The fantasy of power. Photo by Ken Lunde. (
by Jennifer Tuder
Dec 17, 2012, 12:27 PM

“Guns Don’t Kill People”: Means Matter Revisited

In one way, they’re right:  guns alone don’t kill people. Our fantasies about guns kill people. Americans love the way guns make them feel:  powerful, secure, and in control. We have transferred these qualities onto our totem object, the gun. If we own a gun, the thinking goes, we can fend off criminals who might invade our homes or open fire on the streets. We could even defend ourselves against a fascist government with our arsenal of handguns, hunting rifles, and semi-automatic weapons (never mind that said government is the best-equipped fighting force in the world with access to weapons and technologies well beyond the skill and reach of an average citizen).

These fantasies offer us comfort in a world that seems more dangerous than it really is. As David Frum documents in his series on guns and violence, violent crime is at one of its lowest points in recorded history. We are safer now in American than ever before. The advent of 24-hour breaking news that speeds across our ever-present screens, however, manufactures a sense of peril. Guns are what we use to deal with this anxiety.

While some tighter restrictions on firearms would certainly help (as demonstrated by Australia’s “National Firearms Agreement”), they are only part of the answer. Gun ownership is profoundly emotional, which makes sense given the ways in which the NRA (which should be re-named the National Rifle Manufactors’ Association) uses our inflated fear to pump up firearm sales. It’s the fantasy that must be addressed before real change can happen.

The truth is, more guns in more hands make us less safe. Mostly the danger is to our selves and those in our homes, as I discussed in an earlier post. But more guns in more hands means that more emotionally unstable and/or minimally trained people will have guns in their hands. Given the relative efficiency and ease with which guns can maim and kill, that’s a bad idea.

A better idea would be to have a national conversation about what guns mean. When a mass shooter reaches for a gun, isn’t he (and it’s most “he”) really reaching for that sense of power and control?  It’s not just the means that matter, it’s the meaning.

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