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Dariusz Dziewanski

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Gun Control: Should Firearms Represent Freedom?

Posted: 12/20/2012 8:11 am

Over four decades of research on gun violence suggests that the mere presence of guns can trigger aggression. In 2005, for instance, research conducted for the study "Interactive Effects of Life Experience and Situational Cues on Aggression: the Weapons Priming Effect in Hunters and Non-hunters" in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that persons exposed to images of guns, and gun-related concepts, were more likely to have aggressive thoughts.

This may not be surprising. What is more surprising is that this finding applies more to some people than to others. Hunters, for instance, experienced aggressive thoughts only when shown pictures of assault rifles, but not when shown pictures of hunting rifles. By contrast, pictures of all gun-types led to more aggressive reactions among non-hunters. The research suggests that this "weapons priming effect" differs based on an individual's personal experience with guns, and the meanings that he or she attributes to them.

Hunters and sports-shooting fans may relate guns to notions of the outdoors or sporting activities, while collectors own guns because of an appreciation for their technological construction and/or historical value. For others, guns may "prime" aggressive thoughts, because they tend to be viewed as instruments that are designed to kill and injure, according to the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In turn, these people may be prone to consider violent behavior in certain situations.

For all the talk of the effects of guns and the nature of gun crime, very little is said about the role that guns play as social symbols. The gun debate is still articulated by simplistic slogans such as: "guns don't kill people, people do." But in addition to their functional value -- as instruments of security and insecurity -- guns are also infused with a powerful symbolic value.

In some places, and for some people, guns exist as referents of freedom and power. Many will be surprised to find out that gun control in the United States originally grew out of the fear of militant black rights groups -- such as the Black Panthers -- which saw arms as a bulwark against racial oppression.

On 2 May 1967, the Black Panthers' occupation of the California statehouse interrupted a meeting between a group of students and then-Governor Ronald Regan. Thirty well-armed young black men and women arrived at the state legislature to speak about the need for black Americans to arm themselves against what they considered to be racist and oppressive power structures. State responses to this event have been credited with launching the modern gun-control movement.

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  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama arrives at the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama greets Gov. Dannel Malloy during his arrival at the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/The Hartford Courant, Stephen Dunn, Pool)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama pauses during a speech at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama walks off after delivering a speech at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama speaks during an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama greets State Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, on his arrival, before the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting inside the Newtown High School auditorium in Newtown, Conn., Sunday night, Dec. 16, 2012. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/The Hartford Courant, Stephen Dunn, Pool)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama pauses as he delivers a speech during an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama speaks during an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/The Hartford Courant, Stephen Dunn, Pool)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama pauses as he delivers a speech at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    Residents pray during an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama pauses as he delivers a speech at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama pauses as he delivers a speech at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • US-SCHOOL-SHOOTING-MEMORIAL

    US President Barack Obama makes his way off the stage after speaking at a memorial service for the victims and relatives of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 16, 2012 at the Newtown High SChool in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-six people were killed when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary and began a shooting spree. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama walks off stage after delivering a speech at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama pauses as he delivers a speech during an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the elementary school on Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • US-SCHOOL-SHOOTING-MEMORIAL

    US President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks during a memorial service for the victims and relatives of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 16, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-six people were killed when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary and began a shooting spree. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama returns to the White House in Washington after attending an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • Barack Obama

    Residents greet each other before the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    Air Force One carrying President Barack Obama is seen leaving Bradley Air National Guard Base in East Granby, Conn., Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012. The president was in Connecticut to attend a memorial for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting where 26 people, including 20 children, were killed Friday. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

  • Julie LaPak, right, and Scott Emslie, of Newton, Conn., watch President Obama delver his speech at the Iron Bridge restaurant, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

  • A mourner looks on during an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Surendra Khera, left, Manjaree Daw, center and Indira Khera, of Simsbury, Conn., watch President Obama deliver his speech at the Iron Bridge restaurant, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 in Newtown, Conn. The president spoke during an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

  • Barack Obama

    Residents look on as President Barack Obama delivers remarks at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • A mourner weeps while listening to President Barack Obama speak on a loudspeaker while sitting outside a memorial at Newtown High School for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • C.J. Singh, center, and other members of the Sikh community hold a candlelight vigil outside Newtown High School before an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • Residents hold a candlelight vigil outside Newtown High School after President Barack Obama delivered remarks at an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • A young boy places a candle with others at the base of a flagpole outside Newtown High School before an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • Eknoor Kaur, 3, stands with her father Guramril Singh during a candlelight vigil outside Newtown High School before an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • Members of the Sikh community hold a candlelight vigil outside Newtown High School before an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., top right, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., left, Sen-elect Chris Murphy, center, and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, right, wait for the arrival of President Barack Obama before the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting inside the Newtown High School auditorium in Newtown, Conn., Sunday night, Dec. 16, 2012. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/The Hartford Courant, Stephen Dunn, Pool)

