Magazine article Editor & Publisher

After Virginia Tech: Confronting 'Gunism'

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

After Virginia Tech: Confronting 'Gunism'

Article excerpt

The combination of mental disease and access to guns leaps out at almost everyone in media coverage in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings. But from there, ideas and advocacies, widely distributed by the press, tend to become amorphous and tinged with hopelessness.

There is consensus that something should be done to intervene earlier in threatening forms of psychological disturbance, and as a psychiatrist I agree and also recognize some of the social obstacles to doing so. But while there will always be mentally ill people, a few of them violent, it is a gun-centered cultural disease that converts mental illness into massacre.

Indeed, I would claim that a gun is not just a lethal device but a psychological actor in this terrible drama.

Guns and ammunition were at the heart of Cho's elaborate orchestration of the event and of his Rambo-like self-presentation to the world, at least in the images sent to NBC. When you look at those pictures, you understand how a gun can merge so fully with a person that a man who makes regular use of it could (in the historical Wild West and in Hollywood) become known as "a gun."

Some years ago, the distinguished historian Richard Hofstadter told me that, after a lifetime of studying American culture, what he found most deeply troubling was our country's inability to come to terms with the gun--which in turn strongly affected domestic and international attitudes. Emotions of extreme attachment to and even sacralization of the gun pervade American society, and commercial interests shamelessly manipulate these emotions to produce wildly self-destructive policies.

In many parts of the country, the mainstream press joins in this promotion or, at least, remains silent in the face of it.

Much has been said, with considerable truth, about the role of the frontier in bringing about this psychological condition. …

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