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Matthew Chapman Headshot

Guns, Guys, and Gelding -- How to Stop Men and Boys Shooting People in America

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I am pretty sure I can predict the outcome of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on guns today. Reason will not prevail. Nowhere in America is anyone proposing a serious ban on weapons, yet gun lovers squeal in hysterical fear and frighten everyone else. It must be a form of Infantile Castration Anxiety. "Please don't take my ickle shooter, daddy." How else can you explain this overreaction to a public health problem that's been solved in so many other places? Looked at rationally, even the most stringent gun proposals barely qualify as circumcision let alone the full snip (or the Big G as they call it in the gelding fraternity). No, this is an irrational fear, and unless it is understood as such, men and boys will keep on shooting people.

Never mind the disturbing Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, even intellectual heroes of mine have overreacted adversely to the mild gun-control proposals skulking about the halls of power waiting to get their heads blown off. Among the many articles about gun control is one by the brilliant Sam Harris.

When I started reading it and realized he was essentially pro-gun, I pushed on with the apprehension you always feel when faced with the prospect of having to change your mind. I've read all Sam's books, heard him speak, and met him. He is one of the most intellectually impressive people I've ever encountered. If anyone could persuade me that widespread gun ownership is a good thing, it would be him. To my astonishment, he had become Wayne LaPierre on IQ steroids with the paranoia dialed down. Even Harris's great brain: shrunk by terror!



The best argument offered by Harris is that "A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want." The flaw in this argument is that one need only replace the words "most aggressive" with "most heavily armed" for everyone to once again be vulnerable to superior force. In fact, this MAD arithmetic is already at work triggering a civilian arms race in America, a cold war where the enemy is always us and defeat is inevitable.

It is interesting -- and supportive of my castration anxiety theory -- that the physically weaker half of the population, women and girls, tend to be much less strident about guns than men. Most women seem to be either silent, reasonable, or in favor of more gun control. Perhaps they know that a gun in the house raises the likelihood of their getting shot and killed by a factor of 3.4, and that ninety percent of the time their killer will not be a stranger breaking into their house in the dead of night but someone they know. (To be shot by the man of the house holding the gun that was bought to defend the woman of the house from the stranger breaking into the house... talk about irony.)

Facing death by man-plus-gun, but at least not feeling their "femismo" threatened by weapon-loss, women appear to view gun violence more calmly and more expansively. They are afraid, naturally, but want more permanent solutions to their vulnerability than the brief, unearned power-rush endowed by the gamble of picking up a gun.

In fairness to men, women are not so targeted (pun intended) by propaganda suggesting that shooting people is what a potent human does to solve problems and that it's fun. This indoctrination starts at an early age and becomes embedded in the male psyche. And yet, even well-trained soldiers are often haunted by having killed. The truth is killing is not much fun -- not in the long run, not for a man with imagination -- because of the sorrow of relatives, nor is it a great solution even when necessary. If it was, we wouldn't still be doing it. The problems would long ago have been solved.

The infantile nature of male-gun attachment is confirmed by the language used. The Good Guys should have guns but the Bad Guys should not. "Good Guys" and "Bad Guys"?! Are you kidding me? Why not regress even further and frame it as a battle between Cowboys and Indians. (There's a wonderful argument for the gun -- if you're not Native American.) Even Sam Harris, that most admirable of thinkers and a neuroscientist to boot, talks about "ordinary citizens," and "law-abiding citizens," and "judging oneself to be psychologically stable," as if people are immutable, the "good" never susceptible to "bad," the "good" forever immune to rage or stress or heavy drinking or mental illness or addiction to legal and illegal drugs or depression or brain tumors or jealousy or...

I watch Wayne LaPierre and his ilk, who certainly think of themselves as Good Guys, and with all due respect, I do not see "Good Guys," I see "Unstable Guys." Wayne LaPierre's terror terrifies me. Among the fear-based justifications from people like him, though not, to his credit, from Harris, is that the government will get taken over by tyrants and citizens will need guns to remove them. Castration anxiety and clinical paranoia... what a burden it must be.

Being conservative, I guess their nightmare is a limp-wristed liberal tyrant forcing them to drive fuel efficient cars and eat broccoli or face death by slapping. This vision presupposes that the army and various police forces will agree tyranny is a good idea and support it. Even if you believe this can happen and armed revolt is the only solution, are you going to win against the full might of the most powerful military force in the world? Imagine yourself clutching your little Bushmaster as a government drone flies so high above you that you cannot even see it much less shoot it down. ("Draw!" Oops, wrong century.)

