The Chronicle Review

An Ideology of 'Gunism'

May 04, 2007

The combination of mental disease and access to guns leaps out at almost everyone in connection with the Virginia Tech shootings. But from there ideas and advocacies tend to become amorphous and tinged with hopelessness. There is consensus that something should be done to intervene earlier in threatening forms of psychological disturbance, and as a psychiatrist I agree and also recognize some of the social obstacles to doing so. But while there will always be mentally ill people, a few of whom are violent, it is our gun-centered cultural disease that converts mental illness into massacre.

Indeed, I would claim that a gun is not just a lethal device but a psychological actor in this terrible drama. Guns and ammunition were at the heart of Seung-Hui Cho's elaborate orchestration of the event and of his Rambo-like self-presentation to the world. When you look at those pictures, you understand how a gun can merge so fully with a person that a man who makes regular use of it could (in the historical West and in Hollywood) become known as a "gun."

Some years ago, the distinguished historian Richard Hofstadter told me that, after a lifetime of studying American culture, what he found most deeply troubling was our country's inability to come to terms with the gun — which in turn strongly affected our domestic and international attitudes. Emotions of extreme attachment to and even sacralization of the gun pervade American society, and commercial interests shamelessly manipulate those emotions to produce wildly self-destructive policies.

Much has been said, with considerable truth, about the role of the frontier in bringing about this psychological condition. I would go further and suggest that American society, in the absence of an encompassing and stable traditional culture, has embraced the gun as a substitute for that absence, and created a vast cultural ideology we can call "gunism." Paradoxically, this highly destabilizing object became viewed as a baseline and an icon that could somehow sustain us in a new form of nontraditional society. That new society was to be democratic and egalitarian, so that the gun could be both an "equalizer," as it is sometimes known, and also a solution to various social problems. That idea of the gun as ultimate solution reached a kind of mad absurdity in Newt Gingrich's recent suggestion that university killings be prevented by having students carry hidden guns into classrooms. The gun as ultimate solution has also played a significant role in American military misadventures in Vietnam and Iraq, and in our attitudes toward nuclear weapons (as gigantic "guns").

With a problem so deep-seated, it is no wonder that suggestions of changing gun policies have been so readily dismissed as "an old story" (which unfortunately they are), as politically unfeasible, and as generally useless. But even deep-seated cultural patterns can be altered, and there is considerable support for altering this one. Indeed, America is a country in which change itself is a dominant cultural pattern. We need to make quick small changes and slower, more fundamental ones. But to do that, we require a diagnosis of our cultural disease.

Robert Jay Lifton is a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and professor emeritus of psychiatry at the City University of New York Graduate Center.