Archive for February, 2013

Guns, Games, Movies and the Violence Connection

Father Larry


I love guns. I have played with them, fired them, owned them all my life – well actually I don’t think I have gone shooting now in almost forty years, but I do own a .22 pistol and a 20-gauge shotgun that belonged to my older brother Tom. Along with an opal tie clip, he hadn’t worn in years, they are about the only tangible connection I have with his memory. I don’t care anything about the rapidity with which any gun can be fired, the number of rounds it holds, or its firepower. This may sound strange, but I enjoy the ascetics, the artistry, the shape and feel and color of particular guns much as one might appreciate a modern abstract sculpture. I am especially fond, for example, of the 1849 cap and ball 36 caliber Navy Colt. I think it is beautiful.

I cannot remember the first time my brother allowed me to shoot the single shot .22 bought with the money he earned as a shoeshine boy. It was sometime before my seventh Christmas — the Christmas my mother gave me a Marksman pellet pistol as one of my presents. I love guns but I have never been a hunter. When I was young I spent hours plunking tin cans rusting on the ground or shooting them out of the air at the little dump down by the canal, but unlike the men in my family who hunted deer, and game birds, and shot rabbits and squirrels down on the river, I never found pleasure in killing any living creature — was always repelled by the notion. I love guns and I know there are others who love them even more. But we live in a world in which for everyone to live well we must be able to set aside personal interests and desires for the greater common good.

Perhaps it is because I am politically and philosophically ignorant of the nuances of democracy, or just unappreciative of its refined elegance, but it would not bother me one whit if every gun, perhaps I should say in the words of the right wing, if every “weapon,” were collected and melted down and made available for something human like building a bridge. It would not disturb me in the least were every violent video game destroyed, every movie depicting psychotic mayhem and rape banned. If a two hundred twenty-five year old document written for the political governance of an agrarian society, protected by volunteers carrying their own simple personal muskets, cannot be interpreted in such a way as to meet the challenges of an overcrowded and chronically volatile urban world, then something is amiss either with the interpreters or with that document. It is insane to believe that the authors of the U.S. Constitution thought that every mother’s daughter or son had the inalienable right to wander around with a highly lethal assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition just because they imagine any day now they may be called upon to violently oppose the government elected by the people. When the Constitution itself becomes an instrument in the hands of the fearful and angry to bludgeon the peaceful and innocent something is terribly wrong. And, if it should ever become necessary to resist a tyrannical and oppressive government, Gandhi, followed by Martin Luther King, Jr., certainly showed a better way.

The grasping langoustes snatch and seize all the power and money on the beach so that real freedom, the freedom that comes from living in a peaceful and benevolent community is lost. Indeed, most people are ill equipped to resist the arguments of the Crustacean brain. This is due in part to thinking in our Western World in a way that is almost totally linear, thinking strictly in terms of cause and effect. So, when the producers of violent video games insist that there is no scientific evidence proving their games contribute to violent behavior and thinking, or the film industry asserts that the graphic depiction of psychopathic savagery has no part in the shaping of the human mind and spirit, or the National Rifle Association argues that the banning of assault weapons, statistically, has no direct impact on crime or the slaughter of children, their arguments seem more compelling than they are. They seem more compelling than they are because in the Western World we tend to think in terms of direct cause and effect rather than trusting our intuition and common sense or thinking holistically.

There is another way of thinking that can be more helpful in resolving the hideous violence that plagues our society. Superior, I believe, to primitive reactive Crustacean instinct, is thinking systemically. Systemic thinking views the parts of the whole in relationship to each other. If, for instance, one studies the environment as a system, as an ecosystem, then air, water, plants, animals are studied, not in isolation from one another, but in how they work together. In systems thinking problems are viewed as parts of a whole, and in terms of their relationship, their interaction, with all the other parts.


