There is a disease in our country which derives from fear. It seriously affects our current national debate over gun ownership. I’m going to avoid delving into the murky waters of what our Founding Fathers intended when creating the Second Amendment. I’ll save that topic for constitutional scholars and the NRA because both seem more comfortable focusing on the minutia of word by word analysis and legalese terminology.
I wish to avoid this type of discussion about guns because neither side can win this debate. The reason is that both have motivations which are based upon the emotion of fear. This is something particularly prevalent in the messages spread by the NRA. The’ve specialized for years in selling fear as a way to gain power and influence. They’ve proven quite adept at side stepping any responsibility and blaming others. Whether it’s Muslims, the mentally ill, the FBI or some other group, the NRA leadership apparently forgot some of the most basic lessons our parents taught us which is: take responsibility for your own actions. And most recently, in what must embody the most desperate and convoluted of thinking, the NRA has decided that giving firearms to teachers is the answer to our national crisis in mass shootings.
Guns have been packaged as the answer to some people’s deepest fears. If you’re afraid of a home invasion, you should buy a gun, if you’re afraid of the U.S. government becoming a tyranny and coming for you-buy a gun, if you’re afraid of being attacked on the street, you should definitely buy a gun. Last year, the mother of a friend of mine, an 80-year old woman who lives in Minnesota, and three of her friends, were out having lunch and the conversation turned to guns. Each of these women, all of whom were well into their 70’s or older, said they owned at least four guns. His mom represented the low end of the scale with the three guns she had inherited from her father, a decorated World War II veteran. One woman at the table made the startling revelation that she had recently purchased a laser sited hand gun but was never planning on opening the box it came in. She continued, explaining that she just felt more comfortable having it in the house!
I think that story speaks volumes about many people’s attitude towards guns in this country. And it’s also the reason why no constitutional scholar will ever convince gun rights advocates that their ownership of guns should be limited, or in any way restricted. The reason why that woman, and many others like her want guns is not because it’s one of their constitutional rights, but because they want something which will stop them from being afraid. Guns are the new pacifier for many adults around this country! What else explains some of the logic used to defend gun rights? Protection from a home invasion for example. Will any of those women or their octogenarian friends have the clear thinking and hand dexterity to load their weapon, turn the safety off, and fire with accuracy should someone illegally enter their house? Worse, and possibly more likely, is that they wake up in a confused state, just like most people, and make a bad decision which results in tragedy.
Like pacifiers, a gun will allay some fears but not teach us how to deal with the root of the problem: what’s causing our fears and the faith we put in material items to solve them. This is not a new psychology for Americans. During and after the Vietnam War ended, some cultural observers noticed that there was a correlation between the U.S.’ increasing reliance on the latest technology (ie. Agent Orange ) to defeat the Vietnamese forces, and the use of greater and greater technology in James Bond films. In the first Bond film, Dr. No, the evil antagonist has a flame throwing tank but Bond relied on his small Walther PPK hand gun and some nifty fighting skills to defeat the bad guys. Three years later (1964) Bond was relying on cars with ejector seats and machine guns in Goldfinger. By 1971, Bond was driving space vehicles in an effort to defeat the evil Blofeld who built a Star Wars type laser system. All of this while the United States was pouring more and more money and man-hours into creating military technology which would end the war in Vietnam.
As a historian, maybe the most important lesson we can learn by studying the Vietnam War relevant to the gun control debate is about what guns can and can’t do to solve problems. One of my friends served in the military of a South American nation about thirty years ago. During their weapon training he was told very clearly the worth of guns. The sergeant pointed to his head and told the men, “Here is your weapon,” and then pointed to the gun in his hand “and here is your gun. Don’t confuse the two!.” Of course, I’m painting with a broad stroke when speaking on this matter but maybe the Viet Cong understood this point better than the leaders of our military.
