A Psychoanalysis of Firearms

"We are going to study a problem that no one has managed to approach objectively, one in which the initial charm of the object is so strong that it still has the power to warp the minds of the clearest thinkers and to keep bringing them back to the poetic fold in which dreams replace thought and poems conceal theorems. This problem is the psychological problem posed by our convictions about fire. It seems to me so definitely psychological in nature that I do not hesitate to speak of a psychoanalysis of fire."

Thus Gaston Bachelard, in his introduction to .

This slim volume came to mind in the wake of the recent shooting in Aurora, Colorado, when in one discussion I found myself talking about the "romance of the gun." And the illusory feeling of power that owning a gun can bring to the powerless.

This preoccupation with a capacity to kill isn't confined to America, although we have a unique romantic history of Westerns and Gangland movies, in which we identify with one hero or another, crack shots all, setting things to rights. For a few, those who feel they will never be the hero in their own story, the possibility of being the villain of the piece can take hold. And we have villains aplenty, from Public Enemy #1 to Bonnie and Clyde to the multi-masked master criminals of Batman.

For the powerless, what better image presents itself than standing alone with a gun making your will be known? And if you can't be the best of the best, why not be the worst of the worst?

The idea of mowing down strangers in a crowded theatre is not an idea that presents itself to a healthy mind. There may have been no way of knowing the intent of James Holmes in time to prevent the latest tragedy. But I'm struck by the resistance of many - and not just those on the right - to revisit the idea of controlling the sale of guns and ammunition. Maybe they're right. Maybe there is no way to make it impossible for the likes of Holmes to acquire the armory he possessed when he entered the theatre that night. But surely there is a way to make it less likely, more difficult, much more difficult.

Years ago, when I finished reading , I was left with one overall impression: that some day, some how, someone would indeed launch another nuclear weapon, because how could they resist? It's the biggest fireball this side of the sun. You want fireworks? I'll show you fireworks!

My doomsday scenario may yet come to pass. And yet, we have constructed and signed nuclear weapon treaties. We are making efforts to round up stray nukes and the materials needed for constructing them. We insist, rightly or wrongly, that nations we consider ill-advised, to say the least, refrain from building them.

All of this may not constrain any future Dr. Strangelove from fulfilling his personal dream of annihilation. But we try. We know the James Holmes's of the world are still out there, lost in their own fantasies of personal vengeance on amorphous enemies.

We could at least try to make it harder for them to succeed.