Column: The psychology of life among the armed


For the Valley News

Published: 01-30-2023 10:48 AM

A recent opinion column in the New York Times addressed what I have long asserted as the most powerful psychological aspect of the gun issue in America. Therein Jamelle Bouie writes about the impact that “open carry” has on individuals and communities. He argues, I believe unimpeachably, that all social dynamics shift when a weapon is present.

This is particularly important in terms of schools, where policy proposals for arming teachers are common and many schools already have armed guards within their walls. The impact of weapons in a school environment is quietly devastating. A first reaction of fear is natural. More worrisome is when the fear is normalized and absorbed by children as part of their understanding of their world. I am not aware of studies demonstrating the effect on learning, but it seems intuitively certain that internalized fear and stress about deadly weapons have a negative impact on cognition.

Put aside for a moment the Second Amendment arguments for gun possession. I find them constitutionally specious, but white men on the Supreme Court feel otherwise. I allude to gender and race quite intentionally.

Consider these findings from a Pew Research Center study conducted a few years ago:

“White men are especially likely to be gun owners: About half (48%) say they own a gun, compared with about a quarter of white women and nonwhite men (24% each) and 16% of nonwhite women.”

“Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are more than twice as likely as Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents to say they own a gun (44% vs. 20%). This partisan gap remains even after controlling for demographic differences.”

“Perhaps not surprisingly, those who see owning a gun as central to their overall identity are particularly committed to gun ownership. For example, 89% of gun owners who see owning a gun as very or somewhat important to their overall identity say they can’t see themselves ever not owning a gun.”

Eighty-nine percent of gun owners say the right to own guns is essential to their sense of freedom and they say they can’t see themselves ever not owning a gun. It is uniquely American to see gun ownership as essential to freedom. In most places around the world guns are more associated with tyranny than with freedom.

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I must stipulate to the difference between owning a gun for hunting and owning a gun so as to stroll around Walmart. After many years in Vermont and New Hampshire, I am familiar with hunting culture as outdoor enjoyment and, for some, as a source of food. “Familiar with” does not imply enthusiasm, but we who consume meat are on treacherously thin ice if we moralize about the evils of hunting. Vegetarians and vegans have sounder footing.

But the culture of open and concealed carry is quite another thing. The difference between “open” and “concealed” is largely irrelevant. When a community’s laws and/or common practices suggest that a person may be armed, the distinction doesn’t matter much. I am quite sure I’m not alone in automatically suppressing my speech or action because of the possibility that another person is armed.

That irony is lost on gun zealots who carry as a matter of “freedom.” Their freedom has the effect of suppressing the freedoms of multiple others. It is like the quote, probably inaccurately attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.”

To return to the demographic findings of the Pew study ...

It may seem odd that white men, who enjoy inarguable privilege, are twice as likely to own guns than any other group. Might it be less odd when seen as a need to protect that very privilege?

Of course a Black man intent on open-carrying at Walmart probably wouldn’t make it that far alive. In fact, one notorious case involved a Black youth gunned down in Walmart for holding a toy gun.

And is it odd that Republicans are more than twice as likely to report that they own a gun? Or is it a reflection of a conservative tendency to champion rugged individualism over collective well-being?

And as to 89% of gun owners seeing their gun(s) as central to their identity? ’Tis a rather sad commentary on the contemporary state of American masculinity.

Given the gun-besotted culture in which we are raising this generation of boys, I fear this will not change.