This country seems to be locked into an endless battle about guns. Many of those in the pro-gun culture argue that theirs is really an argument about freedom; that their guns are needed as an ultimate protection against tyranny. They constantly cite the Second Amendment and argue that in collecting weapons they are, in fact, upholding and somehow protecting the Constitution. There is also among gun enthusiasts a good deal of talk about an armed citizenry protecting the country from hostile takeover. And, there is a constant paranoid concern that somehow our own government is plotting to take their guns away.

For many outside the gun culture, there is often genuine puzzlement about what those people are doing. Critics assume that they are simply being irrational. But, people are not irrational. People are always rational (If there is a hopeless schizophrenic who believes that there is a steel band around his head which is getting tighter all the time, it is perfectly rational to try to get if off, even if no one else can see it.). So, why is it that rational lovers of guns can seem so irrational to others?

Some pro-gun arguments do seem irrational: Gun lovers constantly argue that people need guns “for protection”. Some may show up with revolvers at school board meetings during which no one has been killed in the entire history of the Republic, and argue that they need to be armed for protection! When every study shows that people are in greater danger because of an increase in guns (including far more successful suicides), it seems unlikely that “protection” is the real reason that gun enthusiasts need guns.

Gun promoters will argue that people need guns because we may be invaded or that the government could be taken over by hostile forces. Thousands of guns in the hands of armed citizens could protect that kind of takeover from happening. They often refer to the Jews in Germany before World War II. If the Jews had been armed then the holocaust would have not happened. Maybe! The fact that entire Russian military, our own military might, and whole countries in Europe had difficulty defeating the Germans does make it seem unlikely that a few untrained citizens with guns, isolated in ghettos, would have been more successful.

Guns can be objects of technological beauty. Gun enthusiasts argue that they should be loved and collected for their beauty. Guns are, in their own way beautiful, and it is understandable that some people would be fascinated by them. The workmanship on some weapons is truly amazing. But, is that the real reason that so many are attracted to them? Paintings are beautiful. Woodworking can produce great beauty. Lots of things are beautiful. But, if most buyers of AR-15’s were to be honest, would they really argue that they wanted a weapon like that because it was esthetically pleasing. Not really likely!

A suggestion: We live in a world in which, by historic standards, the relationships between the sexes have changed with stunning rapidity. To many men, in this new world their very manhood seems threatened. To many, having guns seems to be about masculinity. (One doesn’t have to be a deep Freudian to recognize that the constant rage about “taking our guns away” does have to do with masculinity.). People concerned about fears that are so personal may, themselves, not recognize the source of their fears. They will project those fears on to things outside. At the extreme, think of all those people in the last forty years who joined in local militias and went out in the woods to train because the Communists might come and they had to be ready. When Communism in Russia ended back in 1991, militia members argued, briefly, that they were defending against the Chinese. And then, when it became obvious that the Chinese couldn’t get here, they decided they were defending against our own government. They talked about Waco and Ruby Ridge.

Those people training in the woods were clearly driven to respond to those outside threats in a way that most gun enthusiasts would not, but the inner dynamics may be the same. The core need is for the guns and what they symbolize. The threats out there are needed because they provide a justification for having the guns. Because those threats are out there they make owning the guns seem rational, but the need is for the guns. The real source of that need lies inward.

People, particularly more rural ones, have built a whole culture around guns and around the threat to those guns. We can imagine groups of cavemen sitting around their fires cudgeling their weapons. And, in their case that made sense. Their lives would depend on those weapons. Today’s gun enthusiasts can sit around talking about their weapons too. And they do. Gun ownership can be intensely social (It can also foster a kind of prolonged adolescence.). But this is not really the Cro-Magnon world. The wild frontier may exist in our imaginations but the majority of Americans have been living in suburbs for the last forty years. Good hearted gun owners need to work toward reducing paranoia among enthusiasts. While their fellow gun owners defend against imaginary enemies, too many innocent people are dying horrible deaths.

If we take the ten richest economies in the world, including our own, we are more than twenty times apt to be killed by gunfire than in the others. Many will blame that disparity on the National Rifle Association and its support of political candidates who are something less than profiles in courage. The truth may well be that the Rifle Association is as effective as it is, only because of the hidden need of gun owners to protect not the Constitution, but their manhood.

“The fault dear Brutus, lies not within the stars, but with ourselves . . . “

H.J. Rishel


Retired political science professor of 40+ years. Educated at Olivet, UofM, MSU, Northwestern, & Harvard. Hoping to make politics a fun & exciting topic for all