If tyranny is the problem and weapons the solution, then citizens should demand the right to acquire missiles, fighter jets, and bombs. They should form militias and keep massive stockpiles of weapons in secure facilities. The current solution (individuals carrying little guns in the face of the U.S military) is as silly as the nightmare itself. America is not Germany in 1939, or even Afghanistan, despite the Talibanization of certain branches of American Christianity. Furthermore, if massive numbers of guns can bring down a tyrannical government, they can also bring down a democratically elected one. (How many democratically elected U.S. presidents have been shot so far?)

Every enlightened adult aspiration is consumed by this timid, anachronistic clinging to the gun. Even Sam Harris, a man whose brain and philosophy I admire almost beyond anyone's (and no, I am not being sardonic) becomes an obstinate and shuttered pessimist when you try to pluck his gun away. In fairness to Harris, he has crazy enemies of the gun-carrying type, and might well be justified in carrying a gun to defend himself, probably from a man who shares his views on guns but not religion. I would be in favor of him having a gun under similar rules to Canada or England, although a pistol will do him little good if his enemy has a sniper rifle. Alas, someone always has a bigger dick.

As Sam correctly points out, however, rifles are not the big problem. They are used in only a small percentage of gun murders, "a marginal concern," and mass shootings with semi-automatics are also rare. All this is true, but complacency about semi-automatic rifles is just a failure of imagination. Imagine four men (most likely religious fanatics or right wing nuts, almost certainly not wimpy liberals) each with a legally purchased semi-automatic and four one-hundred-round magazines. That's 1,600 bullets. Now imagine a stadium or a crowded street or a theater with the doors locked... Now imagine these 1,600 bullets being unleashed in less time than it takes to read the preamble to the Constitution.

If we don't do something, this will happen. Of course. Of course. If I can imagine it, so will others. As I have previously asked, and will ask again when the next tragedy occurs, how many people must die in massacres before we make the obviously necessary decision to ban these absurd weapons? One hundred people? Five hundred? One thousand? All these deaths. All because of a lack of imagination. How shameful it will seem in the end; how backward, how blind, how oblivious to the way so much of the rest of the civilized world takes care of itself.

Harris advises against becoming "fixated on symbols of violence" like Sandy Hook because actually the most common instrument of death is the handgun. True, which is why handguns are so strictly regulated in many countries with measurably beneficial results. But the man who wrote The End of Faith (and allowed himself to imagine such a thing) cannot imagine the end of handguns in America. It will never happens, he flatly states. Among other things, there are too many. Yes, and more by the minute thanks to articles like his that argue that more guns make for a safer society. No wonder so many people are getting shot when there's only 270 million guns in the country! How much safer we'll all be when we pump this up to 600 million or a billion!

Forgive my sarcasm, but this defeatism is depressing and goes against the spirit of the nation. I can't imagine an America with no handguns, but I can easily imagine an America with very few, and since when was the possibility of only partial success an excuse for not trying at all? In what other context do you hear people say with a straight face, "Criminals don't obey laws, therefore there's no point in making laws"? Why even bother to go down a path of evidence or comparison or common sense? Point out that strict gun laws demonstrably mean less gun violence when applied across an entire country -- look at England, Japan, Australia -- and, no matter how strong your proof, it's all for nothing because out comes the ultimate trump card: the Second Amendment, holier than the Second Coming even if it kills us.

How ironic that a constitution explicitly designed to be changed is constantly brandished as an argument against change.

Let's say that the writers of the Second Amendment knew massacres like those at Sandy Hook Elementary would happen and decided these deaths were worth it if a "well regulated militia" would keep America free. So what? Who cares what they thought or wanted in this particular area? These men wore wooden false teeth. If they'd written rules governing dentistry -- "The right of the dentist to plug your mouth with wood shall not be infringed by porcelain" -- would we still obey? Of course not. Why then do we accept their (confusing) rules on modern guns? The poor things were so poorly equipped, they couldn't pull off a decent drive-by, let alone a one-man massacre of 20 children. And by the way, what is a militia these days, and where is it?

