The Gun Control Battle Isn't About Guns As Weapons. It's About Guns as Symbols.

While guns don’t kill people, they certainly do make killing easier.

The Gun Control Battle Isn't About Guns As Weapons. It's About Guns as Symbols.

In the passionate response to the horror of murdered innocents, much has been written and said about guns, and the need for gun control. Much of it misses the mark, focusing on the danger of guns as weapons, but not their meaning as symbols. Until we examine what guns represent, and why so many people want them, the debate over gun control will rage on with little progress, flaring after yet another terrible gun crime, but then subsiding without changing public opinion much, leaving us no closer to the safer world we all desire.


While guns don’t kill people, they certainly do make killing easier. A meta-analysis of research on guns and homicides by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found that more guns = more murders. But guns do something else too, something emotional, something tied deeply to one of our most basic instincts, the instinct to survive. For millions of people, guns help them feel safe. They provide a sense of control and an ability to protect oneself from what feels like a threatening world. And guns provide this vital reassuring feeling of control in more ways than you might think.

Most obviously, they help people feel physically safe. Whether guns prevent more crime or cause more remains an open question according to a National Academy of Sciences review of the research. But owning a gun certainly gives you the feeling that you are doing something — taking control — to protect yourself, and any risk is less frightening if you think you have some control over it.

More importantly, and more relevant to the argument over gun control, fighting for the right to own a gun is a way of asserting control against a society that many feel is encroaching on their values and freedoms. Millions of people with such feelings want guns less to protect themselves against physical danger and more to protect themselves from the threat of a society they feel is taking away their ability to control their own lives. That deeper loss of control fuels the disproportionately intense passion of gun rights advocates and explains what The New Yorker calls the ”conspicuous asymmetry of fervor” that energizes 4 million members of the National Rifle Association to effectively determine gun control policy for a country of 310 million.

People with these concerns have been identified by research into the Theory of Cultural Cognition as Individualists, people who prefer a society that grants the individual more freedom and independence and leaves them more personally in control of their individual choices and values. Contrast that with the sort of society preferred by Communitarians, who feel most comfortable, and safest, in a "We’re all in it together" world of shared control and communal power, a society that sacrifices some individual freedoms in the name of the greater common good. These deeply conflicting worldviews drive the central conflict in the fight over gun control, to which President Barack Obama referred in his remarks in Newtown, Connecticut, following the Sandy Hook shootings, when he asked, “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” About this core question, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy asked, “Where do we draw the line?”

This is about far more than guns. Since the progressive era of the '60s and '70s, Individualists have been reacting with growing passion against what they feel is a "socialist" Communitarian assault on individual liberties. Former NRA President Charlton Heston’s "cold dead hands" speech makes inescapably clear that for millions of people, the gun control debate is not about the gun as weapon, but the gun as symbol. (The italics below are mine.)

 “When freedom shivers in the cold shadow of true peril, it’s always the patriots who first hear the call,” Heston said. “When loss of liberty is looming, as it is now, the siren sounds first in the hearts of freedom’s vanguard.” He paused, and accepts a revolutionary war musket, then continued. “As we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away,” he said, holding the musket up as if he was Moses holding up the staff of God to part the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, and in his best Moses voice, intoned passionately, “from my cold dead hands.”

On the other hand, you can hear the Communitarian voice in those who favor gun control, who describe gun violence as “a public health crisis” (Nick Kristof), or say that “we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” as President Obama said in his moving response to the shootings in Newtown.

The views of Heston and Kristoff give voice to what Cultural Cognition research about gun control has found: (More Statistics, Less Persuasion; A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions). The fight about guns will not be won or lost on the battleground of facts and figures. Gun rights are just another symbolic weapon in the deep and passionate conflict now tearing America apart, a fight over different views about the sort of society we want to live in. And that connects back to the importance of a sense of control to how safe or threatened we feel because, whether we are more Individualist or Communitarian, if our group and our philosophy are in control, our values and views have more power to shape how society operates.

That means the passions over gun control are driven by one of the most powerful imperatives of all, the drive to survive, which is why the feelings of gun rights advocates are so fierce, and compromise hard to achieve. To move toward progress, rather than talking about how many guns we have compared with other countries (WAY more), we first have to recognize that the feelings about gun control, particularly among Individualists, come from these deeper instincts, honest instincts over which we actually have little conscious control. Even more, rather than stubbornly trying to impose our view of what is moral and “right” on others, we first have to respect the deep instinct we all share, to control and shape how our society operates, and acknowledge the integrity and sincerity of the values and views people on all sides hold, even if we disagree with those values and views.

Without those admittedly difficult first steps, we won’t be able to find solutions to the gun-risk issue, and we will be no closer to the common ground we all shared — Individualists and Communitarians, gun rights advocates and gun control advocates, when we heard about the slaughter of children and our hearts broke — and universally we cried out for some way to reduce the chance of this ever happening again.

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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