It's Not the Guns, It's the Fear

Pop Rocket, February 2013

Our media consumed the entire month of January with talk about guns, gun violence and what we might do to stop it. Most of it has been regurgitation of the same old time-wasting arguments, and I am absolutely resolved to avoid falling in that trap and wasting yet more of your time and head space. So like the country as a whole, I'm challenged to come at this problem from a different and maybe useful angle.
     Sincerely, it surprised me that Americans near and far took so to heart the killings of the little kids at Newtown. Over the decades we've generally become so inured to this sort of violence that I expected this mass shooting of innocents would quickly sink beneath the waves of popular distraction like the many gone before. That it's spurred a sustained public conversation about gun violence, of such power that every legislator and enforcement officer down to the local level seems compelled to weigh in, is amazing and encouraging. It's about time we got this issue out of the national sock drawer and had it out.
     As I've said in this space before, it's obvious to any thinking being that our national problem with guns is out of control, but there seems to be no practical way out of it. Towering reams of opinion good and bad, usually putting the onus on someone else, are being hacked out daily on this subject, so for both our sakes I'm going to have to assume that you're sufficiently plugged in and I can skip the basics.
     When a problem seems intractable, it's a signal to me that I'm not seeing the whole picture. So let's back up a step to: Why does an ordinary person want a gun?     I see two answers to that, two sides of the same coin: power, and fear. We feel powerless, we need to defend ourselves against something we fear. Drone on all day about the cold reality that holding a gun is vastly more likely to hurt the holder than any bad guy, you won't get through to someone who's afraid. Cite all the statistics in the world about how rare crime really has always been in daily life and how it's diminishing, the fearful seem to fear it all the more.
     Most of us have grown up with the teevee myth that a good guy with a gun always wins and every week he's beset by another bad guy, and while we know intellectually that it's all fiction and mostly nonsense, it still shapes our self-images, emotional landscapes, and ability to competently assess risk.
     Most of the time the bad guys turn out to be people who believed they were good guys, or at least doing the right thing within the mythology they'd created for themselves. We all go through changes and problems, and there's no clear way to be sure any of us won't wind up doing the wrong thing with that weapon. So the problem isn't guns, really; broadly, it's unreasonable fear, coupled with unrealistic myths about our ability to defend against those mentally inflated monsters. It's our national neurosis.
     On left and right we love to posit "mental health" deficiencies as an important cause of mass shootings, and there's no doubt that the murderers of random innocents and their own families are by definition mentally unfit. What we've yet to address is whether our society as a whole is unhinged, become a garden bed full of low-grade poison sprouting the odd murderous weed.
     From outside our borders, our collective neurosis is as obvious as that of a bum shouting at traffic. Citizens of civilized countries around the world, contemplating daily delusionary behavior that Americans take for granted as normal, go all wide-eyed and blanch at the thought that the lords of the world's largest nuclear arsenal could really be this nutz. But here inside the wire we're insulated from ourselves the same way a lunatic's skull contains and protects his delusion.
     At this point the religionists reliably pipe up, fingers wagging, and say, "That's what you get when you abandon Gad!" Man, it would be nice if it were that simple and most mass shooters and gun-huggers were non-believers. Exactly the opposite seems to be true. Magical thinking is much more the problem than the solution.
     But what if we could leave out the magical parts and apply the good and useful parts of religion? Trusting our neighbors, taking care of one another, dealing with one another morally and free of judgment, accepting responsibility, seeing something higher and better in ourselves and striving to live up to it -- the religious reflex, one face of our evolutionary heritage as social animals, is itself a method for assuaging fear and building a secure community.
     If a member of a religious community hurts his family, the group routinely looks to what it might have done differently. Now we have the opportunity for that sort of soul-searching as a nation, to see the shooters as our own family and our own failures, to squarely face the mirror they hold up and gauge what part we played in the tragedy.     Can we be adult enough to look at our national obsession and ask ourselves, how many deaths of innocents are we willing to accept as the price of our freedom to hold a deadly weapon? How can we allow so many of us to indulge in unreasoning fear? Is the illusory sense of comfort and power that gun gives us worth the lives of thousands of innocents every year? Could we maybe find more effective and less costly ways to feel secure?     Like a chain-smoker facing his addiction, we're at some point going to have to stub out our fear and let go of what's killing us.
     Maybe you think the essence of freedom is that the community has to leave you alone with your toys and personal myths. Sorry, it doesn't work like that, and never has. If you accept the benefits of community, you're obliged to follow its rules and care for it. Seriously, would you rather be in, or out?

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