Girl holding a Glock Desert Eagle. Richard Kern, 2012
Update 12/14: today's school shooting in Connecticut has left 27 people dead, including 20 children. The article below was published following the shooting of Trayvon Martin in March.
When it comes to the gun debate in America, I’m constantly swayed by the same logic often used when video games are linked to violence: the old mantra that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. I’ve shot a gun before, and I really liked it. There’s something about the kickback of gunpowder that will give your adrenaline a jolt. However, I was never tempted to buy a gun to arm myself, mostly because I was afraid of how carrying a gun would change my perception of my surroundings.
And it turns out, there’s some truth to this idea. From a human standpoint, it turns out we do change our perception of our world based on our tools and resources. As Alexis Madrigal noted in an essay on guns and consciousness, historians often mark the emergence of the railroad as a key factor that re-calibrated our perception of landscape. “What new thoughts are suggested by seeing a face of country quiet familiar in the rapid movement of the railroad car,” Ralph Waldo Emmerson once wrote. We can even think back to Abraham Kaplan’s popularly paraphrased idiom, The Law of the Instrument, or in other words, if you give a person a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
New research, to be published in an upcoming issue of Journal of Experimental Psychology: Perception and Performance, by Notre Dame Associate Professor of Psychology James Brockmole and a colleague from Purdue University states that wielding a gun may increase a person’s bias to seeing guns in the hands of others, and alter our consciousness of how we see our environment.
“Beliefs, expectations, and emotions can all influence an observer’s ability to detect and to categorize objects as guns,” Dr. Brockmole says. “Now we know that a person’s ability to act in certain ways can bias their recognition of objects as well, and in dramatic ways. It seems that people have a hard time separating their thoughts about what they perceive and their thoughts about how they can or should act.”
Does that meant that wielding a gun will turn all of us into killing machines? Hardly. The recent murder of 17-year old Florida resident Trayvon Martin has hashed up a torrent of public soapbox standing on the issues of race, socio-politics, and the right to bear arms, with opposing arguments picking sides and playing the blame game on where these incredibly complicated and intertwined issues fit into America today.
The fact is, the gun debate is an old one in America, and it rises up every time we’re faced with inexplicable gun violence, as in the case of Gabby Giffords, Virginia Tech, and now Trayvon Martin. Often, confoundingly, the issue is just as quickly forgotten. Where guns fit into the American psyche is a hotly contested question, an idea stuck stubbornly between the idea of civic right and civic responsibility.
And in cases like Trayvon’s the right to conceal and carry plays a small part in the overall picture that encompasses everything from psychological conditioning and make-up to embedded perceptions and flat-out bad circumstance. Not everything is easily painted in black and white, and in the case of gun carrying, it’s impossible to make a clear-cut argument for or against them. Do guns enable violence? Sometimes, yes. Very much so.
Of course, if someone is intent on harming another, they will find the instruments they need to do it. In Trayvon’s case, and in many others every day, a gun made all the difference. Guns may make us more conscious of our surroundings, but how conscious are we of how they change us? Recognizing how our tools help determine the way we behave around them is crucial to understanding the origins of our most extreme behavior, ie violence. Guns may not kill people, but they can certainly affect the people who do.