12/20/2012 02:42 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

'Guns Don't Kill...'

"Guns don't kill people, people kill people." How often have we heard this slogan? It is a tautology -- it can't help being true. No gun ever got up by itself, aimed at a person and pulled the trigger. And people have always killed people, of course. Special forces train their soldiers to kill in dozens of ways, and these can be readily accessed on the Internet. Guns are only a small fraction of the tools of the assassin's trade developed over the course of the history of our species.

In the wake of the Newtown shootings, the United States will again be deluged with calls for stricter gun control laws. People in foreign countries will again tsk-tsk at Americans' infatuation with guns, and assure themselves that their nation's laws mean that such horrors Will Never Happen Here (although Norway is in the lead, so far). The National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (headquartered in ... Newtown, Conn.) will be pilloried yet again in much of the press.

But will anything really change? Of course automatic weapons should be outlawed. Who needs an AK-47 or an M-16 at home? (Other than the Swiss, I mean.) Only police and military personnel should carry guns openly, and concealed-weapon permits should be rare. Private sales of weapons should be completely outlawed -- gun shows should disappear. Manufacturers' sneaky ways of getting around existing legal specifications of weapon design should be sternly dealt with. Background checks should take much longer and be more stringent. The use of a gun in the commission of a crime should double the usual punishment for that crime. Buy-backs of guns should be an annual event. And so on...

While such reasonable legislation should be enacted, it won't change much, and not just because of the 250 million firearms circulating in America. Changing the underlying culture is the only way is make mass shootings like Newtown less frequent. The reaction that follows these incidents (and President Obama's two electoral victories) was an increase in the sale of guns. A lot of comments about recent mass shootings have been made, to the effect that if only the victims had been allowed to carry handguns, they could have stopped the assailant(s) in their tracks. The mass media (news programs, TV series and movies) only reinforce the impression that unless you protect your home and loved ones with deadly force, no one else will -- and that such an attack is likely.

Along with these irrational developments, the use of weapons has been apparently sanitized. Guns are much less personal than blades or other weapons that require direct physical contact -- just point and shoot. The trauma to the shooter happens later. In fact, soldiers have to be psychologically trained to overcome their built-in inclination not to shoot, a discovery made after studies of rifle use in World War II. The use of remotely controlled aircraft (drones) only seems "surgical." The truth is that such killings bring home to the controllers the reality of death, because they have to see up close and personal the devastation they unleash.

Even closer to home is the catharsis that possessing a gun can give. We are by nature always attuned to the safety of our environs -- our brains are constantly evaluating the threat level around us even though our conscious minds are usually unaware of it. If all around us are media messages that say explicitly or subliminally that we are in danger of meeting terrorists, serial killers, rapists and robbers, just the act of purchasing a pistol, rifle or shotgun will make us feel better. There are potent stereotypes of American culture that reinforce this emotional reaction. The Minuteman citizen-soldier, the Wild West stories, the vigilante "Make-My-Day" archetypes of modern-day films, all offer us confidence that owning a weapon is a Good Thing.

And that is the Big Lie.

We rarely listen to soldiers' accounts of combat, even when they are willing to recount them despite the horrific memories that narrating their experiences will evoke. Police officers are also rarely listened to. Historians and statisticians get even less traction. Heeding them can and indeed should puncture the cultural stereotypes, both that increase our fear of the Awful Other and that offer us the false security of possessing deadly force.

A few facts can help us think clearly about gun use and ownership. As anyone who has experienced combat will tell you, such deadly interactions happen quickly, in a haze of confusion (the "fog of war"), and the results are devastating, no matter who "wins" the battle.

Police officers can also tell us about gunfights. It takes a lot of training to be routinely victorious. Hitting a person at 50 yards with a handgun requires real marksmanship that few amateurs attain, which is why most gunfights occur at much closer range. Untrained people hesitate before shooting, making them easy victims, often having their guns taken away and used against them. While it is true that people have successfully defended themselves against criminals with their own weapons, it tends not to be the case. These latter are much less reported; it is not news that sells.

There is also the effect on the police themselves, who have been faced on a regular basis with an increase in the possibility of meeting armed suspects, and that the weapons they encounter will be as powerful or even superior to their own. Some years ago, when I was a parish priest, the churches banded together to demand that the city council purchase Glock pistols for our police officers to replace their traditional .38 Specials, as drug gangs were routinely outgunning them. I was the president of the ministerial association that presented our petition. It surprised the council that clergy were asking for better weapons, but it was a matter of justice to our police force. Things have only gotten worse for the police in the ensuing years. Now they increasingly need assault weapons like the Heckler and Koch MP5. And officers are more and more stressed, both by the better armament they face and the continuing need to protect innocent life. Do we really want police vigilantes like Dirty Harry? As his film story progressed, he eventually left the force...

The stereotype of the rugged individual protecting his (or increasingly, her) own rests on the Wild West stereotype of the lawman up against thugs. "Draw," he says to the gunslinger, and it turns out that the marshal is an even better shot. This is pure fiction. Such duels were rare. It was much more typical to shoot first even on an unarmed man with his back turned -- even for Wyatt Earp. There are not and there never have been Marquis de Queensbury rules for using guns.

The statisticians have other facts. The more guns present in a given area, anywhere in the country, the most shooting deaths. Well, duh. But this relates directly to the gun laws of the state in question.

So what is the answer? Wise gun laws are necessary. Some people really do need to own pistols, rifles and shotguns -- farmers, for instance. There is a rationale for sporting use of firearms, including hunting.

But to get wise gun laws, we must change our culture. That is a job for the churches and other religious institutions to lead. As the Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, Gary Hall, said in his sermon on Newtown, "the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby." It has to be an interfaith effort. It must have the active support of the Federal government, and Hollywood's entertainment establishment also must be enlisted. The key is to counter the almost-unconscious feeling that having a gun will make me more powerful and therefore safer. That is completely untrue, even for military and police. If you need to carry a firearm to do your job, you will always attract trouble to yourself.

The safest way to live is to form strong communities by reinforcing the natural need of human beings to live together. Handgun ownership by its very nature is going to make solidarity more unlikely, because it increases the overall impression that others are to be feared more than trusted. That survival instinct can be very useful in certain situations, of course. But on the whole, our species has always found ways not to let that instinct destroy community. Otherwise, we would have disappeared long before the invention of gunpowder.

After Sandy Hook, there will be yet another rise in calls for gun controls. President Obama has promised the parents and families of those killed in Newtown that he will get on it. We need to hold him accountable for that, but there is so much more to do. Outlawing firearms would not be effective by itself.

"Guns don't kill people," remember? What needs to change is the people -- us.