Guns beget violence

The conversation about firearms flows back and forth with regard to whether we need more gun control or whether such measures contradict some constitutional or inherent right for gun owners. What can be lost in the argument are two of the reasons that can make a gun so dangerous.

The simple presence of a firearm can dramatically escalate feelings of hostility in almost any given situation. Depending on the intensity and setting, the propensity to make use of a gun can be essentially dictated by its presence. Playwright Anton Chekhov’s rule was that if you have a gun on the wall in Act I, you better make use of it in Act III. Such is the energy that a firearm can lend to even a seemingly benign situation.

I was in a coffee shop in Pennsylvania one day, and one of its patrons was wearing a revolver in a hip holster. It seemed incongruous in that setting. This isn't the Wild West, certainly, and I can only assume that the gun's owner was making a statement about his right to do what he was doing. My concern, in part, was his level of training. Hopefully, we should be able to assume that at least the police have had significant experience in the use of a weapon, but headlines in the past few years call even that into question.

Along with the issue of the power of a gun's presence is the distance that it creates between the person with the gun and the person toward whom it is being directed.

Over time, men have come up with more and more sophisticated ways to kill their enemies. This can be euphemized by phrases like someone being "neutralized" or "eliminated." These are efforts to make the act of execution palatable. A physical fight is an intimate act; you are directly connected to your opponent. A knife provides a degree of separation, unless your opponent has one as well. A firearm changes the equation. The Colt firearm company had a catchphrase that said, essentially, "No matter what the shape or size, we will equalize." Television programming since the 1950s has glorified the gun as the device that solves all problems. It is the Deus ex Machina of generations of Americans, the thing that sets all problems right.

Over time, the disconnection of those who kill from those who are killed has become magnified by weapons that separate each of those populations. Bows and arrows were replaced by firearms and cannons, and those in turn have been replaced by Scuds and heat-seeking missiles. Perhaps the highest form of air combat, besides ballistic missiles, is the drone. Each level of weaponry seems to be further disconnected from the other. With a drone, the pilot isn't even in the cockpit but is watching a television screen while maneuvering a joystick. (That name alone is ironic.)

Despite the distance, the soldiers who pilot drones do experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Apparently the distance from combat is not enough, and the soldiers' empathy kicks in. A fighter pilot was documented as saying that when he returned from combat after World War II, he could not return to hunting on his ranch; he could not shake his reaction to killing enemy soldiers, even though he believed that it was important, even critical, that he do so.

There is a metaphor here with regard to social media. People find it easy to "troll," slander or bully online using the protection of anonymity or the support of others who would otherwise be too cowardly to express their vitriolic opinions. The loss of direct human interaction eliminates the chance of discovering mutual understanding or common ground. Like the propaganda of previous generations, people are invited to see others as caricatures that represent only one viewpoint. No one, not even a person with whom I disagree, is that simple. Unfortunately, the level of argument can strike fear in those who are arguing, but that fear needs an injection of compassion. That's why it's so important to keep any firearms, even metaphorical ones, away from the scene, in order to allow for recognition of the "other" and the possibility of reconciliation.

Gilbert Bliss is a psychotherapist in Towson. He can be reached at

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