  • Residents look on during an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. President Barack Obama is schedule to speak during the vigil. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    Residents greet each other before the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak during the vigil. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    Residents greet each other before the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. President Barack Obama is to scheduled to speak at the event. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • Residents look on during an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak during the vigil. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    Residents greet each other before the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • People wait in line to attend an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • Barack Obama

    Residents greet each other before the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • People arrive at Newtown High School to attend an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • Residents greet each other before the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Kayla Hopson and her daughter Lilliana, 9, left, and Janine Caswell and her daughter Genesis, 8, stand wrapped in Red Cross blankets to protect themselves from the cold, rainy weather as they wait in line to attend an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • Residents wait for the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Eight-year old Shayne Frate, a third grade student at Sandy Hook Elementary School, hangs from her mother Valerie's back, wrapped in a Red Cross blanket to protect her from the cold, rainy weather, as she waits in line to attend an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • People wait in line to attend an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • Residents wait for the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Red Cross volunteer Michael Cianciolo distributes blankets to protect people from the cold, rainy weather as they wait in line to attend an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • Red Cross personnel provide blankets, water, snacks and even stuffed toys to keep people comfortable as they wait in line to attend an interfaith vigil with President Barack Obama, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

  • Residents wait for the start of an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    Residents greet each other before an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • Barack Obama

    Residents greet each other before an interfaith vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, at Newtown High School in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into the elementary school Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

  • A U.S. flag flies at half staff outside the Newtown High School before President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend a memorial for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

  • People wait in line to enter Newtown High School for a memorial vigil attended by President Barack Obama for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012, in Newtown, Conn. A gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Friday and opened fire, killing 26 people, including 20 children. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Similar experiences can be found in other parts of the world. In South Africa, for example, armed violence has been systematically applied both as a tactic of colonial expansion and as a weapon of resistance, as far back as the 1600s. The AK-47, in particular, was widely used in the struggle against apartheid.

There were even concerns during the transition to democracy about the impact that the veneration of guns might have on young people post-apartheid. Even today, guns such as the AK-47 still serve as a symbol of liberation, and more generally as a symbol of the continued struggle for citizenship for those excluded from post-apartheid advantages.

Indeed, in impoverished neighborhoods around the world -- including those in Canada -- many young men pick up firearms in response to a form of "structural violence" that kills slowly through alienation, exclusion, and marginalization.

It may never be known exactly why a 20-year-old boy in Newtown, Connecticut went on a killing spree that left 26 people dead. But too many stories of recent mass shootings have a plot line scripted around solitary male characters that either perceive themselves to be excluded from, or are persecuted by, the world they eventually lash out at. Though seemingly inanimate, guns are infused with a power and liberating appeal that, to some, may be inaccessible in other ways.

The meeting point of freedom and firepower is also where the pro-gun lobby finds its rallying point. In the United States, the gun debate has been largely linked to a desire to for self-protection -- both against a hostile state and against hostile persons. This right is enshrined in the country's constitution, connecting firearm availability to the availability of foundational personal freedoms. The right to personal protection is commonly made as an argument by the American pro-gun lobby, and 41 states have passed laws allowing citizens to carry certain concealed firearms in public.

By comparison, Canadian pro-gun advocacy has largely been driven by opposition to the long-gun registry, from the perspectives of hunters and sports-shooters. It is all-but-impossible to obtain a permit to carry concealed weapons in Canada for personal protection. That is not to say that proponents of right-to-carry do not exist in Canada. They do, making the argument that it is "proper for citizens to defend their homes in peacetime against domestic robbers as to defend their homelands in war against foreign invaders."

Canadians have been right to resist such arguments and should continue to do so. A gun is more than an object. A gun is a means towards, and a symbol of, an ideal society. It serves as a functional and figurative instrument of who does, and who does not, have power and citizenship. Again, in the words of the NRA: "an armed person is a citizen, while an unarmed person is merely a subject."

The gun problem is not that guns exist in society -- few would, for instance, question the legitimacy of guns in the hands of police. Rather the gun problem is defined by the extent to which guns should exist as a solution to social problems.

Laxer gun laws do not simply mean more guns on the streets, but they are a symbolic approbation of the pursuit of political and social ends through violent means. Turning to guns tacitly advances a notion of society where diplomacy, trust, and collaboration are foregone in favor of fragmentation, fear, and militarization.

It is time to move beyond simplistic conversations about guns as instruments, and start a dialogue about what guns represent to us as individuals and as a social body. Whether guns kill people or not, they are a representation of personal and collective identities.

As such, they symbolize the essential features of our society, including its commitments and beliefs, its concepts of the common good and justice, and the way that problems are approached and solved. I, for one, would prefer to live in a society where solutions -- including to the problem of gun violence -- are the result of a public exchange of well-aimed arguments -- not bullets.

 
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