We Are Not Our Guns: We Must Stop Identifying People with Weapons

By Madronna Holden

Updated 3.8.13

The most recent issue of the  American Legion magazine features a full page ad for a working submachine gun which can be had by filling out a mail order coupon and supplying a credit card number. The absence of any reference to background checks in this ad is troubling enough—a recent survey indicated 85 per cent of the US public wants stronger background checks for gun sales.

But there is also cause for concern in the depiction of this gun decorated with gold braid and medals. We should be decorating a person rather than a gun in such ways.  The glittering display is meant to convey that the owner of the gun will share a heroic identity by association with his machine gun.

Linking guns with the identity of those who own them is a ploy used by gun manufacturers to sell their stock – and the vast majority of their profit is gained through selling assault weapons.  These manufacturers would have us believe that challenging the individual’s right to own assault rifles is tantamount to challenging who they are as persons.

Unfortunately, some US citizens seem to have bought this line.  A recent demonstration of gun owners had them displaying their guns as if to challenge their right to carry these would challenge who they are.

Certainly we should think of ourselves–and ways of meeting our needs for safety and security– in more expansive and creative ways than the firepower we are able to amass. At the very least, we need to take the profit motive out of the discussion of gun ownership.   In the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook, which killed “fellow educators and the children we cherish”, the 800,000 strong California Teacher’s Union has done just that by divesting  their pension fund of stock in companies that make assault weapons.

The association between a product and its buyer’s identity is business as usual for ad makers, who would persuade us that who we are is wrapped up in the cars we drive and the clothes we wear.  But if it is buyer beware concerning such products, guns ought not to be on that advertising list at all.  There is no reason to allow the advertising of products whose only purpose is to kill other humans.

Michael Meade, who has worked with young men in prison for violent crimes, quoted the African saying, “Never give a gun to a man who can’t dance” as he used the sharing of personal stories to dissociate these men from their weapons.

Recently, Meade is working on a welcome home project for veterans, using their stories as a way of re-integrating them into our communities.  Making a purposeful place for all is not only the least we owe those who risked their lives on our behalf– but an anecdote to violence everywhere.

Palestinian bishop Elias Chacour relates how responsibility for the care of olive trees is passed down in traditional Palestinian communities.  When, however, centuries-old olive trees are uprooted by the development of settlements on Palestinian land (settlements the UN has declared illegal), the purposeful identity of young men is uprooted with them.

The loss of place in community, of personal purpose—and the anger of that loss — opens the way for the manipulation of certain alienated adolescents to literally turn themselves into weapons as suicide bombers.

By turn,  we see the identification of Israeli soldiers with their guns as they face off against Palestinian farmers in the documentary, “Five Broken Cameras”.  The guns in their hands lead to atrocities  in the heat of the moment– atrocities that escalate the grief in Palestinian communities—and insecurity for Israeli society.

This documentary also shows the fragility of human life too often overlooked by those who identify themselves with their weapons. This is a fragility we share with all natural life, as expressed when Israeli settlers burn a Palestinian olive orchard and a weeping Palestinian asks, “Why burn the trees that pray to God? What have they done?”

Altogether, life is too fragile to carry out our negotiations with any living being with rifles in hand.

As an alternative, Daniel Goleman taught “emotional intelligence” skills to those in impoverished communities at risk for violence resulting from what he terms an “amygdala highjack”– the amygdala is a part of our brain which takes over in such situations. All of us have experienced this phenomenon at the point we are “seeing red” and our “flight or fight” response kicks in.  Emotional intelligence entails skills in recognizing this “highjack” in ourselves—and disengaging from others until it recedes.

In the heat of such a “highjack”, each of us has done or said something we wish we could take back. But if we have a gun in our hands at that moment we may not be able to rescind our actions.  It only took seconds to kill 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook elementary school with the aid of a rapid fire weapon.  That same day, an  attack in a school in China perpetrated by a man with a knife wounded 22 children and an elderly woman– some seriously.  But he killed no one before he was stopped.

