownership has to do with individual freedom has an appeal to gun owners. The rights of the individual must always be carefully weighed against the common good. In this case, thousands of people being shot to death and crippled for life every year because a minority of Americans have a gun fetish is idiotic if not insane. The Parkland kids who experienced the terror of a mass shooting first hand seem to agree.
Some of us want to argue about background checks and mental health screenings, as if we can guarantee all of the gun owners as sane and law-abiding. Are we really going to attempt background checks and screenings of 70 to 90 million people? Who is going to define sanity and fitness to own guns? Who is going to enforce it? It is Orwellian on many levels.
The mental health aspect of the debate ignores the viewpoint of many psychologists who tell us that all humans have the potential for violence. The “temporary insanity” defense in a criminal prosecution claims that the accused was briefly insane at the time a crime was committed and therefore was incapable of knowing the nature of the criminal act. Temporary insanity is often claimed as a defense whether or not the accused is mentally stable at the time of trial. If everyone is capable of violence and if people with no apparent instability can become temporarily insane and commit a crime, how do gun advocates intend to test for and screen the entire population for potential gun violence? The human mind often works by unconsciously making a choice, often for reasons not consciously known to the individual, then consciously finds reasons to support and justify the unconscious choice. The gun fetishists, consciously or unconsciously, use the 2nd Amendment as a rational reason, stretched, as it seems, to defend their wanting guns. They extol the virtues of hunting for a small minority, mostly engaged in a hobby, and use arguments about protection and thwarting crime as reasons for their real agenda, the purchase and possession of killing machines for psychological needs. They shift the argument from guns to background checks and loopholes in laws. Let’s concern ourselves less with the insanity of mass shooters, and focus on the insanity baked into our toxic culture. The Second Amendment is not the issue. Hunting is not the issue. Self-protection is not the issue. The issue is the toxic American culture that relies on guns to unconsciously defend against death anxiety. Gun advocates are as adamant about keeping their magical gun fetishes as they are about keeping their immortal souls. That’s the reason why the gun debate will go around in circles intensely and indefinitely. It is an irrational debate masked in barely relevant arguments.
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