MINDING GUNS IN THE U.S.A. 

                        E. James Lieberman, M.D.

     Since no one is born bulletproof, guns remain the unequalled equalizer.
The United States, with some 200 million firearms, is thereby democratic to
a fault, a dire fault unanticipated by its founding fathers. Guns today
enable children to qualify as grownups, without aging.  Too young to drink,
or sign a contract, they may be tried in court as adults if they shoot
people, hardly a sign of maturity.  Kids who murder often use the insanity
defense.  What defense have the politicians and parents who make such
carnage easy?

     At bedtime, grownups watch selected carnage on TV, the newsroom
guideline being, "If it bleeds, it leads".  Why do we imbibe this nightcap?
The U.S. homicide rate has fallen 20 percent in this decade, but news media
coverage of murders has increased six-fold.  Why?

     Although he died before the television era, Viennese-American
psychologist Otto Rank (1884-1939) has some helpful answers.  First, he
points out, we gain from a stranger's violent death even while deploring it.
We, the audience, by witnessing, confirm that we survived another day in a
world full of lethal danger:  killers, storms, crashes.

     Second, as individuals and social groups we interpret the random, the
bizarre, the dangerous to make them less threatening, more controllable.  We
make sense of it with a theory of good and evil.  These theories are often
comforting illusions, ending in paradox:  long life is good; but "the good
die young."  Heaven--a better life--waits but we must wait our turn: suicide
is cheating.  Sacrifice in war is both noble and wasteful, elevating and
depressing.  Young heroes die in order to become immortal.

     Psychiatrists familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder know that
victims of crime or disaster often blame themselves.  We--individuals and
groups--prefer guilt to impotence, and any plausible reason serves to reduce
anxiety. The media and politicians use "senseless" to describe a rampage,
then spend weeks asking experts to explain the inexplicable.  They--we
all--struggle to make meaningful tragedy out of accidents, cruelty,
indifference and stupidity and, when it comes to our gun culture, collective
irresponsibility.  The idea that we get what we deserve has special
poignancy in a democracy, a free country.

      Third, Rank points out that, although we no longer sacrifice virgins
to propitiate gods of war and weather, vestiges of  "primitive" magic lurk
around our cultural rituals and rationalizations.  Thus we sacrifice many
innocents in order to indulge a paranoid interpretation of the second
amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the clear intent of which is to have a
"well-regulated militia."

      Deaths by murder, accident, storm, war or capital punishment distract
us from the fact that death is natural and inevitable.  In the Old
Testament, death is first introduced as murder:  Cain and Abel.  Every day
most of us routinely avoid calamities that claim an unlucky few.  The
media's sanitized morbidity boosts our sense of survivorship, our sense of
superiority over others--but more important, over a normal and appropriate
sense of fragility.  Like children, we need to be told that we don't have to
worry about dying for a long, long time--or ever, if we have faith.

     Fourth, Rank develops the primitive idea that, by stopping those who
want to kill us, we can stop death itself.  As long as we have gun-toting
enemies at home or abroad, the magic keeps working.  The current bugaboo is
international terrorism, an ongoing target for our anxious pursuit of the
elusive enemy.

     No wonder these ideas, spelled out in Rank's "Psychology and the Soul"
(1930; 1998) formed the basis for Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize-winning
"The Denial of Death" (1973).  Denying ordinary, mundane death employs a lot
of people and some amazing technology.  We have our military-industrial
complex and our medical-industrial complex to fight premature death, and an
information-industrial complex to keep us emotionally alive with a potent
concoction of shock and consolation.  We buy it and drug ourselves

     Since external threats bring out the will to live, murder serves as a
pro-life tonic. With the notorious exception of Dr. Kevorkian, television
dramatizes killing when the victim is unwilling.  A social problem arises
when a person wants to die.  Only then do the traditional churches get

     Legalizing physician-assisted suicide would probably prevent many sick
and disabled people from taking their own lives in desperation (guns make it
easy).  Studies show that people fear becoming helpless at the end of life
more than they fear pain, but it's murder that gets covered in the media
while suicide is covered up.  Most Americans--even psychiatrists--are
surprised to learn that suicides outnumber murders by about 30,000 to 20,000
in the U.S. every year.  So much for the media justification of dramatized
murder as a reflection of reality.

     Also covered up by the media is our tendency to be nonviolent.
Assuming 200 million guns and 20,000 gun-related deaths annually in the
U.S., just one gun in 10,000 kills in a year.  Very, very few people commit
murder.  We the people are quite nonviolent most of the time.  A silver
lining, but the cloud is still ominous because when guns are plentiful,
murder becomes child's play. There are powerful forces that want ominous,
excessive threats to remain in effect, despite the preference of more than
two-thirds of us for more stringent gun control.

     We know that "criminal" and  "law abiding" are not hard-and-fast,
unchanging categories.  We cannot predict who will break into the news as
the "fellow who kept to himself," who had no criminal or psychiatric record
before unleashing a deadly attack.  Calming paranoia, individual or social,
is difficult.  It is impossible to be protected against any imaginable
attack.  But the fearful mind-set keeps the primitive magic going on
television with morbid news and violent drama, obviously, but also in sports
(the perfect defense), medicine (the magic bullet; "ER"), and lotteries
(beating the odds).  What we are missing, because it apparently doesn't
sell, is reality drama about the overwhelmingly nonviolent and the often
altruistic conduct of most people everywhere.

     Countries that strictly control gun ownership have very few gun deaths.
It will take a long time before the U.S.--an isolated holdout in this
respect as it is with capital punishment--prevents needless carnage so
effectively.  Remember that we have not had a war on our soil since 1865,
and that we tolerate 40,000 traffic deaths annually. The nightly programs
will go on dramatizing the freak accidents and incidents that horrify and
reassure by distancing death.  Fortunately it's a free country.  We don't
have to watch.

Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press
Rank, O.  ([1930] 1998).  Psychology and the Soul.  Baltimore:  Johns
Hopkins University Press.

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E. James Lieberman, M.D. is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at George
Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, DC.  He is author of
"Acts of Will:  The Life and Work of Otto Rank" (1985/1993) and wrote
introductions to Rank's "The Trauma of Birth" (1924/1993) and "Psychology
and the Soul" (1930/1998). Dr. Lieberman produced the Otto Rank Website at
http://www.ottorank.com.  His email address is ejl@gwu.edu.