I've been taking kickboxing with a mad Russian for a couple of years now, learning the proper technique for smashing my fist through another man's brain stem. I've taken the N.R.A. handgun course (I got a perfect score on the exam) so I could get a license to carry a concealed weapon if I wanted to. I've also had long debates with friends who believe that violence in men is not innate.
I'm not so sure.
My desire to pound a heavy bag or the rush I get holding a gun are things I can't explain. It scares me enough that I pursue activities -- working out and meditation -- designed to control my aggression. I have to work at being the man I want to be, rather than the animal I might be if I succumbed to my basest instincts. Despite having been born to a longstanding Quaker family, pacifism still doesn't come naturally.
My theory, though I obviously can't prove it, is that male violence and our affinity for guns is tied to the pressures we face. Society tells us that we should be achievers and stay-at-home dads, breadwinners and emotionally present husbands, fighters and peacemakers -- all at the same time. When I punch a heavy bag, fire a handgun at the range, or watch mixed martial arts, it's a way to unleash the rage that's welling up inside me.
So as much as it makes us uncomfortable, guys, we all have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, "What is going on? Why do we love guns and violence so much?"
Here are a few voices from those on the front lines of the battle over guns, manhood and violence in American society:
I've owned firearms for about 35 years. I've used them for fun, I've used them for work and I've been forced on two occasions to use them against other human beings. I freely admit having to shoot a man is something that has haunted me every day of my life. I have good friends and a stellar family, which has helped a great deal over the decade between the event and today. Nobody ever wants to shoot someone; if they're normal, it's a wretched, heartbreaking circumstance.
I absolutely condemn any notion that having a gun makes anyone "manly." That's ridiculous and absurd. Like many, after the tragedy with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona happened last month, I have spent a lot of time evaluating how a tragic shooting like that happened. And I want to be crystal clear: The only person responsible for that shooting is the apparently mentally deranged, sick young man. As a country, we need to do something about the crisis of under-treated mental illness among our veterans and other mentally ill Americans who can't get the help they desperately need. We need to ask ourselves if Americans with mental illness should have access to firearms.
I will take the liberty to tell you that I own a lot of firearms. I hunt and fish. Deer rifles, 10-gauge, 12-gauge, 20-gauge. I've been doing it for 35 years. It's part of my life and family. But I don't own a pistol, and I couldn't imagine having a firearm, because I wouldn't know what do with 30 rounds. Those guns are made to kill people.
-- Ed Schultz, host of MSNBC's "The Ed Show"
I was four years old when a bullet took my father away from my brother and me. He was gunned down during an argument over money. Now I'm 35, and I think a lot about the relationship with him that was stolen from me due to senseless violence. For many men, especially men of color, that has become the way that arguments and disputes are handled. It's up to individuals like myself and those personally affected by such violence to take a stand and speak out. Only then can we see real change.
-- Cyrus Webb, host of "Conversations Live," Brandon, Mo.
Some people are violent and dangerous, and that isn't going to change. In the absence of guns, knives and bats, even a kitchen pan could be used to commit a violent act with equally devastating results.
-- Jordan Gottlieb, Mansfield, Texas
On July 25, 1993, I thwarted a terrorist attack on the St. James Church in Cape Town, South Africa. Terrorists attacked the congregation with hand grenades and automatic assault rifles during an evening service. I returned fire with a small .38 special revolver and hit one of the attackers. They fled. I then pursued them on foot and fired another three shots at them at the getaway car, which they jumped into and drove off. The attack became known as the St. James Massacre. 11 people were murdered and over 50 injured. The police said that many more would have died had I not returned fire.
-- Charl van Wyk, Christian missionary, Springfield, Va.
I have legally carried a concealed handgun for over four years. In doing so, I have an increased sense of responsibility, and an increased need to avoid violent encounters. This is due to a heightened sense of awareness of my surroundings. I carry a firearm to physically defend myself and my family if needed, while I avoid using it to protect myself and family from civil litigation regardless of the legal justification. Carrying a firearm may allow me to defuse a violent encounter by drawing the weapon without actually using it, but the alternative to not having it would be simply to fight, risking injury to myself and the attacker. An armed society is a polite society.
-- William Elsner, law enforcement officer, Sitka, Alaska
I lost my brother when I was 16. A teenager, just six days younger than I was, shot him while he was on duty as a cab driver. My brother had three children and was just shy of his 26th birthday.
