This, and THAT

Assault weapons, body counts & learning to be human.


Semi-automatic, high-magazine-capacity firearms—assault weapons—need to be controlled much more stringently in America. Duh, I imagine women readers responding. There’s more ambivalence among men. This position is new for me, someone who grew up in a hunting family, steeped in military service and heroic special forces exploits and with a brother in law enforcement. Many if not most cops opposed or were ambivalent about the last assault weapons ban. They’re gun folk.

I’ve used firearms as tools—as a hunter years ago, and for many years as a farmer—and I understand guns as tools. I also understand the love of guns as beautiful objects with a craft that approaches art: few artifacts are as well made or invested with such fine workmanship, materials, and durability. And 99.9 percent of gun owners, or higher, pose no risk to anyone. Quite the contrary, perhaps. There’s merit in being able to defend yourself and others.

But the ease and rapidity with which assault weapons, rifles and pistols, can be fired and reloaded make them unfit to be circulating widely in a civilized society. They are why our law enforcement officers are now armed with military grade weapons that make their old standby, the .38 special revolver, look like a quaint toy. Glued to the TV over the weekend as news of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, unfolded, I couldn’t help but think how much slower a killer Adam Lanza would have been had he been working a bolt-action hunting rifle. Or even firing the classic eight-shot Colt .45 semi-automatic handgun. Or for that matter using a semi-automatic .308 deer rifle with maybe a six-shot clip. He had multiple thirty-round magazines. Just as even gun fanatics had to accept the U.S. ban on fully automatic weapons, they can adjust to reduced clip capacities and to parameters that limit the sale of weapons of little or no use for hunting or competitive shooting.

A crackdown has been the gun lobby’s fear about President Barack Obama from the start. In their paranoid narrative, gun control has always been his hidden agenda. Before his first inauguration, gun stores could hardly keep assault rifles in stock and sold out of ammunition nationwide. I can only imagine the brisk business they are doing now. Obama did not mention gun control in his powerful speech at the memorial service for victims, but he did call for action. He is responding as a leader should and asking a question. What is the will of the people? Maybe it is to make our schools more like fortresses, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer. A silver lining in this tragedy seems to be some bipartisan movement toward restoring the assault weapons ban that expired on George W. Bush’s criminally negligent watch.

Mental health services seem a vital part of this equation. America’s system has holes in it, our ability to institutionalize the mentally ill radically limited. I have no answers there, though I’ve also heard no evidence yet that Lanza’s mother considered him ill or a threat or sought help for him. The fact is, however, that we are group animals, and even healthy loners need a certain level of human interaction. You can’t legislate that, but we might recognize formally what everyone knows intuitively and some know professionally: radically isolated people, especially if they are young men surging with testosterone, are at risk to themselves and society.

Amidst the flurry of early erroneous news reports about the shootings, we learned that Lanza’s weapons were owned and registered to his mother. That much appears true. But some of us, trying to make sense of a woman who owned weapons like that, trying to make a story—because we understand life through narrative—put two and two together: “She bought them for her son. She must have been crazy.” The story became more complex when we learned that she was a gun enthusiast who took her son to the target range. They were her guns.

Guns don’t kill, people do, goes the gun lobby trope. But I can’t help but wonder if anything like this would have happened had Mrs. Lanza had been a dog nerd instead of a gun nut. Say she had six dogs and had involved young Adam with her in Labrador retriever rescue work. Fact is, people need people, but dogs are about as good. And she and Adam and the other Lab fanatics would have had their own little society, helpful, harmless, and happy. He’d have had canine buddies and human contact beyond his mother. This is the loving alternative I picture.

Because a dog says one thing to a troubled kid; a Bushmaster .223 assault rifle says another.


Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE

13 responses to “This, and THAT

  1. Dear Richard,
    The final line of your post sums it up brilliantly. As to having changed your stance about guns, a smug anti-gun part of myself wants to respond “It’s never too late to be right,” but I recognize because of people like you whom I both respect and admire that there’s more than one side to a story. I too wish that killing people were more difficult, though, and I don’t at all respect Clint Eastwood for having come out again forcefully about his pro-gun stance just after (and spoken to the occasion of) the Newtown shootings. I think he’s crazy. He seemed to be claiming that we need guns MORE because of such incidents. Of course, I didn’t get his full remarks, but I can’t help but feel that he’s a bad example. And you, regardless of having used guns before and knowing about them, are a good example.

  2. Thanks for your take on this issue. I think it’s important to hear from people who actually know guns and have used them. I don’t know of any easy answers, either. But making schools fortresses and arming more people do not seem like good options, as you point out. Let’s say we make our schools impenetrable. Fine, but what’s the next place someone will shoot up? It’s already happened at the mall, at the movie theater, at the temple. You can’t lock down the whole of society.

    I show “Bowling for Columbine” each semester in my Mass Media class. It’s 10 years old but still so relevant. One question Moore tries to answer is: Why do we have so much more gun violence than Canada? What’s Canada’s secret? In trying to answer that question, I think we come across the deep, deep issues that plague our nation and that easily cannot be addressed.

    • Rachael,

      I admire that movie, especially the way Moore does bring the focus to the salient difference between Canada and the U.S. He places it on our violent, expansionist history, as I recall. I think the issue may be even deeper or at least more complex even than that, but he gets the question posed and gets us thinking.

  3. Someone made an interesting point about using the word “enthusiast” for gun-obsessives. Since there are so much loaded psychological and emotional undercurrents tied to gun ownership, it seems more accurate to say that some people are not “enthusiasts” but addicts, using for all the wrong reasons — like addicts, to fill a hole (of fear, whatever) that cannot be filled up. AS for the appeal to masculinity, Bushmaster’s latest ad came with the tagline: “Get your man on.” Sad that masculinity for some is equated with destruction.

    • Or it’s the dark side of the male imperative to protect and defend. Male aggression is a problem, no doubt. I’d say we’d have no war with women in charge but who can listen to some of the bitter, aggressive Republican women and say that?

  4. Jennifer S

    Very well said. I’m not a gun enthusiast but I am a parent and, for me, the most disturbing question pertains to the mother’s willingness to expose a child with what seems (at this point) to be adequately documented behavioral issues to high powered weapons. I think that her own mental health could be an issue… she clearly was not able to intelligently assess the signs her child was exhibiting. Maybe in denial? It seems to me that it’s every parent’s obligation to protect and make an effort to truly see the interior lives of their children. I know guns and our freedoms are your topic… so I feel a little like I’m going rogue here… but there was a way to keep this troubled young man and guns from crossing paths… and the single most responsible adult in his life chose not to do so.

    • I agree, Jennifer. I guess the news today is that she was trying to institutionalize him, which should revive the issue of how hard it is to do that in America, to get serious residential help. I keep trying to imagine scenarios where her guns make sense. The daughter of a gun fancier? A way to empower herself? For self-protection, even a small dog beats a gun, however, because a barking dog usually prevents the need for any additional defensive action.

  5. I agree with your thoughts. Guns don’t kill. Need people to pull the trigger. Safety of children should be the real topic here. Schools need to be safe and secure. Places of learning can’t be prisons. Kids need to dream and have hope. One mad man should not mark a school system.

  6. Jeff

    Nice, thoughtful post, Richard.