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Analyzing America's 'Gun Complex'

Psychologists today understand that when individuals act against their own better interests, unconscious processes in the form of a complex are most likely at work. These same unconscious processes can also operate in a nation's psyche.
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Handgun lying on American flag
Handgun lying on American flag

The fact that America has been unable to reach a cultural "breakthrough" moment around guns -- the way it did around gay rights with the recent passage of the Gay Marriage Rights Act, for instance -- is psychologically telling. So is the question that few are asking, but that begs to be asked: why is this happening in America?

In wondering why America continues to suffer the unrelenting tragedy of repeated mass shootings and why the country has a higher rate of gun violence compared to other countries, I was reminded of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung's famed word association tests in the early 20th century, from which he developed the theory of a "complex": a constellation of unconscious emotions, images, and memories that can suddenly erupt in an individual, interfering with everyday life.

Psychologists today understand that when individuals act against their own better interests, unconscious processes in the form of a complex are most likely at work. These same unconscious processes can also operate in a nation's psyche: that force field made up of symbols and historical memories accumulated by a people over time.

Certainly by that definition, America could be said to have a "gun complex." As each senseless shooting massacre of innocents blurs into the next (Umpqua Community College was the 294th mass shooting event in 2015) and still the country cannot come together to find a way to prevent guns from falling into the hands of the mentally ill, enact stronger background checks and sensible legislation that will keep assault weapons off our streets -- protective measures that a majority of Americans would like to see -- then the American body politic is in the grip of a stubborn cultural complex.

When logic and reason fail, psychology's standpoint can prove useful, as it works from the baseline of what is rather than what should be. When trying to gain some control over the hidden hand of a complex as it wields its influence over an individual's life, for example, psychologists will first acknowledge its power, and then seek to trace its roots in a person's history. For nations, this process falls under the domain of psychohistory.

One of psychohistory's principle founders is Robert Jay Lifton, M.D. Now 89, Lifton is notable for his research into war and genocide. It was in an interview with Lifton that I gained new insight into certain traits ingrained early in the nation's developing character that, in his observation, continues to influence contemporary American attitudes toward the gun.

In Lifton's view, for instance, America's relative youth when measured against older cultures has had much to do with its relationship with guns. The country's foundation on patterns of continuous immigration and a "constantly moving frontier," he told me, has contributed to the fact that "our identity has always been shaky." That uneasiness around who we are, he said, has made us emphasize what history we do have all the more strongly. Together with the nation's constitutional right to self-defense as set forth in the Second Amendment, the gun has filled that gap, he continued, functioning as a "major compensation" for the nation's lack of tradition.

America's gun complex could also be called our "John Wayne complex," as the gun, according to Lifton, "is also tied up with our American ideal of the heroic." From the start we saw ourselves, he said, "as conquering the wilderness and the native peoples. And the gun was key to that." Also frequently referred to as the 'great equalizer,' Lifton pointed out that the gun became as well an expression of "personal power that gave individuals some sense of control over life and death," also compensating the "terror and fear that many people must have felt in this country in its early decades" upon arriving on the shores of a raw wilderness.

Thus the gun in American culture, Lifton continued, became over time "a symbol on many levels of a kind of organizing principle; as an expression of individualism and individual power; and as a way of dealing with anxieties about death and vulnerability." For all these reasons, in Lifton's words, "the gun became more important to us than perhaps to any other culture." In terms of American violence, he regretfully and mournfully concluded, "much begins with... the near deification of the gun in terms of American violence."

Now, deification seems a strong word to use in connection with guns. And yet according to Italian psychoanalyst Luigi Zoja, Ph.D., who has written widely on violence and the psychotherapy of modern Western culture, a gun is not just any ordinary object, such as "a toaster or a camera," but has a universal dimension independent of a specific culture.

In general, this means, said Zoja, echoing Lifton, that there is something "almost religious" about guns. In his view, we cannot deal with the topic in a logical way, because people "feel as if you're taking something sacred away from them."

This is even more complicated in America, observed Zoja, because in the absence of a state religion, democracy has become our religion -- and "the gun is a symbol of democracy, and therefore sensitive in the American unconscious." Thus partly because of its history in our country's development, he said, "guns in America are imbued with a mythic, religious quality."

It is this non-rational, mythic current described by both Lifton and Zoja that continuously erupts and disrupts any attempt around common sense gun legislation, and that is conveniently exploited by the NRA to its own ends. Indeed these psychological perspectives shifted my own thinking away from the charged topic of increased gun regulations to the idea that there ought to be more gun consciousness -- more psychologically oriented debates in the media, not just about the mental health of individual shooters, but about the psychology of America and the gun's place in our culture.

And in fact there's an argument to be made, I have come to believe, for taking seriously the notion of the gun as one of America's dominant symbols that no amount of moral exhortations or recitation of statistics around its tragic misuses can strip out of our cultural fabric.

If the gun became less polarized into a good or evil object, for instance, and became accepted instead as a part of our American history with deep cultural roots and imbued with patriotic symbolism, then maybe those gunmen who mow down innocents would be judged not only guilty of mass murder, but publicly shamed as treasonous cowards for desecrating a part of our heritage: the equivalent, say, of splattering paint on the Washington Monument, trampling on the flag, or spitting on veterans.

Nothing about this sea change in attitude, I should add, would come easy to me personally. Not since my father put a .22 rifle in my hands as a thirteen-year-old and had me and my three younger siblings practice target shooting at a row of empty Budweiser beer cans have I ever liked anything about guns. I don't own one; the sight of one repulses me; and in fact I feel far less safe with a gun in the house or in my purse.

But if we are going to continue on our path of being a gun-loving-toting country, as it seems we are, then maybe it's time that pro-and anti-gun legislation proponents came together and accepted guns, not only as weapons for self-protection, or as emblems of our cowboy bravado, but as a psychological fact about America, inseparably woven into our historical origins and our national identity.

Maybe then we could move beyond the stalled debates around legislation, and begin generating as much heightened cultural awareness, pragmatic solutions, and even creative imagination around guns as we have brought to other social issues that have bedeviled and divided our democracy.

Pythia Peay writes the "America on the Couch" blog for Psychology Today. She is the author of America on the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture from which portions of this article have been adapted, and American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country.