VIOLENCE & GUNS

It is said that the ancient philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras (581-507 BC) claimed that "as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other." In fact, there would be some, not only animal rights advocates and other anti-hunting people, but even some psychiatrists, who would even turn this saying around, pointing out how more and more those who have no problem in killing animals for sport, or just for the fun of it, are very often the same kind of persons who, flipping their lids, end up massacring people.

Unfortunately, there may be some truth in this. I was struck recently, when reading an in-depth series of reports by an American journalist travelling in Bosnia, Croatia, and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, the atmosphere in many of the smaller towns reminded him of many places in the U.S., with guns and cartridges of all sorts decorating bar-room walls. And this was nothing new. The Balkan countries have long been noted for their gun-toting populace and even such a dedicated Communist ruler as Josef Tito was famous for hosting big hunting expeditions that would have made many a Hapsburg era prince or duke envious. With the breakdown of a strong central government, widespread unemployment, and the rekindling of ancient local rivalries, these folks having been doing just what comes naturally -- with plenty of army surplus weaponry to add to their private arsenals.

Indeed, the connection may be a lot deeper than we once thought. William James, one of America's foremost philosophers and among its earliest psychological theorists, made this observation about human nature and its evolutionary background.

"If evolution and survival of the fittest be true at all, the destruction of prey and of human rivals must have been among the most important of man's primitive functions, the fighting and the chasing instincts must have become ingrained. [...] It is just because human bloodthirstiness is such a primitive part of us that it is so hard to eradicate, especially where a fight or a hunt is promised as part of the fun." (Psychology, XXIV)

Of course, it might be argued that precisely because these aggressive urges are so closely connected in our unconscious minds that here we have our best argument for hunting -- as a substitute for war. Bottle any instinct up too tightly, giving it no legitimate expression, and it will erupt in other more dangerous ways. This has long been the argument for competitive sports of any sort, but especially for those involving a lot of physical release.

But, at the same time, even the most violent competitive sports need regulation. We do not allow boxers to use brass knuckles or have lead bars sown into their gloves. And while some hockey fans don't seem to care which side wins provided there is some blood spilled on the ice, the increasing internationalization of that sport has forced American and Canadian professionals to take an increasingly critical stance toward the mayhem that once characterized that sport.

Could the same thing be happening when it comes to our use of guns in the USA? If so, it may be long overdue. In the light of the ever increasing number of incidents of mass shootings in the United States, the general public now seems to be having second thoughts about the right of citizens to keep firearms as available as we do. Most Europeans are shocked or incredulous when they see the looseness of our present gun laws. Even our police feel inadequate when they have to go up against "civilians" armed with Uzzis, AK-47s, and all sorts of other weapons designed to kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time.

But even here, the real problem is not just the proliferation of death-dealing hardware. The events this past year in Waco, as bizarre as they may have been, were only symptoms of a sickness on both sides, one that sees violence as a solution to most any kind of wrong. The propagandists of the National Rifle Association are quite right to insist that it is not inanimate object itself, the gun, that is the major problem. "People kill, not guns" -- at least not the latter intentionally (they are only doing what they were designed to do).

But what these folks fail to see is that it is the mentality that holds the right of unrestricted gun ownership, at any cost, as somehow being the equivalent of a basic human right, that this is the basic problem. For to say that is to make the ability or readiness to do violence to another person a fundamental human value, and this at a time when it is becoming increasing clear that violence in all its forms (even on TV shows and video games -- or as they say in the computer world, "garbage in, garbage out") is perhaps the major disease -- a sickness of mind rather than body -- afflicting the human race today.

Nevertheless, we may feel a legitimate need to return to our ancestral roots from time to time and to hunt or fish something like our forefathers once did even though this same instinct is akin to that to deal death to our enemies. But there is a big difference. Our remote ancestors may have once had to give these instincts free reign in order to survive. The challenge today is quite the opposite. Today we now have to restrain and redirect these same instincts, along with the technologies that have made them ever more deadly, in a way that our survival can be assured. We may not be able to remake human nature completely, but either we adapt to the needs of the times, or our life as humans -- which by definition means a civilized life -- will go the way of that other once-dominant creature, the dinosaur, which was unable to adapt to changing times.

12/23/93


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violence.html 12/19/99