Guns are many things to many people. They express anger. They threaten and intimidate. They silence speech. They limit freedom by instilling fear. They are symbols of independence and rebellion against authority. They can be murder weapons. They are useful for hunting. And once in a while, they also protect people.
Guns are all these things and more, but almost all of the debate about guns has consistently avoided the obvious: The phallic symbolism of guns is really important. Little boys around the world make plain their understanding that sticks, spears, and guns are ready-made phallic symbols, but it makes adults uncomfortable to admit this. We thus ignore the fact that guns are often used by men who feel very weak and angry to bolster their fragile sense of manhood.
Although many gun owners claim that guns are for personal protection, frequently what firearms most protect is a sense of manhood. If guns were truly for personal protection, the majority of gun owners would be women, who often need to protect themselves from men—but the vast majority of gun owners are men.
Moreover, the medical literature established a long time ago that keeping guns in the home for self-protection is a myth. In a 1986 study from the Seattle area of 398 firearm-related deaths in homes where guns were kept, only two deaths were of intruders shot during entry. The remaining 99 percent were suicides, homicides, accidental deaths, and a small number of homeowners shot in self-defense.
Clearly, guns offer more protection in fantasy than in reality.
Further, no one needs weapons of war, i.e., military assault rifles, for either self-defense or hunting. Their only use is in the service of violent fantasy or actual murder, or of course in a vain effort to feel sufficiently big, strong, and masculine.
Recently, the sexual, as well as the angry, violent, and misogynist use of guns has been inadvertently highlighted by members of the “incel” (involuntarily celibate) movement, at least four of whom have been among recent mass murderers.
Most American mass murderers have been white males, but when the young African-American film director John Singleton was asked about the violence in his acclaimed Boyz in the Hood, he wasn’t afraid to address this aspect of guns, saying “This is a generation of kids who don’t have father figures. They’re looking for their manhood, and they get a gun.”
Singleton also commented that gun violence was driven by feeling disenfranchised. In fact, the National Rifle Association’s campaign to convince the nation and the Supreme Court that the Second Amendment is not a historical artifact of states’ methods to suppress slave uprisings, but rather a guarantee of individual rights to possess modern weapons of destruction, coincides with the last few decades in which white men have increasingly worried about losing their privileged status. This loss of status is often experienced as a diminishment of one’s manhood, and the idea of possessing a powerful gun can feel reassuring.
Men, however, never want their feelings of weakness, their worries about manhood, and their use of guns to cope with these feelings, to be acknowledged. But any effort to control access to guns, no matter how limited, is met with their anxious, angry cries of “They are trying to take away our guns!” The inner child who feels inadequately equipped is still there.
Congressmen and Senators are not only afraid of the NRA’s money and political influence. They also know that men who feel weak and angry can do desperate things and that many of these weak, angry men are heavily armed. Our elected officials are scared—like the rest of us. But like police and firemen, they have an obligation to serve and protect, which they have abdicated. What does it mean that they so lack courage?
One possibility is that the (mostly) men serving in Congress as the NRA’s toadies and mass murderers’ enablers are not secure enough in their manhood to stand up to those who threaten us and them. When they are called out for their cowardice and recognize that allowing non-military possession of assault rifles is a sign of weakness and not strength, perhaps progress toward reasonable gun control may be possible.
Maybe a campaign called “Real Men Don’t Need Guns” would help. In the meantime, in the crude and straightforward language of the locker room, we can only hope our elected officials will “grow a pair.”
This article was originally published as an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun, online on September 13, and in print on September 15, 2019.