In this essay, I support the argument for increased gun control. However, stricter gun laws are subject to huge practical limitations, and, most importantly, they cannot address the deeper psychological issues that drive our culture of violence.
Every year a staggering number of Americans are killed with guns — most of them in our streets and homes, relatively few on military battlefields. The number of deaths by firearms is much higher than in other developed nations, even after taking into account the size of the population. Meanwhile, we know that legal access to guns is generally a lot easier in this country. It follows pretty logically that getting a lot tougher about gun ownership would be a good move to help reduce the slaughter on the streets.
Unfortunately, there is a systematic practical reason why effective strict gun regulation is not likely to work — this is a legally divided nation. There is great diversity in gun regulations across cities, counties, states and the federal government. Some might fantasize about the imposition of a strict top-down federal solution, but that’s not going to happen, given the fanatical defense of “States‘ rights.” So, the solution for those who would limit access to guns seems to be to pass whatever local or State restrictions are possible. There’s still a practical problem with this. Some American jurisdictions, for example New York City, are pretty strict about gun ownership. But New York doesn’t have customs inspectors stationed at the bridges and tunnels — so ease of acquisition elswhere in the country results in de facto easy access in New York. Basically, anyone anywhere who really wants a gun, any kind of gun, can get one.
I am well aware of the Constitutional argument in favor of easy gun access (See my separate essay on Constitutional Fundamentalism that addresses that argument). But I want to address an important psychological issue — what is behind the interest in guns, the seductive appeal of these weapons? What are the psychological forces at work beneath the surface of consciousness that influence our desire for guns? There is an obvious phallic symbolism to these long, stiff weapons that eject powerful projectiles at a great distance! No wonder guns are used more, and more aggressively, by men. Moreover, I believe there is an inherent violence in America’s deepest cultural values that favors a love affair with guns — this is a culture that celebrates individual triumph; even our collective ideals are celebrations of triumph — we have sports heroes, business heroes, even political heroes, and take these more seriously, treat them more reverently than in many other cultures. We can dig into our history and see how capitalism, democratic principles, monotheistic religion and the need to conquer the wilderness contributed to these values. Inherent in our cultural value system is the creation of winners and losers; winners have the opportunity to release their “phallic energy” in victories; the majority (i.e. non-winners, aka losers) may need to put a lot more effort into repressing it — and so our deepest values may contribute to a systematic build-up of potentially violent energy. No wonder we are unconsciously attracted to guns, no matter what the conscious justification based on Constitution, self defense, target practice or a love for the sport of hunting.
In light of the psychological dynamics underlying our love affair with guns, I don’t think stricter gun laws are the solution to our culture of violence. Incidentally, I also don’t think the solution is stricter controls on violent films or video games, either. These are all symptoms, all products designed to satisfy a deeper “need” for violence. As long as that need is not addressed, we will always find a way to meet it — knives, pick axes, fists, road rage, whatever is available.
Sure, the actual physical carnage in individual incidents might be reduced if we made guns harder to obtain — it is easier to kill a dozen people with a semi-automatic weapon than with a club. So, I’m all for stricter gun laws for that reason. But perhaps the violence would become more diffuse, more widespread; perhaps more of us would live closer to daily violence than periodic horrendous episodes limited to the television news. As it is we can still reassure ourselves with the fiction that destructive violence is limited to tragic breakdowns of unusually unstable individuals. Do these eruptions distract our attention from the much more widespread dark emotions that are seething beneath the surface of each of us?
Individually, I don’t believe we can make any true transformational progress unless we are willing to accept the existence of the dark forces within ourselves. Each of us must be willing to explore and face unflinchingly our darkest truths. Only then can we advance on a path of personal transformation that involves the creative expression of these forces in a form that we are able to consciously accept.