Mental Imagery of the Gun

The image of the gun has unique meaning for many Americans.

Posted Mar 14, 2018

Wikimedia/used withp[ermission
"Shoot First", artist Christopher Dombres
Source: Wikimedia/used withp[ermission

If America was a patient on the couch, how would we diagnosis its problems? And what would wellbeing and health look like? These are questions posed by depth journalist Pythia Peay in her comprehensive America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture, a collection of interviews with internationally renowned mental health experts.         

First, this is a patient prone to violence. Violent deaths are more common in America that in any other industrialized nation. We possess more guns (88 guns per 100 people) and have more gun deaths (10 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people) that any other country. 

Peay suggests our laws won’t address the problem of guns until we gain more awareness of the psychological factors around the meaning of guns in our society and this bring deeper awareness into our collective discussions and debates over gun control.

The mental image of the gun carries unique historical significance in the American collective unconscious. In Jungian psychology, the collective unconscious is the part of the mind that we inherit from ancestral memory, that we are endowed with by preceding generations. Freud believed such aspects of memory were passed on genetically through the id, the instinctual and most primitive components of the personality.  Peay interviews mental health professionals and argues guns have become a talismanic object in America, taking on the near significance of a religious symbol.   

The image of the gun permeates our sense of national identity, beginning with the pivotal role it played in the early colonies fight for freedom against British tyranny.  When pioneers settled the Western frontier the gun was a central object to the heroic stories of lone cowboys such as Daniel Boone and the sharpshooter Annie Oakley.  Similar figures were later reinvented through the films of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.  These heroic characters of our cultural heritage extolled personal qualities of autonomy and self-reliance. Gun ownership continues today as an expression of independence and individual rights. Here is an article by historian and psychoanalyst David Lotto that details how guns were critical to preserving the slave patrols of the Old South and one that argues this history is still alive in the prevalence and popularity of ammunitions among our southern states today.

We have a pathological preoccupation with guns, Peay writes, and our country seems at times like an adolescent still rebelling from a colonizing parent.  Jungian psychoanalyst Luigi Zoja describes the allure of the gun as “a naïve expression of macho masculinity – a show of sexuality and arrogant power.”  Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton explains it this way. While our nation is a military superpower, the most powerful and wealthiest in the world -- and in history -- it is also very young compared to most countries.  Lifton speculates that our country's preoccupation with guns replaces a sense of long national history and a grounded, coherent and stable national identity.

In response to the tragic shootings in Parkland, Florida, The Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia has taken a public health approach to preventing gun violence by introducing a compelling 8-point "Call for Action To Prevent Gun Violence In The United States of America."  This research-based proposal aims to minimize bullying on campuses and advocates improving the emotional health of these communities. It urges for providing greater social support systems and performing routine "threat- assessments," rather than weaponizing schools.  So far this proposal has been signed by over 200 universities, educational organizations and mental health groups, and more than 2,300 individuals.

The student activism that sprung from deadly school shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has intensified at the national level. Today my children along with many other middle school students raise their voices in support of gun control by staging a student walkout, demanding that elected officials address gun violence through forceful legislation. The silent walkout is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. this morning and will last for 17 minutes, one minute for every life lost in the Parkland shooting. 


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