The wounded children, unlike those at Sandy Hook, all recovered to go  home to their families.

Given that anger is part of our humanity—and sometimes a necessary component in protecting ourselves—some wise cultures design rituals that limit the effects of the weaponry used to express their anger. Gabriel Franchere, visiting the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811, described such a custom there.  First a person feeling offended would sent a notice to the offender, opening the way to resolution by apology and mutual gift-giving.  If this process did not resolve things, a ritual “battle” ensued, in which two combatants shot at each other with arrows that would not penetrate the armor they wore.

Among Plains Indians warriors who counted coup for honor, it was more honorable to touch another than to harm him, and more honorable to wound him than to kill him. To kill an enemy was the least honorable of all.

What these instances also illustrate is that bringing the results of violence closer to us ameliorates it— we are less likely to use violence the more intimately we face its consequences.  This is the opposite of what happens when we avenge our wrongs with modern weapons that distance us from their results.  A tragic example of such distanced violence is that of drive-by shootings.

A powerful and effective remedy is that of elder vets who volunteered to stand on dangerous street corners that children in Chicago have to pass through to get to school.  They don’t have guns.  Instead their very presence makes a profound difference to the security of their communities.

I once overheard two young men speaking about enlisting in the first Gulf War.  “Boom!”  One of them said, “It is just like a video game.  You are up above a village in a helicopter and you just push a button to destroy it.” This indicates the problem with drone technology: it is all too easy to overlook the person at the other end of such the weapon.

If we need more evidence of the consequences of living amidst guns, we can look at the case of Switzerland, which has both a prevalence of guns and strict gun regulations.  After their term of service in the citizen militia—which Switzerland has in place of a professional army–  those who wish to keep their guns in their homes can do so only through documentation of necessity—and after they submit their weapon to a process that changes it from an automatic to a semi-automatic weapon.

That machine gun advertised in the Legionnaire would be illegal to sell  in Switzerland. So would non-military personnel’s transporting a weapon on a public street without a permit. Further, in Switzerland all gun sales, including private ones, must be fully documented—and every gun in this country has a unique registration number.

In spite of such strict regulation, however, the presence of so many guns provides an occasion for gun violence in Switzerland, which is second in the developed world for gun murders with four times the average of other developed nations.

This statistic would actually be an improvement for the US, which has double the per capita number of guns among its citizens as does Switzerland–and leads the developed world with ten times the average gun murders among its citizens.

The framers of the Second Amendment of our Constitution could not foresee the right to bear arms as entailing the right to bear every technologically advanced gun available today.  It is certainly in keeping with their intent to protect the freedom of our communities as a whole by drawing the line as to the types of weapons we allow individuals to purchase and carry.

As the overwhelming majority of US citizens agree, we need stricter registration and background checks.  We would also do well to disallow gun manufacturer’s advertising of assault weapons.

On a cultural level, it is important to disengage ideas of strength and security from any self-destructive association with greater firepower.  We must work to foster a sense of purpose and inclusion for all our citizens– to foster a sense of self in one another that is larger than any weapon in our hand.


Here is an action you can take to protest the corporate sponsorship of the National Rifle Association and help break the inappropriate links between guns and profit.

Here is a link to “Mayors against Illegal Guns” who share ways to make their cities and the US as a whole safer from gun violence.  Here you can join over 1.2 million others to demand a plan to end gun violence and view an interactive map that will tell you whether your state is doing what it can.

19 Responses

  1. Honestly I think it would be really hard to have the rules of owning a gun similar to the way Switzerland has it because many of the people who own guns in the United States today have never been involved in the military. It would take a lot of things such as protection and hunting out of everyday lives. In certain places hunting isn’t for just fun, but for survival and these people rely on their guns to help them survive. As for the new gun, its not a good idea nor would it ever be to simply give a coupon and credit card number and gain access to a gun with out the proper check. I feel a lot more crime would occur if this happened because then younger adults could gain access to such weapons easier and you never know who is on the other side with the credit card waiting for this new gun. It would be a horrible decision.

