As the news cycle tires of the gun control debate after the catastrophic murders in Newtown, here's a different way to think about the American obsession with guns. It's not just about "the right to bear arms" or a glut of guns and a few unpredictable trigger fingers. Guns aren't just devices, they're a behavior. More exactly, "guns" is a mental economy based on buying and selling self-esteem.

Guns represent the ability to kill other people—ideally, "enemies"—and protect yourself. That is, they promise you control over life and death, and ultimately a conviction of immortality. With a gun, you can feel powerful and autonomous. Just the knowledge that you're armed functions as threat display, giving you status and potentially dominance. In a culture where guns are tolerated or even admired, the weapon confers prestige. Whatever its function is supposed to be—slaying wolves or Osama bin Laden—the gun is a marker for heroic superiority to plodding everyday identity.

In a word, guns are related to over-the-counter nostrums that promise to "boost" your immune system and your sexual vitality, and fight disease and depression.

You can see how it works. A gun is a prosthetic device. Your arm can throw a stone with lethal force, but a gun magnifies that force as a missile does. It functions as a prosthetic limb that enables your body to do what imagination dreams of being able to do. For a vulnerable animal afoot in a world of snapping jaws, weapons meant the difference between dining and dined upon. It's how we're built.

Yet these days, like most "miracle" elixirs, guns depend a lot on the placebo effect. Even if your weapons stay locked up in a display cabinet like saints in a shrine, the awareness of their power keeps working. It's there if you need it. Ah, but what if that conviction starts to weaken?

That's where the American mental economy kicks in. Most cultural practices are, among other things, technologies for managing morale. Religion, law, medicine, media—they all act to regulate mood. As the need arises, they inspire and inhibit, reward and punish, reassure and alarm. News media follow recipes that balance an emotional workout such as the murder of school children with official vows to restore "what is right," and lots of comforting sports and leisure coverage. Consciously or not, virtually all cultural practices work to adapt morale to challenges facing the highstrung human animal.

 The problem is that the reality of death and suffering can be overwhelming. Catastrophes happen. Old verities wear out. Inspirational clichés collapse, revealing that things are constructed and not guaranteed, let alone everlasting. Then there's a scramble to renew or replace old convictions. You can see this process at work in the sudden rediscovery of gun control and civility as pressing issues. Anxiety about society's neglect of mental illness also expresses a reawakened sense that in a civilization we do have some responsibility for one another. You could speculate that after several decades of free market libertarian individualism, Americans are revisiting the idea of solidarity to cope with jolted morale.

For folks who have been guzzling the gun elixir, the process is also intensified, but to a different end. The slaughter of schoolkids not only demonstrates that the favored tool of self-esteem is treacherous. It can also make you feel wrong-headed or even guilty for fantasizing about righteous killing.

This is why the National Rifle Association becomes increasingly shrill coping with awareness of gun culture's murderous effects. The NRA is primarily a marketing outfit, supported by weapons manufacturers and promoting hysteria to keep its fantasy product selling briskly. Its members provide the NRA with testimonials to the potency of its self-esteem formula. Just as snake oil ads play to fears of disease and real or social death, so the NRA pumps up paranoia. Schoolkids are massacred, and NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre calls for emergency action to put guns in every school.[1] The viciousness of his proposal outshines its absurdity. Fortified schools would be ratcheting up stress and marketing gun fantasies to the young as a remedy. The policy would also silently teach that the only response to threat and death-anxiety is more threat display and concentration on righteous killing. Guns imply enemies as paper targets imply a living body. Cognitively they can create or magnify enemies the way magic pills do illness. For maximum effectiveness, potency needs enemies.

In a painful irony, the Newtown school rampage took place during a seasonal contest of fantasies. The Christmas story uses a child to model the need for nurture, compassion, and solidarity. Imaginative generosity ornaments "evergreen" trees to represent a bountiful harvest and maximum fertility in the dead of winter. At the same time the marketplace is selling consumption, prestige, and power. "GI Joe" is fighting the longest wars in American history, apparently to no end. And the NRA is selling vitamin death. 

We can blame media for the paranoid climate, as the NRA does. The more TV you watch, studies show, the more you overestimate how dangerour your neighborhood is. But the NRA itself operates as media, and like media, makes a bundle selling threat. 

The real threat of course is the assault on reality-testing which we see every day in gun politics and elsewhere. As the world rebalances after WW2, living standards in the US have been under pressure. The question has always been, how will we share the pain and reinvest for the future. The NRA "stand your ground" fantasy of shooting "the intruder" targets a shadow who used to be your postwar neighbor.

The flip side of the paranoia comes out in the superhuman character of guns. A comment on my last column echoes NRA boilerplate. "Guns are not the problem. They need to be guided by a person to do damage." And the real problem? "Neglectful parents who (to their benefit) didn't learn how to model constructive and pro-social behavior for their children are a dangerous, growing phenomenon in our society."  

It could be tempting to scapegoat minority single mothers. More striking is the writer's assumption that good parents could have superhuman powers to control unpredictable children. The world is bigger than we are. Accidents and infirmities elude all of us sometimes. Not even the NRA's "proud and responsible" gun owner is free from the tragic burden of chance and folly and inescapable death-anxiety. The NRA and the "stand your ground" lobby don't call attention to the father who came home from Christmas shopping a few years ago, heard suspicious rustling in a closet, and shot his 12 year old daughter to death.

Don't get me wrong. I'm well aware that real enemies do exist. But when the idea of "enemies" is a sales pitch for the NRA or the corporate military—think of the kids our drone missiles have been killing as "collateral damage"—it's time to put the cap back on that hysterical bottle of vitamin death,

1. As Ann Marie Cox points out in "NRA's LaPierre Tone Deaf and Offensive" in the Guardian UK (December 22, 2012), contrary to Wayne LaPierre's bizarre claims, <<There is no evidence that arming school guards or posting police in schools makes them safer. Indeed, Columbine – the incident that kicked off the modern wave of school shootings – had an officer assigned to the site. Yet another recent mass shooting took place on an army base, Fort Hood, where the presences of many, many trained soldiers did not prevent the murders from taking place.>> And in addition, <<Mass shootings at schools aren't even close to the most lethal type of gun violence American children face: more young people die from accidental firearm injury every year than have perished in all the school spree killings in the US since 1960 (150).>>

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