Our Insanity About Guns

Charles Cottle —

The Republican dominated Congress of the United States has now Ban Assault Riflescondemned the United States to a kind of living hell. The U.S. Senate voted last week to reject the expansion of background checks for guns purchased online and purchases at gun shows. That means the only solutions the Congress, the National Rifle Association, and the motley assortment of Republican presidential candidates can offer to remedy the epidemic of mass shootings (more than one a day in 2015) are to pray for the victims, attend to the mentally ill, and arm every man and woman (and perhaps child) in the country. Because most terrorists and psychopaths attack with semi-automatic weapons, it makes sense (from the insane point of view) for every man and woman to have a semi-automatic rifle at the ready. At the very least, we should all be packing heat, everywhere, all the time.

Years ago R.D. Laing wrote in The Politics of Experience that only the truly insane could adapt to the world in which we live. Opponents of stricter gun control are now suggesting that we adapt to a world in which we must fear every person we meet, because they might be carrying a concealed weapon. In such a world, no one can be fully trusted. So, the best policy for each person is to carry a weapon also, just to be on the safe side.

During the time when R.D. Laing made his observations about insanity, presidents, college professors, and Sunday school teachers all believed that “mutually assured destruction” was good policy. What did it matter that we had (and still have) the capacity to destroy the earth many times over with nuclear weapons as long as both the United States and the Soviet Union understood that to launch a nuclear strike would bring mutual destruction? As long as our heads of state were rational self-interested individuals, there was no problem.

In this context it makes sense to reflect on the notion of the “unit veto” system described by Morton Kaplan (1957). The unit veto international system is a truly nightmarish system in which each nation state on the planet has the capacity to destroy all the others. Imagine, for example, if each country had a nuclear weapon and could deliver it. Kaplan described such an international system as the most unstable we might imagine, especially since international politics operates in a “state of nature” which is a lawless environment. In this kind of world the only option for the heads of nation states would be to arm their states to the teeth and hope for the best.

Oddly enough, the opponents of gun control now argue that we are in a unit veto situation where each unit is a man or woman who can pull a trigger. At the international level, we want our leaders to do everything possible to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. At the sub-national level, however, the opponents of gun control argue that we do the opposite and encourage the spread of arms. The only “rational” thing to do, in their view, is arm ourselves fully and (just as the heads of state in an international unit veto system) just hope for the best. Despite living in a society with established police forces and security personnel, their arguments against stricter gun control claim that we are in a state of nature in which there is a potential war of every person against every other, and that we are helpless to change  it. For some reason it is now preferable that everyone be able to purchase a semi-automatic rifle rather than no one be able to buy one.

I reject these arguments. The evidence is overwhelming that many societies come nowhere close to the United States in gun violence. We need to study those examples and adopt policies that will change the status quo for the better. I am sure there is no single solution to the problem, but it is intolerable that our gutless leaders do nothing. Ninety percent of the American public wants strict gun control. It is time for our representatives, both national and local, to abandon their role as lackeys of the National Rifle Association. It is time for them to do the job for which they were elected, namely, develop the ways and means to provide for the safety of the American public.


Kaplan, Morton. System and Process in International Politics. 1957.
Laing, R.D. The Politics of Experience. 1967.

3 thoughts on “Our Insanity About Guns

  1. Charles, you certainly have confirmed your sanity in a Laingian world (actually, nation) in which insanity is the new normal. Hard to believe how far we have come. In the 1960s it was the radical left, eg. the Black Panther Party, which carried the most vocal advocates of an unrestricted gun right. Reagan advocated reasonable gun control and even the NRA, which at the time was really an association of hunters far more than (what it now is) a lobby rendering its fealty to the gun manufacturers, was on board. And as recently as George W. Bush there was a Republican president who at least talked the talk of responsible gun control. I think a lot of the venom one hears now is part and parcel of the paranoid madness on the right about an African American president who continues to say what Reagan and Bush said but which no aspiring Republican will say today. And so many Democrats fold their tents in fear of NRA money and advertising even in the face of survey data that even most gun owners favor universal background checks, closing the gun show loophole, and maybe other sane measures. Having written this summer about a racist 21 year old who murdered 9 black parishioners with a Glock and living in the city where that happened, I share your pain and declare myself also to be sane in re guns. As a boy I did own a bolt-action single-shot 22 rifle. “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” Three-hundred million guns out there in the land, and this good (I hope) guy owns not a single one. But, like you, I feel utterly powerless on this issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. David, thanks for your comment. When I was young, my father kept a bolt-action single-shot 22 rifle, probably just like yours, in the house. It was there for many years. We lived much of that time in the country. But I never met anyone who had a love affair with guns. Those were certainly different time.

      Lately I have been thinking how little we really know about conflict resolution. We have reached a point with many staunch NRA supporters that any discussion of universal background checks or other sensible measures is rejected out of hand – a completely unapproachable topic.


  2. The other day our 10-year-old granddaughter, who is in the fourth grade, told us about a “code black” drill they did at school. Her teacher told the students that they could prepare for an attack by a “bad guy” by pushing desks and other large items up against the door. They were told that they should grab anything they could, like pencils or staplers, to throw at the “bad guy.” This, they were told, would buy them an additional 15 seconds, before the police arrive to help them.

    I remember when I was in grade school in the 1950s, when we had drills where we hid beneath our desks in the case of a nuclear bomb, as if all we had to worry about was shattered glass from the windows. I recall at the time that my classmates and I did not really absorb the seriousness of the threat. Rather we viewed the drill as a pleasant interruption of our school workday.

    Similarly, our granddaughter did not seem particularly disturbed by the code black drill. Rather, she seemed to feel a bit empowered that there was actually something she could do in the event of an attack.

    We truly live in a Laingian world. It makes my wife and me sad.


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