by Lorrie Goldin, LCSW, Impulse Staff Writer


In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, mental illness has been highlighted as a key factor in gun violence. Although attention to our broken mental health system is long overdue, the discussion for the most part -- such as a proposal for a national registry of the mentally ill -- further stigmatizes and scapegoats individuals who suffer from mental illness.

Christopher Lasch, arguing that culture is expressed through the individual, wrote in The Culture of Narcissism (1979), "Pathology represents a heightened version of normality" (p. 38). What does our gun-obsessed society say about our collective insanity?

For starters, we are disaffected and afraid, which engenders primitive phenomena such as paranoia, splitting, and projection. When self is disavowed and relocated as a threatening other, the integrated whole and empathy are lost. NRA President Wayne LaPierre skillfully exploited this black-and-white worldview when he proclaimed, "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun." Such simplistic bifurcation, although largely false, reassures in its promise of effective action, moral clarity, and separation of "us" from "them."

In a more scholarly vein, Richard Hofstadter described in "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" the long history of "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" that results in an uncompromising battle against perceived evil when a way of life is threatened. Clearly, this tradition is alive and well in today's rhetoric about confiscation and tyranny whenever modest gun-safety measures are proposed.

The hazards of our go-it-alone and polarized culture are crucial to understanding gun violence in the U.S. It's harder to kill people when there is a sense of connection.

It's also harder to kill oneself. Two-thirds of all U.S. gun deaths are suicides, not homicides. The rare instances of mass murders carried out by alienated young men usually result in the gunman's death by self-inflicted wound or suicide-by-cop. As Andrew Solomon notes, "If we want to stem violence, we need to begin by stemming despair."

But where do we begin? Herein lies a paradox familiar to any therapist who grapples with cause and symptom. Even as we address the myriad and complex underlying problems, guns are not the root cause of violence. They are, however, its chief delivery system. If a gun is present, volatile situations are more likely to escalate than be defused. This has nothing to do with good guys versus bad guys but with the deadly nature of firearms themselves. Easy access to guns can turn anyone into a bad actor. Until we are willing to curtail their availability, the madness will continue.