Opinion: The temptation of the gun

Published: 7/3/2022 8:32:54 AM
Modified: 7/3/2022 8:30:15 AM

John Buttrick of Concord can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com.

When I was a child I had a single-shot cap pistol. Next came a repeater pistol that would hold a whole roll of caps. Then it was a b-b gun.

We shot at birds and sometimes, foolishly and dangerously, at each other. When I was twelve, my father gave me a single-shot 20-gage shotgun for hunting pheasants on the farm. When the family sold the farm, my gun was left behind. In my mid-twenties I was drafted. I volunteered to train as a medic. Even so, in basic training, we had to qualify with an M-1 rifle.

I confess, there was something about all those guns. Cap pistol, shotgun, or M-1 — holding it or pulling the trigger gave me a keen sense of power, control, domination and destruction.

I have long since abandoned guns but I can still recall that feeling of elation. It came back to me while reading a report by Dan Barry of the New York Times, “At one firearm manufacturer’s booth, a salesman urged a reporter to pick up a short-barrel rifle with a side-folding stock. “‘Touch it! Feel it!’ he said seductively. ‘It won’t bite.’” (Between the lines I read, “Notice how good it feels to hold that destructive power. It won’t bite you, but others beware”).

This account illustrates the enticement of a culture that emotionally embraces the destructive power of the gun, encouraged by the NRA, weapons manufacturers and machismo men. (Men Against Gun Violence reports, “Men make up more than 80% of both perpetrators and victims of gun violence.”) Machismo lives!

Since the founding of the United States, the use of guns and their destructive power have been an integral part of the country’s culture. NPR notes, “Bearing arms (flintlock rifles) resulted in the power to establish the United States.” Rifles enforced slavery. Origin stories glorify “winning the wild west” with the six-shooter. Guns killed innumerable Native Americans, destroyed of many of their tribal units, and stole their lands.

Later, movies show “Tommy guns” fired between gangs and police in Chicago during prohibition. Today, TV crime series depict more and more gun violence as solutions. Throughout this history, guns have been increasing in power and capacity. However, regardless of the narrative, the function of guns is exclusively destruction and death; whether firing at a paper target, an empty can, wildlife or human beings.

Every time a mass shooting is reported, we are overrun by defensive reactions of gun-rights people — “We have the right to target shoot.” “Must preserve the Second Amendment gun rights.” “Don’t interfere with the right to hunt game for food and sport.” “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” “We need guns to protect our families and school children.” “Citizen gun carrying prevents mass shootings.”

These affirmations distract from a simple truth observed by Lindsay Smith Rogers, MA, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, “If firearms everywhere made us safer … we would be the safest place in the world.”

We have more guns than people in this country, yet we are the only country that continues to experience exceptionally high rates of firearm homicide. Every year, more than 100,000 Americans are shot. More than 40,000 end up dead. Americans are 25 times more likely to be with a gun than people in other developed countries. The small arms trade in the U.S., alone, is worth an estimated $8.5 billion per year.

Today, the divide between the simple truth and the gun culture has led Congress to an impasse on gun legislation. The Senate cannot pass the bill that would have “bared the sale of semiautomatic weapons to people under the age of 21 and banned the sale of large-capacity magazines.” Instead, the wary Senate has voted an anemic bill with only an enhancement of background checks and a prohibition on domestic abusers having guns.

It also includes hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for mental health programs and to beef up security in schools. The bill has been hyped as the most significant piece of gun safety legislation to make it through Congress in 26 long and deadly years. It may reduce a few gun homicide deaths, even one life saved counts, but the impasse remains over militarized weapons and the simple truth that guns cause gun homicides.

There seems to be a lingering emotional component in human nature that craves the sense of power, control, domination and destruction given by gun possession. Nigel Nicholson writes in Harvard Business Review, “Evolutionary psychiatry observes that human beings today inhabit a thoroughly modern world of space exploration and virtual realities, (however), they do so with the ingrained mentality of Stone Age hunter-gatherers. You can take the person out of the Stone Age, but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person.” Perhaps, so far!

However, it behooves us to ask, with philosophers, what plausible changes in human nature might be possible in the life of a contemporary human being? A new environment requires new beings. As human nature transforms, the old Stone Age needs for physical dominance will atrophy. It has already begun. Worldwide communication technology is programing increasing numbers of people for friendliness. Exchange students, vacation travel, and business concerns increase connections and understanding.

Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, USAID, United States Institute for Peace, and many, many others have formed to exchange food, healthcare, technology, cultures, and peacesense. According to Nicholson, these experiences lead to barter, trade, alliances and negotiations with win-win outcomes, even among very young children at play. They are becoming the preferred ways of dealing with non-family and to build political alliances for social success.

Therefore, going forward, we can expect increasing enticements to maintain the emotional high of love of neighbor. They will ultimately replace today’s fevered dependency on instruments (guns) designed only for destruction and death. As human beings, this is our future. Humanity’s progress will influence the review of the Second Amendment. Considering the new reality of human nature can break Congress’ impasse over gun regulation.

Grasping a new safe gun-free culture will be far more rewarding than grasping an instrument of destruction and death.

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