    • I agree with you that simply allowing a mail order undocumented purchase of any gun– much less a machine gun– is a bad idea.
      Thoughtful point about the Swiss and their knowledge based on universal civilian service. In this context, I find it ironic that their gun regulations are so much more stringent that those of the US– we actually own two times the guns per capita as do the Swiss. Wouldn’t you think we ought to figure out a way to own fewer?

    • I wouldn’t think that stiffer regulations on gun ownership would take away a person source of livelihood, I just think it would be a way for a country to protect their people, especially if people had to pass a criminal background check and register their guns before they could own one.

      • An important distinction, Mary. My sense is that the gun manufacturers are paying for too much media hype because they want to continue selling assault rifles. But we do not have all or nothing choices: that is, registering guns or having universal background check is not the same as taking away anyone’s guns or livelihoods any more than selling tags for taking deer or fish is.

  2. What we have to look at is that most people own guns for different things. Your most likely going to carry a rifle and a pistol with you when your hunting, just common sense to be prepared in case you get into a situation where an animal charges and a rifle just won’t do. What would be interesting is to see how much higher or lower crime rates involving guns were over there compared to here. Then we could compare and see if it truly is working over there or if it’s just a big hype.

    • Are you referring to industry hype? I am not quite sure what “hype” you are speaking of here.Are you speaking about Switzerland? Their gun violence is much lower per capita than ours. It seems to me the vast majority of those who enter wilderness areas do not carry guns with them. Of course, you might want to protect yourself if you are entering grizzly country.
      What did you think of the main point of this essay– linking personality with guns and the kinds of sales pitches gun manufacturers are making?
      All in all, I cannot imagine why anyone would wish to carry a submachine into the the woods– certainly, no one would not want to hunt with one (as per your sense of what is appropriate to the situation). I cannot imagine trying to clean and eat the meat of an animal riddled with so many bullets. Nor would I want share the woods with a hunter who needs more than 6 shots to bring down his prey.

  3. I think this a very relevant topic with the current news. When things like the Sandy Hooks elementary school incident happened, many people question why some people are able to get their hands on weapons in the US. It is a difficult discussion to have. Many people believe it is their right under the Constitution that they should have the right to bear arms. However, there are consequences in the world today. Owning guns to go hunting is one thing but guns on the streets is another thing. It’s hard to find a balance of control without angering people who feel their rights are being taken away.

    • Hard to avoid angering those who feel like having guns are part of who they are?
      I think when others are suffering the loss of their children, their grief is more serious than someone’s gun–and especially, some company’s profit. I don;t know anyone who could watch these videos made by those who have lost anyone killed with guns and remain unmoved: https://www.demandaplan.org/Cleo.
      Perhaps we need a new definition of the word “arms”– if we take it to mean what it meant when the Second Amendment was drafted, people could hang on to their front loading muzzles!

    • The only problem is that no matter what a kid can get a gun. It’s as easy as walking across the street. The Swiss did it right with only military owning guns, but it would also take away from a lot of the hobbies that we participate in here in the states such as hunting. They are even starting to consider letting teachers carry guns would could only make things that much worse.

      • I agree with you on the issue of teachers’ carrying guns. As opposed to the volunteer program in Arizona (where they found a large number of the “volunteers” actually had backgrounds that specified they were not to come within 500 feet of a school!), there is a program in Chicago in which vets (elder from the Viet Nam war) simply stand on dangerous street corners (no weapons displayed) where children have to pass on their way to school. Has reduced violence there a good deal. We should never underestimate the power of an elders’ presence.

    • It is SO hard to get people to agree on things like this. If you want to go hunting, shouldn’t it be more about the challenge than the actual kill? Maybe people could go back to bows and arrows. Guns do not belong on the streets. I really feel like we need to find a balance with gun ownership and I believe anyone who goes to buy one needs not only a background check but a psychiatic evaluation!

