12/20/2012 09:58 EST | Updated 02/19/2013 05:12 EST

Gun Control: Should Firearms Represent Freedom?

FILE - This March 27, 2006 file photo, shows a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and ammunition on display at the Seattle Police headquarters in Seattle. The maker of the Bushmaster rapid-fire weapon used to kill schoolchildren in Connecticut on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, was put up for sale on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, as investors soured on the gun business. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

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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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.