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America’s Pathologic Infatuation With Guns

In the weeks since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting gun sales have soared, begging the question, what is this country’s obsession with firearms?

Last month I was asked to testify before the South Jordan (near Salt Lake City) City Council about the health threat to a nearby neighborhood from lead emissions from a proposed indoor gun range. I recited the federal government’s official position—no amount of lead exposure is safe, especially for children. Many young parents, worried their small children would suffer diminished intelligence from small amounts of lead continually emitted in their backyard, also testified against issuing a permit for the gun range. Despite legitimate health concerns and solid opposition from the neighbors, the council issued the permit. I went home muttering to myself about child abuse from America’s pathologic infatuation with guns.

One month later, after the horrific slaughter of Sandy Hook school children, millions of Americans are muttering to themselves and each other about our pathologic infatuation with guns. In any other country this would be the crime of the century, but its just another week in America. The same weekend of the Connecticut shooting, authorities arrested a psychopath in Indiana threatening to shoot everyone in another grade school with his 47 guns, a gunman killed three people in Alabama, another three in an Oregon mall, a shooter opened fire in a California mall parking lot, a gun was used for a murder/suicide on the Las Vegas Strip, a North Carolina man shot his wife and mother-in-law, and there was the usual allotment of gun murderers in inner city Chicago. There have been 31 school shootings since Columbine.

A sixth grader in a Salt Lake City suburb not far from my house showed up at school with a gun on the Monday after the Sandy Hook massacre, believing he would need it to defend himself. The Los Angeles Police Department says that one out of five children have taken a weapon to school intending to protect themselves. A gun in the home increases the likelihood of a homicide in the home 300%, and increases the likelihood of a family suicide 500%.

American gun carnage is anomalous among civilized countries—if indeed we still deserve to be called “civilized.” President Obama said we can tolerate this no longer—we must change as a nation. Of course we need reasonable gun control, public help for the mentally ill, and to cleanse the scourge of violent video games, TV and movies. But we must also change our pathologic relationship with guns.

Gun sales soared when Obama was elected the first time and again after his re-election. They are soaring again now. Evidently, tens of thousands of Americans believe a rational response to a Democrat in the White House and the murdering of children is “gun hoarding.”

Owning a gun for self “protection” is both pathology and mythology. Gun owners are between 22 and 40 times more likely to have that gun kill a family member, than to use that gun successfully for protection [Kellerman, et al., Injuries and deaths due to firearms in the home. J. Trauma, 1998, Aug;45(2):263-7). Owning a gun may make you feel empowered, but if you insist it’s for protection you’re kidding yourself.

Discussions about American gun violence seldom address the cultural undercurrent that for “law abiding citizens” firing lethal weapons is legitimate entertainment. Nancy Lanza was a law abiding, suburban mom. But she was also a gun enthusiast and talked often at a local bar about her gun collection. Adam Lanza acquired a comfort with guns from his mother who took him target shooting at a gun range. It is a tragic irony that it was one of her multiple, legally bought and registered guns that her son used, with the proficiency he learned at her side, to take her life and 26 others. More gun control may not have prevented this particular tragedy, but a mother immersed in a culture of gun fascination appears to have provided the opportunity and likely laid the psychological ground work for her unstable son to commit this atrocity. Of all the activities a parent might choose to share with their children, there must be 10,000 fun, bonding activities that don’t have the potential to end up facilitating a mass killing.

My father, a forensic psychiatrist I have mentioned in previous essays, was once asked to evaluate a mother and father who had two sons killed by the family’s guns in accidental shootings. When he asked them if they had considered getting rid of the guns after losing two children because of them, they responded, “We would never deny our children the opportunity to have guns.” But that is no more pathologic than the Op Ed published in the Salt Lake Tribune immediately after the Sandy Hook shooting written by Utah legislator and gun rights zealot, Curt Oda, who claims that the answer to school shootings is to arm all the teachers.

No child should be forced to breathe lead emissions because of our gun worship. We don’t need a gun range—proving grounds for the next mass murderer—in every neighborhood. No children should have to grow up in a society where shooting lethal weapons is just another form of mainstream “family” entertainment. No child should have to go to school having his life depend on whether the teacher is a better shot, quicker draw or has more ammunition than the neighborhood psychopath.

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