Do you want to go shooting? [60]

Dr. Keith WittCultural Commentary, Psychotherapy

Bullets“Do you want to go shooting?” asked Ray many years ago, while he and Judy were over for dinner.

“Sure,” I said, intrigued with the idea of firing a high caliber handgun for the first time. I’d studied martial arts for decades, but was never particularly into guns. I thought it might be fun to learn some skills, and fire the weapons. So, the next Saturday morning, Ray and his friend Don and I went up to the mountains behind Santa Barbara to shoot.

Ray and Don had several pistols between them, a .357, a .45, and another I don’t remember. Don had a holster rig that he wore for his .357, and during our entire “let’s go shooting” experience he proceeded to sound progressively more crazy.

It started out pretty relaxed and ordinary. They taught me how to hold and shoot the pistols–surprisingly easy to learn–and I was blasting away. This was unlike any other weapon or martial art I’d studied. Karate and wrestling require months–sometimes years–of effort before you are actually dangerous with the skills. Swords, knives, sticks, and bows similarly feel awkward and hazardous when you first start using them, and it takes hundreds of hours of training before you can even consider practicing with an opponent.

Not so with the pistols. Within ten minutes I was demolishing cans and targets we brought with us. Meanwhile Don kept fantasizing about using his guns on assailants. “Yes, if someone came around that corner, I’d have this gun out in seconds.” “You never know when you might have to protect yourself.” Stuff like that.

It got particularly uncomfortable when several other young men came to our spot to shoot and Don started fantasizing about them. “Did you see how that one guy looked at me? I don’t think he’d have a chance if he tried something.” This last even weirded Ray out, and we left shortly after.

Some of the least violent men I’ve known have been upper level martial artists. It’s accepted wisdom in mixed martial arts–the most deadly hand to hand combat systems ever developed–that street fighters stop street fighting when they seriously join a school and dedicate themselves to training. The philosophy of martial arts studios is that skills come with responsibilities to do right and protect the innocent. In these communities practitioners are taught to never use violence to prove manhood, dominance, or anything other than serve the highest good. Advanced practitioners have no problem with the first law of personal defense, “Don’t be there.”

Strangely in the wake of the recent Colorado shootings, America has been gradually becoming less violent over the last twenty years, in spite of the fact that there are more guns than people in this country. Assault, murder, and rape percentages have gone down, though we still far surpass Europe and most other first world countries.

I believe this reduction is partly due to emotional and physical violence becoming less fashionable and acceptable in families and schools. For instance, bullying has been studied and effectively targeted in many places, and spanking has become widely illegal. In addition, U.S. fathers are spending more time with their children, and humiliation based parenting techniques tend to be met with social disapproval (as compared to the sixties–which presaged a huge increase in violence in the seventies and early eighties–where public humiliation and corporal punishment of children were generally accepted).
I also think that tragedies like Aurora reflect important issues that are lost in political posturing and simplistic solutions (i.e. European-style stringent gun controls that could never fly in the U.S, or nastier punishments for gun crimes, which research shows has little effect on gun violence, or knee jerk righteous indignation at the idea that assault weapons and huge, military style clips should be banned).

Distressed people isolated from caring others are capable of extreme acts (one reason solitary confinement is considered by most prison wardens to be cruel and unusual punishment), and public resources to work with mentally ill children and adults have been shrinking steadily due to budget cuts. Bullying creates rage in victims, and institutionally sanctioned bullying creates depression, cynicism, and murderous impulses (which accounts for the fact that East Block and other fascist countries routinely test at the bottom of happiness surveys). Individualist America often lets isolated distressed children and adults slip through the cracks, and many conservatives seem contemptuous of social safety nets that provide support and caring for the poor who are the overwhelming perpetrators and victims of gun violence.

James Holmes was a graduate student in treatment with a psychiatrist at a major university. I worked for two years at the UCSB Counseling Center in the 70’s, and it was accepted wisdom that the crazier you were, the less resources came your way. It doesn’t surprise me that he mailed his psychiatrist a journal detailing his upcoming crime, and the University didn’t get it to her for an entire week–effectively eliminating any chance of preventing the horror. Allocating resources to University Counseling centers and providing systemic support, not just meds and occasional therapy sessions, for crazy students rates pretty low on University budget priority lists.

Finally, young men like Ray’s friend Don reflect an American culture confused and ambivalent about real violence. Violence exists on a continuum from a harsh word to mass murder. It is glorified in movies and video games, but often not examined in families and schools. It’s significant to me that the actual soldiers in the Bush administration–Colin Powell and others–were far less enthusiastic about going to war than their non-combat-veteran colleagues. They had experienced real violence and had the proper respect and distaste for it, just as the martial arts masters I studied with in my karate days. When President Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, said that neurobiology and social research had convinced her we have to get help to distressed young boys before the age of eight to prevent future violence, she was ridiculed by conservatives as a “social worker.” Well, I admire social workers. If the social workers were in charge of public policy, we’d have less violence of all kinds.

I have a lot of friends and family members who love guns, and I still go shooting once in a blue moon. But I never saw Don again, and I know now that an isolated man in his mid to late twenties, feeling slighted by society and driven by psychopathology, needs social ¬†boundaries and support. I also know that addressing violence in all its forms is the issue for humanity, and we don’t want to waste time arguing about opinions when there is so much hard data available to guide us in helping reduce every expression of violence at every level of society.

Image Credit: controlarms