Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Historical and Psychological Explanations for Gun Culture

The debate about gun control again rages, in the wake of a shocking mass killing. Proponents of gun control argue that European and other countries have stricter gun laws and far fewer shootings. But no one seems to be asking the question: Why do those other countries have stricter gun laws? Why do we have lax gun laws and enforcement and a strong gun culture? The answers can be found in our history and in psychology.

The basic motivator for most behaviors is fear.  The first white settlers to the US were mostly fleeing religious persecution. Many Americans don't think about how and why we have the freedom of religion that's enshrined in our First Amendment and doesn't exist in most other countries. How bad was the governmental persecution that prompted people to get in a boat and travel thousands of miles to a wilderness? No one takes such a step unless they are motivated by fear for their lives and for their basic rights.

Later, Britain took control over the US settlements as a colony, with all the exploitation and oppression that that involves. Today, when most people think of "colonialism," they think of white people oppressing brown and black people, not white people oppressing other white people--even though a colonial conflict persists in Northern Ireland. This confusion, especially in the minds of young people, is because of a type of political correctness that has infected education in the US. The early American colonists lived in fear and hatred of the British overlords. European countries have long histories of warfare and conflict, but those conflicts were between established states or tribal or feudal groups that were loyal to their leaders. People felt oppressed by foreign invaders or would-be invaders, not by a foreign occupying power. There is a deep psychological difference. To be ruled over by a foreign, oppressive force in your own country leaves a psychological impact that warfare alone does not. One could compare it to the difference between stranger rape on the street and growing up being sexually abused by one's stepfather.

To make matters worse, the settlers settled in an already occupied country, and were engaged in frequent conflict with the Native Americans. This history has little parallel with anything that happened in Europe--at least not since Europe in prehistoric times.  And, the Americas were wild. Wolves and bears went extinct in England before the contemporary era, but even today humans in the US are still occasionally attacked by bears and mountain lions. The American West was sparsely populated, and law enforcement was often in the hands of civilians.

The cultural memory of being surrounded by threats and ruled by an oppressive foreign government is fairly fresh.  When people talk about the Second Amendment, they aren't talking about shooting guns as a pastime. They are talking about a cultural fear that is deeply embedded in our country, a fear that our government may exploit or oppress us and use their monopoly on arms to do so, and a fear that our neighbors also may be a threat and there will be no one who will come to our aid.  The more culturally homogenous and older nations of Europe don't have these deep-seated cultural fears.

There are more recent historical and sociological phenomena that have led to mass shootings both in the US and in Europe. The status of white men is in decline. Most of the shooters have been white males. There is a widespread erroneous belief that poverty leads to both interpersonal violence and to rebellions. In fact, history's revolutions have typically occurred when a middle class has felt exploited or treated unfairly. When the middle class believes they aren't getting something that's due to them, they will rebel--the French Revolution is a good example. Today's white males are given messages from popular culture--such as from pornography, advertising, and films--that they are entitled to women's bodies, to consumer products and to status--yet in reality they are living in a society in which they have less privilege than their fathers did. This sets up a belief among young white men that they are getting shafted--that they aren't getting what's due to them.

A culture steeped in fear of government oppression and fear of a dangerous environment creates a gun culture. Who would give up their guns if they thought they might be needed to overthrow a tyranny or protect against civil strife? Meanwhile, recent historical and cultural changes have created a demographic of entitled yet resentful young males. Mix in disorders that I've previously identified in this blog as being implicated in mass violence--sociopathy, narcissistic personality disorder and delusional disorder--and the only surprise should be that there aren't more mass shootings.

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