If Sandy Hook was just "a symbol of violence," then one black woman refusing to sit in the back of a bus was just "a symbol of prejudice." Sandy Hook was not the full hideous blast of all the gun deaths in America, such a thing would be impossible for the mind to absorb, it was bereavement-by-gun made visible. It was an event so lurid, intense and poignant it forced most of us to ask more general questions about gun violence and our society. Sandy Hook caused many of us to wonder if violence promoted as an admirable solution by culture (films, video games) and government (war, execution) seeps into the troubled mind, the weak mind, the impotent mind, into the mind of the powerless man. When George Bush Junior was president and someone killed several people in a church, he said the man had "evil in his heart." After Sandy Hook, most people, even Wayne LaPierre, seemed compelled to talk instead about "mental illness." This at least is progress. To watch the devastated Sandy Hook parents forced most of us to imagine the horror of having someone you love blown apart. To watch children so young being buried made most of us think we must at least try to find a new way to prevent this.

If this is a fixation on "symbols of violence," fine. Time to fixate. Sandy Hook has made some people wonder, myself included, if gun proliferation and gun violence is perhaps a civil rights issue, its impact so arbitrary and brutal, and so symbolic of everything that is wrong with America, that it challenges any single element of the constitution. As with denying freedom to slaves or the vote to women, modern gun violence is in conflict with the essential spirit of the constitution.

The grand purpose of the Constitution is stated in the first sentence. "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States." The Declaration of Independence declares immediately that we should all have the unalienable right to "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Where is the Justice in twenty children getting shot dead by a mentally ill boy with such easy access to such powerful weapons? How can Liberty thrive when fear is so pervasive? Where is the inalienable right to Happiness for the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of those killed, who will mourn for the rest of their lives? Violence and fear of violence makes Tranquility impossible, perhaps most of all for people so anxious about guns they feel the need to buy guns to protect themselves from guns.

Registration of weapons (if a car, why not a gun?), universal background checks, raising the age for gun possession to match that of car possession, improvement of mental health care -- all these proposals seem like common sense to me, the least we should do. But for violence to diminish significantly, human nature must change significantly. To suggest this is possible is usually to be greeted by cynical guffaws, but, of course, human nature has changed and continues to change. At the very least, people concede we've found ways to moderate some of our more primitive urges.

The Old Testament approves of stoning children to death, raping women into matrimony, and crucifying people. You could argue that it is human nature to have slaves (also approved by the bible) because they improve your chances of survival by giving you labor for free. But civilization prevailed right here in America, and slavery was abolished, despite the many voices saying it could never happen. It's always just a question of how many people have to suffer for how long before conservatives catch up, as most finally have with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as many finally have with marriage equality.

The first step in preventing gun violence is to understand it. That the NRA managed to stop government financed scientific study into the roots of gun violence proves their absolute addiction to ignorance as their best defense. (And proves politicians' absolute addiction to campaign contributions no matter what the consequences.) Nothing should be protected from inquiry. Video games, poor education, the glorification of violence in entertainment, outdated images of masculinity, religion's general failure to modify violence and its frequent motivation of violence, the changing nature of male/female status and relationships, the effects of military training, the tensions of a multi-racial society, the resentments brought on by economic inequality, violent sport -- everything should be fair game. That's a hunt worth joining. The next step toward civilization in America should be regarding a peaceful and safe society as a human right, and seeing preventable gun violence as a contravention of that right.
Luckily, progress guarantees the eventual disappearance of guns anyhow. In talking about the equalizing power of the gun in civilian society, Harris asserts that "the only reliable way for one person to stop a man with a knife is to shoot him." But is this the only way? Am I alone in finding the modern gun, even in its most advanced form, both crude and antique? Something hits something that causes a spark that detonates an explosive that ejects a projectile out of a metal tube. This is a miniaturized canon with a better loading system. This technology, this noisy metal machine spitting metal projectiles that tear unpredictably through flesh and bone (and then often bounce around to injure others), is literally a thousand years old.

We live in a digital, wireless, and chemical age, not a steel, iron and lead one. There has to be a more modern and humane way of stopping a knife-wielding lunatic than filling his head with bullets and risking the lives of bystanders. The Taser is a step in this direction and has saved many lives, but it is too mechanical and its range too short. What's needed is a refined and accurate weapon that does not kill or maim, but is as effective as a gun in disabling an attacker.

The government should offer rewards not for making current guns safer, but for making them obsolete. How hard can this be ten centuries after the Chinese came up with the last technology?