It’s time to have the conversation we never have about guns

We must start talking about mental health before the next mass shooting.

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Well, here we are again, wringing our hands about gun control following the latest mass-shooting-du-jour. Many insist that this “isn’t the time to talk about this.”

So, when is the time? Because the next phase of our perpetual horror cycle is temporary amnesia. We regain our psychological footing and then forget about it until the next nightmare unfolds. It’s as if there’s no tipping point. If the Sandy Hook Elementary School slaughter wasn’t the tipping point, I don’t know what could be. Although the Las Vegas shooting was the worst in U.S. history by the numbers, nothing tops Newtown in sheer heart-shattering agony.

And… the Newtown shooting occurred five years ago. FIVE YEARS. What has changed? Absolutely nothing. Guns are more readily available than over-the-counter allergy medications, and the NRA’s sole purpose for existence is keeping it that way.

Right about now, you’re expecting a furious verbal salvo to be fired at the NRA, but that’s not where I’m headed. Although the NRA’s lack of empathy is vile, and I have no affection for it or guns either, I’ve held my nose and examined the NRA’s position and I understand it. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. Beyond the NRA’s utter lack of compassion for shooting victims, one of its most grotesque practices is the constant priming of gun-owners’ fears to guarantee that they’ll keep funneling money into NRA coffers.

And that’s the key word in this conversation we never have about gun violence: Fear. The reason we just keep chasing our own tail is fear — not just for those who want all guns to be banned, but gun owners too. At both ends of the gun ownership spectrum, and at every position in between, there’s fear.

Following every mass shooting, liberals erupt in horror, and rightfully so, and scream for gun control. The conservatives becomes gripped with anxiety about losing their guns and being unable to protect themselves, their families and their property when monsters come calling.

The sad fact is that we are a fear-based society. We’re perpetually terrified of being harmed, and this consumes our thoughts and decision-making. Is that fear justified? Maybe. As it pertains to homicides and shootings, the U.S. may be the most dangerous place on earth.

Worse yet, our collective chronic fear is amplified by the national televised media, which bastes us in shock and horror because that ensures we’ll keep watching, and they’ll retain their lucrative commercial contracts. Sure, when a mass shooting occurs, we all need to know. But if a 7-11 clerk is shot in Columbus, Ohio… do we really need to see that on our local news in Sacramento, California?

We know, consciously, that the murder occurred far away, but subconsciously, we don’t. Our subconscious mind absorbs only imminent danger, and triggers our biological “fight or flight” response, which bathes our nervous system in cortisol. A cortisol-soaked brain is constantly vigilant and alert for danger, constantly stressed, and this becomes our new “normal.”

We respond to our new normal depending on our own values. Some want to “solve” the issue by eliminating guns, while others decide they need to hoard even more guns. But we’re all reacting from the same place: Fear. There’s our common denominator: We all just want to be safe.

Safety is amongst the most primal of our psychological needs. Abraham Maslow astutely realized that after the most basic of survival needs — food, water, shelter and warmth — safety is next on the hierarchy of human needs. Those first two levels on his hierarchy are needs for which we will fight and even kill — they are that crucial to mere survival.

But what about those who don’t kill for survival? Specifically, those who kill out of rage or psychosis or sociopathy? Continuing with Maslow’s triangle, I suspect that for some people, the ones who harm others, the next three levels of self-fulfillment have been tragically disrupted. Our third most crucial human need is “belongingness” — relationships, friendships and human connection.

The majority of mass murderers are described as loners. For whatever reason… other people don’t really like them much. We humans are quite adept at spotting the “weirdo”… and avoiding him/her. We recognize on a gut level that some people are to be avoided. That’s a great survival skill for us. Not so much for the “weirdo.” The thing that “weirdo” needs most is human connection, and that need is chronically thwarted.

The next level on the triangle is “esteem.” That’s a no-brainer. If no one likes you and you don’t have any friends, there’s little hope of having positive self-esteem. The peak of the Maslow’s triangle is “self-actualization.” For the person who came into the world with psychological deficits, who experiences life as a pariah, who has zero self-esteem, their path toward healthy self-actualization has gone tragically off course. What if “self actualization” for this person is to randomly and wantonly slaughter as many people as he can? Is it possible that glorious revenge on humanity IS his self-actualization? The logical destination for his deranged psychological trajectory?

This is where our conversation on gun violence must start. It’s not the guns — it’s the people who use them to do illegal things. Law-abiding gun owners aren’t the problem. Laws only work on people who obey laws. We already have laws against killing people, and we all know how effective those are. Moreover, we can’t make sociopathy illegal. It will continue to exist. How do we deal with THAT?

This is the question we must ask, more urgently than what we should do about gun control. We can’t find the answer if we’re asking the wrong question. And while we’re asking the right one, we should take a breath, and a step back, and remember that the person we’re arguing with about gun control wants the same, simple thing that we do: to be safe. We must de-vilify each other before we can have the conversation we never have.


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