In America, approximately 91 percent of all felons are men, or, in other words, less than 10 percent of all inmates in our prisons are female offenders. Men have a monopoly on crime and violence, and this includes gun violence. There are many reasons offered by experts to explain why this is so, ranging from a lack of family values during the rearing years, social and cultural influences such as violent video games and movies, gang memberships, emotional and mental imbalance and more. And yet with all of these ideas, not one of them completely or correctly explains men's propensity toward violence. It should be obvious to point out that alcoholism and drug abuse are significant factors, if not at the very core of much of the violence.
-- William C. Allan, director of Corner Post Friends, Washington, D.C.
I am a female, a former law enforcement officer and a hunter. My husband is a retired law enforcement officer and a hunter. The vast majority of gun-owning/carrying men are not violent and do not use weapons to bully or empower themselves. Weak-minded and unprincipled men hit those they believe are weaker than they are and use whatever is at hand to bully or intimidate others -- men or women. The theory that men who own and use guns are somehow more violent than a male counterpart who does not is ridiculous.
-- Elizabeth R. Dilts, Orlando, Fla.
I'm 65 and not a violent person, but I am a responsible gun owner and absolutely support the right to keep and bear arms. I'm an occasional recreational shooter. The fact that we have police, courts, corrections officers and prisons shows that good intentions alone are not sufficient to protect us; there are a lot of varmints out there and not all of them are locked up.
Guns are why we are not still a British colony. Guns are why Hitler and Hirohito don't rule the world. Guns are why Israel still exists.
-- Mike Arman, Fla.
I lived in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Discovering that there are actually people in the world who are obsessed with guns was a jarring realization. I mean, here I was, living in a country that was actually at war and had an actual revolution fresh in the minds of the average citizen, and yet I can't tell you about a single occasion where I saw someone showing off guns or glamorizing them on TV. Guns were considered to be a horrible, necessary tool and a fact of life.
-- Arash Afshar, San Diego, Calif.
I've owned and shot guns for over 40 years, and I've trained about 22 women, most of whom went on to get a license to carry and legally protect themselves. I will say that, without exception, every woman I have ever taught to shoot says that she feels more empowered! And only a few of them had experienced any physical or sexual abuse. It's a great equalizer for women who have felt dominated or abused -- as long as they follow the law and constantly check their own attitudes.
-- Jack Cleary, Boston, Massachusetts
In the U.S. we live in a society that is fear-based. Men have not been supported in the innate ability to feel safe in this world. They are taught at a young age that they need to conquer and destroy, and are given guns to create this false sense of security.
-- Dr. Valerie Lane Simonsen, licensed naturopathic physican and shaman, Hawaii
My husband and I are both gun owners. We live in Virginia. I inherited my 12-gauge shotgun from my dad, and I was an N.R.A. member and sharpshooter bar three with my own .22 rifle when I was nine years old. Those of us from the middle of the country (Arkansas and Oklahoma) grow up handling guns safely, and many help our parents and grandparents feed the families with hunting. Guns have always been precious tools for survival.
My husband is a retired Marine and an N.R.A. shooting instructor. He loves target shooting, but only last year went on a hunting trip. The antelope he shot has fed us for six months, and we are grateful. So, yes, we are pro-gun people. We accept that guns are a fact of life in the U.S.
-- Sherrye Landrum, Virginia
As a Marine, I learned that guns were not bad. They were for protecting yourself and others -- killing only when necessary to protect life. That organic self-others balance is not being understood or has been lost in our society; now it is skewed toward the self. Over-emphasis on self-protection insidiously turns into self-projection. Guns are sometimes wielded by the untrained to make a statement about personal power or invulnerability -- and when I say untrained, I mean untrained in moral values. And this can lead to inappropriate use of them. We see the phenomenon in M.M.A., as well. Martial arts, which was also designed as a set of self- and others'-protection skills, has become more about proving personal toughness or manliness -- or even womanliness. But the problem is not the gun or the martial arts skills; the problem is values.
As early as it was legal for me to do so, I began carrying a gun. I carry a gun out of love for my wife, daughter and fellow citizens. I don't know if I could handle seeing someone carry out a violent act on an innocent person, knowing that if I had done my due diligence, I could have prevented it. It's a love for life and people that compels me to carry. And for what it's worth, I've gone through safety training and take safety seriously.
-- Stephen Smith, Bellingham, Wash.
Men are unconsciously attracted to guns because guns are phallic symbols. Therefore, they make men feel more manly and powerful. Men are also more likely to consume violent media -- movies, video games, TV, music -- which cumulatively makes them more aggressive. The epidemic of guns and violence is due not only to years of violent media being consumed, but also to men feeling increasingly emasculated in a scary world.
-- Carole Lieberman, M.D., former chair of the National Coalition on TV Violence, Los Angeles, Calif.
Read more here.
Follow Tom Matlack on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tmatlack