by Doctor Science
I've spent days now starting posts about the Tucson Massacre and then stopping because someone else was saying it better. Examples: Sady Doyle: "The Arizona shooting FAQ"; Esquire: "The Voices in Jared Loughner's Head Shall Not Be Respected; Julianne Hing: Loughner, Lovelle Mixon, and Our Quest for Narratives; Conor Friedersdorf: Tone Versus Substance and many, many more.
I'm going to just talk about one aspect of the Massacre and the resulting discussion. In brief:
a) we have too many guns, and the guns are too big
b) a major reason for this is that guns are more important as fantasies than as tools
c) in particular, guns have starring roles in our filmed fiction (TV & movies), and those roles are what we think of when we imagine "guns".
As has become usual for American gun rampages, the Tucson Massacre was instantly followed by cries that what we need is MORE guns. If only MORE people were armed, these things wouldn't happen, or they'd be stopped sooner.
Doubling-down on firearms seems to be a reflex, immune to considerations such as:
1. The only bystander who's talked about being armed at the time admits that he almost shot the wrong person before deciding not to fire at all.
2. Plainclothes or out-of-uniform police officers have been killed by other cops -- when bullets are flying, cops will tend to assume that anyone with a gun who's not in uniform is a bad guy. So how would they know the difference between a helpful, armed citizen and the original assailant?
3. An assailant can kill multiple armed, trained police officers before they have a chance to react. Even officers who are on duty can be killed before they can react.
4. Members of the military and police are trained to fire their weapons, and they practice assiduously. I can't find any estimate of what proportion of the armed public actually trains with their weapons -- but I'm guessing it's low, certainly far lower than the pros would consider acceptable. Yet (as the comments to this article, for instance, make clear) gun rights advocates seem generally opposed to *any* mandatory training or licensing for gun owners -- how this squares with the bit about "well-regulated" is not clear to me.
5. Jared Loughner was using a Glock with an extended, 30-shot magazine. Nineteen people were hit, some more than once, so pretty much every bullet hit someone, whether Loughner was aiming at them or not.
6. Loughner was captured and subdued by unarmed bystanders when he stopped to reload.
None of these realistic factors seem to be involved in the thinking of people who say "we need more guns" -- even though many of them say they are tough-minded and realistic. There is a picture in their minds of what "more guns" looks like, and it doesn't correspond to what I see in reality.
In Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant (liberal, redneck, former editor of Military History Magazine) says:
But every once in a while, usually when I am experiencing extreme tension, an image zips through my mind that shows me how primitive and deeply rooted the psychological processes and emotions involved in the mechanics of lethality are. The image is that of myself killing somebody. The squeezing of the trigger, the muzzle blast, all in a split second. Then a feeling of relief. I am not alone in experiencing this flash of murderous imagery. Other American men experience the same, I have learned, though it is so deeply embedded in the unconscious that it takes a lot of discussion before they realize or admit that it does indeed happen.[emphasis mine] What Bageant is describing is a type of psychological defense mechanism. He is dealing with an anxiety (in the general or Freudian sense, including fear, anger, uncertainty, grief) by imagining a violent response -- and the imagined response gives a genuine psychological relief, a brief catharsis.
I have nothing at all against fantasy catharsis, I think it can be immensely useful and healthy -- as long as you realize it's a fantasy. When you try to make it the basis of real public policy, though, it's incredibly dangerous.
IMHO, one of the problems we non-experts have with keeping gun fantasy and reality separate is film. I can't find the exact link, but I remember some months (year?) ago there being a bloglandia discussion about TV and salience with regard to torture, IIRC. Basically, when most of us think about "getting information from captured terrorists", the situations and images that come to mind are from movies and TV, especially "24". TV images are "salient" -- they're what a lot of people (like, say, Supreme Court Justices) have in mind when these issues are discussed.
Even police officers will see far more gunfights on TV than they ever will in reality. For most people -- including most gun owners -- the mental image of what happens when there's a gunfight in a public place looks like this:
To make it clear that I'm not just talking about other people, this is a scene from the reboot version of Hawaii 5-0, my new fandom and one of the reasons I haven't been posting here as much recently. (I don't watch it for the plot.) I may have miscounted, but I believe that in this scene the Bad Guy (gal) takes 10 shots, the Good Guy 2 shots -- but none of that dozen hit anyone or anything at all. In fact, the clip ends as the Bad Guy is about to be hit by an unexpected trolley car, so the gunfire is completely without impact in any sense.
It's been years (decades) since I've watched cop shows, procedurals, or other "realistic" TV-shows-with-guns, so I don't know if this kind of cavalier bullet-spraying is standard for the genre these days, or if Hawaii 5-0 is being as sloppy with its gunplay as it is with its plots -- which are not so much "Swiss cheese" (solid but with holes) as "lace" (holes held together with string).
But I wonder if *this* is what people think of when they say "more people should be armed" -- what they see in their minds is that everyone will be able to tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys in a nanosecond, and that bullets will either hit what they're aimed at or will disappear. These images are *salient*, they're what we have in mind -- we have no mental image of the bloody reality.