    • People wouldn’t have their rights to bear arms taken away with stiffer regulation on guns. When you think of how much violence there is in movies or video games and how much kids are exposed to it, it’s almost like they learn to glorify the violence they see. Until there is a stiffer regulation on the amount of violence in video games and movies, then I say that we stiffer regulations on gun ownership even if it means that people have to go through a criminal background check and even if they have to register their guns. I know that if I ever wanted to get a gun, I would prefer jumping through the hurdles to get it because it’s just like voting: it has responsibilities that go with it.

      • You have a good point in both your comments about the culture of violence that is too pervasive in this culture–and expressed in video games.
        I like to think that background checks are not a matter of “suffering” but of being a good citizen. Thanks for your response.

  4. This is such a controversial topic as of late. It seems like everyone I know can argue one side or the other. I really think that there is no need for the average Joe to have a gun in his home. There is no need to advertise something that is meant to destroy life. I believe that if you really feel you need a gun in your life, you should be able to become a police officer or join the military and then you can know what it is like to hold that kind of responisbility. If you just want to shoot some things, go to a shooting range and use a gun there. There are so many options for non gun ownership and when the Second Ammendment was written, I really don’t think that they believed people could have machine guns. So maybe we can let people have bayonettes! I just think people need to think about what is important in life.

    • You have some perspectives to share here that deserve consideration. I am hoping we can get past our differences on this issue as a nation as we grieve for the wounded on our streets and think about the values we share.

  5. Gun ownership is very controversial indeed. When I read this article, I could not help but to think of some of the violent video games and movies that our kids are allowed to play or watch. The mission in such video games and movies is to destroy. Then, when they grow up, they may want to own a gun and some end up destroying things themselves. Owning a machine gun is something that should be illegal in the United States unless it’s the military. Personally, while I believe in the 2nd Amendmant, I too, think that there needs to be stricter gun laws and that every body should go through a criminal background check before they gain a right to possess one and it should be documented just like what Switzerland does with their gun ownership laws. The thing that makes this difficult is that while there are people who have criminal background checks and register their guns in the US before owning one, there is the black market. As long as we have the black market around, people can get a hold of guns easier than going to a shop which requires the person to go through a criminal background check and to register their gun.

    When I was reading about Switzerland, I was thinking about something that my dad told me about his family. His dad’s side of the family came from Switzerland and it was because of the stipulation that men had to enter the militia when they were 20 that my dad’s family came to the United States in the early 1900’s, but it didn’t stop my dad from joining the Navy.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughtful response here, Mary. It seems that, black market or not, we need to start somewhere in taking particular weapons out of circulation. Registering each gun made with serial number is a start. If the Swiss can do it, we can. I heard the NRA president say he does not want registration since that might be a first step to taking away guns. But we register lots of things, such as cars, in this country, without confiscating them.
      Also, we seem to need a new definition of “arms” in the right to bear arms as guaranteed in its time and context. Our forefathers weren’t thinking machine guns.

  6. This is a really hard topic for a lot of people in that nation right now. Being a single women who is about to live on her own, I have really thought about owning a small personal weapon for my personal safety; living alone can be very scary and put a single woman in a very vulnerable position. Although I have also thought about getting a dog instead as well. Until the most recent shootings, I was never really that aware of how many people abuse the right to own a weapon and take others lives because they are unhappy with theirs. It seems those who go on shooting rampages may not be getting the mental health care that they require which bring me to assignment 2’s readings when the grandmothers talk about how in our society we send our mentally ill away whereas we should be embracing nurturing them. I don’t believe that owning a gun makes you a stronger person or even a bad person. Its not the gun that make you a bad person, its what you choose to do with it.

    • Thanks for your personal response, Molly. You have some important choices in protecting yourself. What we really need (as you intimate) is a culture in which women and single people of any gender are safe, since we are violence-free.
      Good point about mental health and embracing those who are ill into our communities. Too much of the time school shooters have acting on feeling of being left out. That is no excuse, but a pragmatic way of caring for our communities. And we also need a sense of community such that the “lone hero” is not an icon who can twist his reasoning into, as you aptly put it, taking the lives of others because he (far and away most shooting are done by men) is not happy with his own life.

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