I grew up in a rural place, coal and timber country. People there hunted. Pretty much everybody owned guns. Until they shot their first buck, boys let their beards grow, as a tradition. Gun safety was a high school elective. When my aunt ran low on meat, my male cousins would go into the woods and shoot a couple of groundhogs. Guns were a tool where I came from.
I’d be lying, however, if I said that was all there was to it. Guns were also a kind of talisman of manhood, and, more deeply, an indulgence, not unlike the booze my uncles drank and the Winstons my mother compulsively smoked.
Sometimes, my cousins and their friends would let my sister and me tag along when they did target practice – a privilege, they all made clear, because guns were a guy thing. To varying degrees, just holding a weapon seemed to excite them. Something about the weight of that metal and the power behind that trigger would make even the nice, well-adjusted boys adjust their demeanor, and make the less-well-adjusted ones talk about it too much or burst into weird, high-pitched giggles. They liked those guns. Maybe too much, in some cases, and in ways that creeped my sister and me out.
What we get out of guns doesn’t get enough airtime, but it comes to my mind every time there’s another mass shooting like the one in Oregon, followed by another fruitless national fight. Years after I left what President Barack Obama once famously called the “guns and religion” belt of Pennsylvania, an astute Los Angeles psychologist put it to me this way: Yes, the right to carry a gun is a civil liberty, constitutionally protected. But whatever their other uses, firearms also are a lot like liquor and pornography and tobacco.
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“Guns,” he said bluntly, “are a vice.”
This is one of the safest, most open democracies on the planet. So what inner imperative is this accumulation of firepower serving?
Unlike speech, or assembly, or voting or other liberties in the Constitution, guns are for killing. That gives people, even nice people, a sense of power, a rush.
The more interested in power a person is – or the more worried about weakness – the more intense that rush is. Guns can make a loser feel like an enforcer and a victim feel temporarily equal. The weaker the weakling, the stronger the pull of the equalizer. Guns are a drug of choice for those who feel one-down and are humiliated by that, in the same way that depressed people often smoke and the chronically anxious are prone to get drunk.
There are policy implications in this, and ways to think about guns that might break through the stale, sterile talking points about the political clout of the National Rifle Association and the intent of the Second Amendment. (Your right to a cigarette, for example, ends at my right not to contract lung cancer from secondhand smoke, so why wouldn’t your right to feel safe in your imagination end at my right to actually be safe, in real life?)
Rarely, however, does the gun debate address the pathology that keeps it in motion. Instead, we go around and around, talking about gun laws versus enforcement as if this were an argument that hinged on reason. It doesn’t. When a slaughter like Oregon’s doesn’t even prompt a pause in the launch of “campus carry” laws in Texas, reason has left the building.
But what if we looked at this crisis from another angle? What if we asked why the resistance is so desperate and emotional when someone suggests the slightest dialing back on the availability of firearms?
Some 300 million or so guns are floating around in this nation, concentrated, according to the best estimates, in somewhere between 34 percent and 43 percent of American households.
A 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that 82 percent of gun owners are white and 74 percent are men, in a nation where white men make up about 32 percent of the population.
The majority of guns are being bought by a minority, just as a majority of porn is bought by a minority of users and a majority of cigarettes are bought by a minority of addicts. Only about 6 percent of Americans hunt, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so these gun fans aren’t arming themselves to shoot groundhogs. Nor are they addressing some practical issue of public safety or government oppression; aside from all these mass shootings, this is one of the safest, most open democracies on the planet. So why are people hoarding assault rifles and military-grade weapons?
Why? What inner imperative is this accumulation of firepower serving? What imagined inequality is being compensated for?
Gun lobbyists claim it’s all about the Constitution. But we don’t put up with child pornography just because the First Amendment might be interpreted to protect it. We don’t let polygamists hide behind freedom of religion. We don’t allow demonstrators to take over the roads.
So why – with mass shootings happening on a regular basis, and more than 30,000 people a year dying from gun violence, and enough guns now to arm every man, woman and child in the country – would we let the Second Amendment get so out of control that it kills us?
If a mob of dangerous drug addicts invaded your town, and the sickest among them made it impossible to safely send your first-grader to school, or go for a walk on the pier, or greet your congresswoman at a mall, or go to the Cineplex to see a Batman movie or Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck,” how long would you care about the constitutional rights of loser junkies before you did something about it? I’m guessing not long.
I feel for those who need a gun to feel equal. Like smokers and winos and vaccine resisters, they can’t help needing that feeling they need.
But their vice doesn’t deserve special treatment, and we’ve let them bully the rest of us into perverting the Constitution just so they can feel good. Where I come from, that’s not just enabling. It’s an infringement on my life and my liberty.