I’m studying the psychology of the gun from an archetypal perspective. That is, I’m looking for the idea or ideas behind the American fascination with guns. Does the fascination come from a perverted frontier myth or an absolutist view of the Second Amendment? Does it represent an offshoot of the post-Cold War American military expansion, a muscular expression of the “Stand My Ground” laws, or is it a reason for the growing number of so-called Patriot groups? What about the post-9/11 militarization of US police forces, with their SWAT teams and tanks? No one should be particularly surprised that we are currently discussing whether the US government can legally use drone strikes against American citizens on American soil. We might just as well be talking about video games.
The above list of developments or aberrations—depending on your view of guns—can also be seen as narratives or psychologically-rich story lines that might explain our fascination with guns. What we are seeing now between and among the National Rifle Association, political leaders of every stripe and a range of third-party stake-holders are really public narratives fighting for supremacy. If the US didn’t have so much psychological gun baggage, the story-line after the murders of 26 children and teachers in Newtown, as well as in other recent tragedies, would be short and sweet: federal legislation to enforce universal background checks and limit automatic weapons and the size of magazines would become law. That’s exactly what happened in the UK in 1996 when sixteen children and one adult were murdered in a Dunblane, Scotland, elementary school. Under strong public pressure, the UK government quickly passed a comprehensive gun control law. We saw similar actions in Australia. In the US, after a two-week post-Newtown quiet period, we get inflammatory rhetoric from the gun lobby preaching Armageddon, with federal agents disguised as storm troopers populating this phony dead-end fiction. I know of no country in the world where this widely reported, intemperate bombast would not be universally shunned. Instead, it occupies an honored place in the news cycle.
So the gun has a hold on us psychologically, as well as culturally and historically. And the gun lobby has been very successful in appropriating variations of the American frontier myth with images of the lone rifleman as the last defense against the marauders who will invade our homes, especially after natural disasters.
“The Gun Industry’s Deadly Addiction,” published in the March 14, 2013, issue of Rolling Stone magazine described just how far the business has moved away from our lone frontier rifleman. According to writer Tim Dickinson, “The once-dependable market for traditional hunting guns has fallen off a cliff.” Dickinson notes that “As recently as 2008, shotguns, rifles and other traditional hunting weapons made up half of all new civilian gun sales in America,” a billion dollar business. “Today, hunting guns account for less than a quarter of the market, and the hunting industry is forecasting a 24% drop in revenue by 2025.”
According to Dickinson, one reason for this is that “Gunmakers are on the wrong side of the same demographic curves that haunt the modern Republican Party. Its customer base is too old, too white, too male and too Southern. According to Gallop, 61% of white males in the South own guns today. Nationwide, just 18% of Latinos do.”
Dickinson reports that the gunmakers’ response to declining sales and a dying demographic is to militarize the marketplace by flooding it with battle-ready guns. And the strategy seems to be working. “Handgun sales have jumped 70 percent since 2008, racking up an estimated $1.5 billion in sales in 2012. Revenue from assault rifles has doubled to $489 million.
According to the author, gun proponents joked that in 2009 Obama’s election was a stimulus plan for the gun industry. Fear of a black president drove sales. Fear of a clampdown after the Newtown massacre drove sales. But overall gun ownership in America is declining. Fewer than 20% of Americans born after 1980 have a gun in the home. The gun industry faces the same issues as big tobacco: find replacements.
Dickinson writes that the firearms industry is planning to break into unconventional demographics and hook the kids, seduce the ladies, turn shooting ranges into live-action video games, arm those preparing for a civil war, and supply cartels and criminals. He describes the archetypal gun ad for women: “The police are nowhere to be found; it’s up to a woman alone to ward of the sexually threatening ‘predators’ of the city.”
The Rolling Stone piece is a sober account of how the gun industry plans to further militarize America. It is clear that the myth of the lone rifleman, virtuous and restrained, has given way to a deadly cartoon, dressed in bullet-proof garb and packing an AK-47, wandering the byways of America. The gun lobby doesn’t have to understand psychology to realize that their marketing plans exploit the shadow side of America. Thus the fear of a black president, sexual predators, looters, absent police, and a breakdown in civil order. YouTube is full of this madness with dead-enders engaged in battle-readiness training, anxious for Armageddon that is just around the corner.
The late James Hillman, an archetypal psychologist, in his A Terrible Love of War, has staked out the psychological ground of our gun worship. “The fond belief (verging on paranoia) that is solely responsible for one’s own salvation and that preservation is the first law of nature (Protestant Darwinism) in a mobile, anomic, class-ridden society may provide grounds for American volatility and insecurity, but not enough ground to account for the American idealization of the gun. There must be a myth at work. It is as if the gods have combined to manufacturer the gun, are in the guns, as if the guns have become gods themselves.”
The ground of our discussions about guns in America, largely based on fictions and invented history, might be helped by having an archetypal psychologist and a Rolling Stone journalist at the table. Hillman writes about what some historians considered the “invented history” of Lexington Green in 1775, spark for the gun lobby and July 4th, during which only seven Minutemen fired their muskets and only one Red Coat was hit. For the first two hundred years of our history, the gun was rarely fired. It was not the Revolutionary War that put the gun in the hands of the people, but the Civil War and millions of armed combatants.
But this observation might not please the National Rifle Association, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and all those who make money on Fourth of July parades. What if our heralded and highly profitable gun culture was really born on the bloody fields of our Civil War?
That is why gun control is so hard.