The psychology of the gun rights movement fascinates me. It reminds me of a favorite scene in “Star Wars,” when Obi Wan Kenobi captures the minds of the stormtroopers:

Stormtrooper: Let me see your identification.

Obi Wan: (with a small wave of his hand) You don’t need to see his identification.

Stormtrooper: We don’t need to see his identification.

Obi Wan: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

Stormtrooper: These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.


Obi Wan: Move along.

Stormtrooper: Move along … move along.

In the past two decades the gun rights moment has been extremely effective using basic psychological processes to shape and stifle the debate about guns. First, it classically conditioned the notion of gun ownership to freedom. Like Pavlov’s dog, we were taught to salivate about freedom every time restrictions on guns were mentioned. If you believe in freedom, you believe in guns: unfettered, unregulated, uncontrolled.


Then the gun rights movement added displacement, linking the American flag with a gun, and a lethal weapon became a substitute object for patriotism, belief in the Constitution, an expression of uniquely American values. If you believe in America, you believe in guns: unfettered, unregulated, uncontrolled.

Finally, the movement added ego identity, creating a class of “gun people,” whose self-definition requires the gun as accessory, as evidence of their character, their personality and their lifestyle. How dare we interfere with what makes people who they are?


The latest round of this false equivalence is happening in state legislatures across the country, including Maine, where “constitutional carry” bills are being proposed. The name proves my point, its subtext a not very subtle suggestion that if you believe in the Constitution, you must believe in the right of any person to bring a concealed gun into public places.

The Second Amendment does not say this. Supreme Court opinions, authored by the most conservative of judges, clearly state otherwise. Yet the bill is not called the “Public Safely Gun Act” or the “Concealed Lethal Weapon Act” because those might invite the questions we should be asking. Will this make our communities safer or more dangerous?

Is this good public policy for police and those whose job it is to keep us safe? What is the balance between one man’s desire and the risks the rest of us want to avoid?

Statistics about gun ownership are clear and powerful. The presence of guns increases the risk of violence, accidental injury and unintended death. People believe that they are safer with a gun, but facts contradict that again and again.

A January 2014 Annals of Internal Medicine meta-analysis of 15 studies found that those with gun access were three times more likely to commit suicide and twice as likely to be a victim of homicide as a person without gun access. And that does not include accidental deaths. Epidemiologists can take it from here to make the numbers argument.

But I will offer a few more psychological facts about guns that may not be as well known. Psychologists have been studying the “weapons effect” for more than 50 years. The presence of guns changes the way we think.



Our brains are programmed to be “threat-superior,” that is to notice and attend to things that might hurt us. That’s why we jump at the sight of a spider or snake. The reflex heightens our aggressive capacity, turns on our fight-flight response and the hormones that support survival. A gun is a trigger to that response.

Our brains notice it quickly, perceive it as evidence of potential threat and heighten our arousal to prepare to react. Gun activists might say this is a good thing, and in combat, I’d agree.

But in a simple research study in a college campus lab, subjects exposed to a gun showed increased testosterone and increased their aggressiveness response to three times the normal (non-gun exposure) group. Is that reactivity what we want in our streets and our restaurants and our businesses?

So please, carry as many copies of the Constitution as you like, concealed or otherwise. But leave your guns at home. For a gun is not a belief or a symbol or an accessory. A gun is a lethal weapon, a tool that has no purpose other than to wound or maim or kill. It belongs only where it is essential and controlled.

This is the information we need. These are the facts we’re looking for. Do not move on.

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