Having a strong mind is much more important than owning many guns. In fact, the mere idea of owning lots of guns for purposes other than hunting implies that one is abandoning reason and committed to solving problems by using violence. The Buddhist monks at Shaolin Temple in China avoided owning knives during the T’ang dynasty because having a knife implied that one had violence in his/her heart. This is the real cost of our gun culture. As we rely more and more on an object outside of ourselves to solve problems, we give that thing power over us. In this case, by fetishizing guns as the solution to our problems, we limit our possible responses. More and more, the logical answer seems to be violence. During one of my trips to China a Daoist priest gave some advice which helped me understand how to approach tense exchanges with people in a different way. He said, “All conflict is internal.” I think there’s a lot of truth in this as it relates to guns and fear. If one buys a gun with an underlying motive of fear, there’s already a conflict in their mind that makes it much easier to turn towards violence.
Let me pause for a minute and explain what I mean by violence. I don’t just mean the actual shooting of someone, I also mean the words we use and thoughts we have in our mind. In the Chinese belief system known as Daoism, even thinking about violence is already a violent act because your mind has already gone to that place. Some people might respond to this by saying that you have to be prepared for an attack or risk being caught unawares. I would argue that it is far better to be surprised by a confrontation rather than planning my life around something which may never appear. It seems like something from one of Dante’s levels of Hell: walking through life always looking over my shoulder for that one person who will mug me, invade my home or accost me. It would be exhausting preparing for that possibility. But once you go down that road of relying on things to solve problems rather than a direct human to human relationship, there’s no end to the possible problems one will need to solve: flooding, tornado, snow bound, nuclear holocaust. I remember practicing nuclear fallout drills by hiding under our desks in the 1960’s. That’s about as effective as keeping guns in the house to fight off home invaders or the government. My colleague asked his parents in Arkansas during one phone conversation why they were going off to a gun show. His dad responded, “In case the government comes for us.” My friends rejoinder was fitting, “Dad, if the United States government comes for you, it will be with tanks and an Apache helicopter.” In other words, one armed individual, or even group of armed individuals, will never have the firepower to forestall the United States government. Nor should they! That would be a portent of bad things for the United States if they could
So, all of this preparation-buying guns fearing attack, stockpiling food in case of a winter apocalypse, building bunkers in case of a nuclear attack, are all based on fear of the possible worst outcome. But more often than not there is no worst outcome. There is just an outcome. Yes, sometimes they are terrible consequences, disease, a stroke, a terrorist attack. But most of the time, we just live our boring lives without consequential things happening to us. And that’s just fine. Living a simple life is much better than the alternative. I used to imagine I was a spy like James Bond. Going to exotic locales, fighting, running, driving fast cars, etc. But at the age of 57 that life doesn’t seem so attractive anymore. James Bond certainly lives an exceptional life. But now I’ve noticed some downsides to being James Bond. For example, JB never has a steady relationship with anyone but his co-workers and gun. And he has to be suspicious all the time because he never knows who is lying to him. He drinks a lot and is addicted to adrenaline rushes. He only seems happy when life is moving very fast. And finally, James Bond is always in conflict with someone. This is no way to go through life.
While I know he’s a fictional character, I believe Bond reflects some of the most concerning elements of gun culture in particular. We have attached a great deal of importance to guns and problem solving with guns. But guns aren’t the answer to problems, they’re merely violent version of a pacifier which gave us so much comfort as toddlers. As we grew out of the toddler stage our parents weaned us off of them saying simply, “You don’t need this anymore.” And this wisdom still holds true, most of us don’t need guns for anything more than hunting. Of course, there are exceptions that come to mind. I’m not talking about people who need to own a gun for their job. I’m merely raising the possibility that too many people are operating out of fear. Eva Wong says in her book, Seven Taoist Masters, “Attraction is not in the object itself, but in the attitude that we carry around with us.” Her point is that once we eradicate our attitude towards an object, then it will no longer have any power over us. That is what I would like to see for our nation. That we simply let go of our attraction for guns solving problems and then the object will cease to have power in our society. People will walk around with less violence in their hearts and our society will be a better place.