Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The symbolic value of guns—and the actual costs

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Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker:

Away from the world for August, in a house without Internet or television and only spotty, the-satellite-must-be-passing-over phone reception, I was, until Wednesday, thinking more or less benign thoughts about gun owners, if not guns. As I chronicled last year, I have only just learned how to drive, and, license in hand, or in glove compartment, I’ve been driving for the first time on the little winding roads of the beach town where we’ve spent vacations for the past thirty years. Despite having been anti-car and ostentatiously pro-bike for all those years, I have to admit that I love being in the driver’s seat. The overwhelming rush of freedom and possibility, the sense of autonomy—no need to request a lift, no UBER app to press—is overwhelming. You get in, and you go.

This in turn made me realize, a little more empathetically, what I had only intuited before—that guns, for many Americans, are a sort of secondary, symbolic car: another powerful symbol of autonomy and independence. The attachment to them that so many Americans show—unique among the civilized peoples of the world, and at a cost so grave that the rest of that world often turns away, appalled—is nonetheless understandable to anyone who comes late to driving: to have potentially lethal power within your grasp is an immensely empowering drug. Cars are obviously in a different category, because their benign use is so much greater than their lethal one. But they are tools of the same country, of which I am now a citizen.

In the midst of this reflection, word filtered through of one more mini-massacre, this one in Virginia. Two reporters had died, hideously, on camera, and their deaths were followed by a disturbing social-media aftershock. Though we will doubtlessly learn more of the psychological details of this horror, it already seems clear that this is one more case where the gun provided a quick means to settle scores—a way for the emotionally damaged to relieve the feeling of being shamed, achieving instant karma through killing. James Gilligan, the American psychiatrist specializing in violence, credibly argues that most personal violence is a response to such feelings of shame and humiliation, and the violent act is a horrendous way of equalling the score. This case seems to belong to that variety of massacre, with the added fact that the killer seems to have imagined that his violence would be an equalizer to the Charleston killings. A similar illusion of getting even appears to have been at work in the shooting of two New York City cops last winter (a killing that has already receded in memory, though not, surely, for the families of the victims).

One of the last redoubts of the gun lovers—those who, despite the evidence, allow the pleasure of expressing autonomy to overwhelm all other, more reasonable evaluations—was that, even though evidence showed an overwhelming correlation between the availability of guns and the number of gun killings, there was still no evidence that American non-domestic gun massacres were directly tied to wide gun distribution. In fact, as a piece in Fusion (which generously cites this writer) details, that redoubt has now fallen to empirical investigation. A new study by Adam Lankford, of the University of Alabama, which will be presented next week at the annual conference of the American Sociological Association, shows a strong correlation between the availability of guns and the prevalence of gun massacres. With the same certainty that David Hemenway’s work established the link between the number of guns in a society and the number of gun killings, we now know that there is a correlation between the availability of guns and the major public assaults that have been a part of American life since Columbine.

And so, for all that we should still strive for an empathetic grasp of other people’s cultural symbols, the simple, unemotional, inarguable truth remains: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

28 August 2015 at 10:55 am

Posted in Guns

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