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.