Within days after the murder of the children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT, almost two years ago, the NRA was at the barricades pushing for teachers to be armed, repeating a familiar dialectic that seems to greet every mass shooting in America, including the slaughter of two television journalists who were killed on live television last week. When Andy Parker, the father of murdered journalist Alison Parker, vowed on live television he would devote his life to gun control issues, I joined the outpouring of support on social media. Mr. Parker painfully anticipated a likely NRA response, suggesting TV film crews should be armed.
As Mr. Parker was being interviewed, I noticed how quickly the conversation moved from the horror and shock of the events to questions about how to keep guns away from dangerous people. In some respects, the narrative has already been written, talking points were in place and political cover readily at hand. I don’t think facts, shaming, and comparisons to other industrialized nations have any effect on gun control issues. Recently Vox published an irrefutable article rich with statistics outlining how gun-violent America is. But we remain in denial. Congress has forbidden the National Institute of Health from researching gun violence. In many states, doctors cannot ask their patients about guns in the house even though the question might impinge on health issues. In Virginia, where the televised murders took place, legislators have repeatedly refused to close gun-show loopholes that allow buyers to purchase guns without any checks whatsoever. Legislators also approved concealed carry in bars, forbade any restriction on firing air guns in backyards, and repealed the one-handgun-per-month law, thus permitting unlimited purchases. The same legislators have refused to protect children from access to guns. No wonder the Roanoke Times calls these actions pro-gun idiocy. The state is in the gun-running business. A large number of guns used in crimes in New York City have been traced to Virginia.
I live about twenty-five miles outside New York City. Soon after the Sandy Hook killings, our local newspaper published a map containing specific locations of people who had purchased guns. Even though I am ex-military and a hunter, I was still surprised by how many guns were in the neighborhood. The publication of names and addresses, a part of the public record, set off a political firestorm and forced the newspaper to retreat. The outcry seemed more pronounced than when the babies and teachers were murdered in Newtown. It was then I realized that the gun as object, icon, weapon, symbol and myth existed outside of normal conversation and rationale order. In the language of psychologist Carl Jung, the gun represents an archetype, an embodiment of our personal and collective unconscious that is a storehouse of fantasies, images, make-my-day remembrances, Wild West imaginings, martial music, Ares, the Greek God of Carnage, the OK Corral, and the hero in the white hat. This is masculine Animus in its undeveloped, primitive form. In this archetype, I am stinking of Mars but dreaming of Christ.
Jung describes a “feeling-toned complex” as an autonomous psychological state where emotions and contents of the archetype take over. When we talk about even modest steps to protect the nation against gun violence, the conversation seems to immediately take on archetypal and emotional overtones, thus ensuring nothing will be accomplished. I don’t know whether the NRA has a Jungian psychologist on the premises, but it certainly knows how to tap these archetypal forces, if only unconsciously.
During the Vietnam War, I spent some time on an ammunition ship named after a volcano—the USS Mount Baker– whose main task was providing 2,000-pound bombs to the carriers to be dropped on the North Vietnamese. It was surgical and massive. Years later, I would write in my first book of poetry, “That Kingdom Coming Business”: “ship gray as fog/sliding across water/hull full of rockets/gun running/that kingdom coming business.” On the way to the Tonkin Gulf, my ship would usually stop in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to donate blood and pray for the Atomic dead. We were stinking of Mars but dreaming of Christ.
I don’t think the country can have a useful conversation about meaningful gun control until we understand that we live in a constant archetype of war, imagining enemies and engaging in self-righteous gun-running. The U.S. is the greatest supplier of weaponry on earth, and we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that ISIS, the Taliban, and the various armed factions in Syria are using American arms. In his “A Terrible Love of War,” psychologist James Hillman refers to the origins of the gun culture in America as an “invented tradition,” not deriving from historical evidence of the country’s first two hundred years when the gun was not as prevalent as we like to imagine. Rather, it was the Civil War and its millions of combatants that provided a ready market for guns. Hillman writes that this “invented tradition” was written into the soul of America as if it were an article of faith from some fixed dogma, thus sustaining the American predilection for violence. For terrorists around the world, America is the Great Gun Bazaar. At home, the gun remains a vexing symbol at the center of a dangerous archetype that gives lie to our profession as a Christian nation.
After the murders of the babies and teachers at Sandy Hook, I wrote “The Archetype of the Gun, modeled on the dramatic structure and tone of an epic poem. It examines in images and metaphor the psychological, religious and mythological nature of the gun in America. The poem traces the gun and the meaning of the gun from American suburbia, through the wars of our time, and our frontier and creation myths. http://ow.ly/RBGEV