Would carrying a gun make you feel safe? It's a claim gun owners make. I grew up around guns. Guns were hanging on the wall of our den, and the desk drawer below the gun rack held the ammunition. As a teenager, I was allowed to go out and shoot rifles, shotguns, and pistols virtually anytime I wanted. Many times, I walked with friends along the railroad tracks in a rural area shooting bottles, cans, fence posts, and the occasional abandoned vehicle.
A gun is a powerful thing. Holding one in your hands, you feel its lethal power. It's kind of thrilling, especially to a young person who wants to feel stronger. It's no mystery why people get hooked on holding and shooting a gun. I recall thinking, "As long as I have this gun, nobody can mess with me."
That thought - nobody can mess with me - is exactly where the trouble begins. With a gun in my hands, my brain was prompted to think of someone threatening me. What if someone broke into my house in the middle of the night? Would I reach for a gun and shoot? If someone else were being attacked, would I shoot in defense of that person?
Then I wondered: How many other people have guns? Probably a lot. With guns in my world, and especially when I was holding a loaded gun in my hands, my imagination quickly inhabited a world that was scarier, more criminal and more violent. So while holding a gun is rather thrilling at first, over time, guns did not make me feel safer. They focused my attention on dangers, mostly imaginary dangers out of proportion to any real risk. The presence of guns did not enhance but actually undermined my peace of mind and quality of life.
I cannot be the only person who has had this experience, though it's not an easy one to recognize.
I cite my personal contact with guns to shed light on at least part of the process by which gun presence leads to gun violence. Think of the gun lobby slogan, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Technically, yes, a gun without a person to load it and pull the trigger is unlikely to hurt someone. But because of the powerful, magnetic and destructive capacity of a gun, picking one up, even unloaded, begins to affect the head. Our society seems to be caught in a self-reinforcing spiral of fear, or even panic. We need our guns because we're afraid, and we're more afraid because there are so many guns. Whenever there is talk of regulating guns, sales of guns and ammunition spike dramatically. It's a kind of internal, psychological arms race taking place in our heads, and it's not making anyone's life better.
Most of the rest of the world sees the United States as gun crazy. Americans are said to love their guns, even though guns make us all less safe. In 2018, there were 14,789 gun-related homicides in the United States, including 1,662 that were unintentional shootings and 1,888 that were in self-defense. But there were 24,432 gun-related suicides - a number directly related to the wide availability of guns. That's 39,221 gun-related deaths.
Police are afraid when they make an arrest because the person being arrested might have a gun. An officer asks for the car registration and when the person reaches for it, the officer might panic with the possibility that the driver is reaching for a gun. I can imagine why a person who is Black and stopped by police might panic and run, afraid of being shot. It's all fear reinforcing fear, leading to quicker resorts to pulling the trigger. And then we have people who enjoy the thrill of holding a gun showing up at government buildings or public protests to make others afraid. As we say, what could go wrong?
Surely this cycle of fear can be wound down. Surely there are some de-escalation steps that would lower the temperature in the culture war around guns. We agree that private individuals should not own anti-aircraft missiles, tanks, or nuclear weapons, so we agree that guns need to be regulated. Can we now talk about military weapons such as assault rifles, and open-carried guns in non-hunting, non-target shooting situations such as political rallies? Americans already seem to agree that a background check and a waiting period should be required for any gun purchase.
Guns do not make us feel safer, and they do not make us safer in fact. Study after study has shown that the United States has more gun violence not because of violent video games, movies, or mental illness - all of which exist proportionately in other parts of the world. Our gun violence is higher because of one variable: we have more guns.
ABOUT THE WRITER
John C. Hall is the executive director of The Jonah Center for Earth and Art in Middletown, Conn., and is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. He lives in Portland, Conn.
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