My Turn: Breaking free of the intoxicating power of guns

For the Monitor
Published: 12/13/2020 6:20:22 AM

I felt despair as I recently read in the Monitor that New Hampshire House Republicans have reversed the rule banning firearms and deadly weapons from the House floor and gallery.

I wondered why mature, educated men and women, leaders in our state, would vote to increase the risk of attending House sessions by condoning the presence of firearms. Why did it bother me so much? And why was this reversal so important to them?

These questions led me first to examine the source of my own feelings.

When I was a boy, my friends and I played with cap pistols. The pistols held paper strips of caps, each cap containing a small quantity of explosive powder. When the trigger was pulled, a hammer would hit the cap and produce a cracking sound – a pretend gunshot. We wore holsters and practiced quick-draws. In our games I imagined always hitting the enemy but never being hit. We felt invincible walking around with our harmless toy guns.

When I was a teenager I lived on a farm. I hunted pheasants with my father and shot woodchucks that grazed on our garden vegetables. The kick against my shoulder when I fired the shotgun transferred to me a feeling of power and domination. Whenever I hit the prey, I felt a surge of pride and superiority. It gave me self-confidence knowing that my gun in the rack at home was always accessible to me.

Later, during my college years I found myself discussing human ethics with friends. The establishment of the draft, which included a process for applying for conscientious objection to war, led to bull sessions among friends about the ethics of war and the killing human beings. We consulted philosophers and theologians. Some of us began to gravitate toward a position of nonviolence. However, to choose this commitment meant burying childhood and teenage feelings of elation and puffed-up ego accompanying gun possession and use.

Then, at 24, I was drafted into the Army. My anxiety about having to kill in battle led me to volunteer to train to be a medic. But it did not save me from rifle training. And it did not save me from a resurgence of the old excitement and feelings of power guns gave me in my youth. More distressing was having those old feelings return while shooting at human-shaped targets. I enjoyed hitting those targets and keeping score. It felt good and empowering. My ethic about rejecting the use of deadly firearms was overwhelmed by the thrill of the firing range.

It seems human nature includes an inclination toward invincibility, superiority, and security. They are the reward for embracing firearms and deadly weapons. They give a person the arrogance of the legendary gunfighter who seeks to have the fastest draw in the West. They bask in the thrill of possessing force and power over all comers.

However, this arrogance mocks civility, destroys relationships and leads to the moral decay of the nation. Human beings can aspire to do better. Our New Hampshire legislators can aspire to do better. They can begin by focusing less on “Live Free or Die” and the Second Amendment. No law can regulate attitudes. They can begin by abandoning the arrogance of the right to carry weapons. The old days when U.S. legislators brawled on the floor of Congress and challenged each other to duels are past – hopefully. Our leaders can begin with a spirit of hospitality and trust of constituents. They can begin to develop the skills of empathy, negotiation, reconciliation, and trustworthiness. These skills are far more effective in building relationships and defusing conflicts than waving threatening guns.

We need the example of our legislators to help us turn our country from a dependency upon violent coercive power.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime conducted a worldwide small arms survey. It reported that the United States experienced 29.7 firearms homicides per million people in 2012. The next highest country was Switzerland with 7.7 per million. These statistics do not describe our aspirations for civility, equality, and justice for all.

We deserve better. It begins by refusing to feed the emotional high of guns on the floor of the Legislature.

I hope to soon read in the Monitor that the rule banning firearms and deadly weapons from the House floor and gallery has been reaffirmed. It will be a start on the long road to real freedom from violence and coercion.

(John Buttrick can be reached at


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