The point is that the NRA is in one sense correct – guns are not the problem. Video games are not the problem. Bad and violent movies are not the problem. The problem is that each systemically fuels an increasingly violent and chaotic American culture. Recently my wife and I went with our grandchildren to see The Hobbit. I enjoyed going to the movies with the grand kids – watching The Hobbit not so much. It really did not communicate Tolkien’s wonderful sense of adventure. It was little more than a noisy series of frightening events rather than the coherent story of a courageous quest. It is a number of pages into my copy of the novel before Bilbo Baggins traveling in the fellowship of the Dwarves encounters the three trolls who threaten to eat him and his companions. Through trickery the trolls are kept debating how to best serve up Bilbo and his friends as a meal until the sun suddenly rises and they are turned to stone. In the novel this episode is integral to the whole story. The filmmakers obviously did not think this exciting enough, and at this point in the film introduce an entirely extraneous subplot – an evil and monstrous goblin of enormous size and strength, astride a ferocious warg (a kind of giant wolf), races after Bilbo and his friends, determined to extract horrible vengeance for the arm the goblin lost in trying to kill dwarves. Obviously this sequence is inserted for no reason other than to furnish moviegoers with the expected quotient of meaningless and mindless terror to which they have become addicted. Now, is it likely these scenes from The Hobbit will be the direct cause of a heinous act of violence? Certainly not, but they do represent a part of the systemic problem.

The National Rifle Association, which adamantly and stridently “fights” (its own word) any reasonable or sensible regulation of firearms, has just released its own electronic target shooting game – an electronic game that includes practice with an assault weapon. It is advertised as appropriate for age four and up. The target is, in the words of the news media, “coffin shaped.” Coffin shaped!? Not a coffin shaped for Bambi, or Old Yellower, or Pepe Le Pew. But a coffin shaped for a human being – a coffin, a human target, with red spots to mark the brain and the heart.  Suitable for age four – shaped for age four. Will this target game, will the attitude and utter stupidity of the NRA, create another Columbine, Aurora, or Sandy Hook? No. Not directly. But it is systemically connected.

Was Sarah Palin, and her fellow conservative Republicans, in depicting certain congressional districts in the cross hairs of a deadly weapon, in their suggestive remarks of violence against democrats, like in tweeting ”Don’t Retreat – Reload!” directly responsible for the carnage at Casa Adobes? Was Sarah and her ilk, in the use of the innuendo of violence, linked in some direct cause and effect relationship to that shooting of eighteen people at that peaceful and appropriate political rally in a Safeway parking lot, or the six deaths that occurred there, including that of a little nine-year-old girl? Of course not. We understand that there was no “scientific link” to this event, or to the critical wounding of Congress Woman Gabrielle Giffords that day, a wounding from which neither she nor her family will ever fully recover. No, there is no direct cause and effect link. But the level of rhetorical hostility, the violent and provocative images and language, is part of the whole and was interacting that day with every other part — including Loughner’s mental illness. Everything, absolutely everything, is connected.

The other night I watched an interview with one of the Sandy Hook families. A bright and highly articulate little boy, whose sister was among the innocents murdered, expressed his confidence that reasonable means of gun control could be found. He suggested that maybe hunters could store their rifles in designated secure facilities and check them out when they wanted to go hunting. And that similarly target shooters could leave their guns secured at a shooting range but have them readily accessible whenever they wanted to target shoot. But we know the chances of something that simple and sensible happening is far less likely than a large meteor hitting the Earth. Why is it that the American people are so polarized on issues like gun control? Why is it that intelligent reasoning, good will, and common sense cannot resolve the controversy? Systems thinkers, like the late Edwin Friedman, would suggest that it is because a large and growing segment of the population is psychologically and spiritually stuck – stuck in fear and anger. Their vehement opposition to everything from reasonable gun control to thoughtful immigration reform has to do with being trapped in an anxious and reactive state of mind rather than possessing the confidence or capacity for responsive and intelligent problem solving. It is difficult to imagine how any society incapable of self-regulation can endure for long.

So, why would anyone want to support a comprehensive ban on weapons of human destruction? Why would anyone want to support the reasonable regulation of violence in films and on television? Why should anyone care about ending the inhuman, mindless, addictive violence of electronic games? I would think one reason people might want to support such an agenda is that they would like to live in a kinder, gentler, more peaceful world. And the only way to do that is to change the whole by paying attention to the interaction of its parts. One thing is for certain; as long as we allow the angry, fearful and greedy voices among us to drown out the voices of “our better angels” we will continue to be caught in that black maelstrom that seeks to swallow whatever light there is. It is difficult and not easy, but always we do well, are well, when we do our best, day by day, to follow that voice above us and within us that says, “Let go the fear.” Yes, for the sake of our children we need to let go of the fear and anger and do the responsible thing.

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