Ian Cooper

Guns don't actually give us power. What does?

Ian Cooper
Guns don't actually give us power. What does?

Photo by Milada Vigerova

I get why people like guns. Our lives are full of the unpredictable and unexpected, and every day we are reminded of how little control we really have over what happens to us. Death can, and does, come at any moment. Carrying a gun can make people feel safer, more powerful, and like they have the ability to take their own destiny into their hands. Of course people want to feel that way.

Unfortunately, that feeling is just an illusion. 

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that a whole lot goes on around us that we can’t control. Many of us spend a great deal of time planning for the future, only to find again and again that when the future does come, it bears little resemblance to whatever it was we were planning for. Despite our best efforts, we get caught in traffic, or hit with unexpected bills, or a loved one’s sudden death. As much as we’d like to feel otherwise, we’re not really in charge.

That makes most of us profoundly uncomfortable. It’s not just gun owners who try to fight back against their own powerlessness—almost everyone does, to one extent or another. I’m a recovering alcoholic—a disease that is all about running away from uncomfortable truths. But like alcoholism and addiction, gun ownership makes us much more likely to hurt ourselves and the people around us.

Here are some facts. Responsible people who buy a gun are likely to experience one of these two outcomes: 1) they don’t ever use their gun against another person; or 2) they use their gun to kill themselves or a loved one. 

A third possible outcome, that a responsible gun owner uses their weapon in self-defense, almost never happens. For every killing which the shooter was protecting themselves, there are over 30 homicides, suicides, and accidental gun deaths. Roughly two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides alone. 

In other words, responsible gun owners themselves are their own most likely targets.

Most people will probably go their whole lives without ever being attacked by a stranger—the sort of scenario in which carrying a gun might be useful. But everyone experiences moments of anger, rage, depression and despair. That’s a normal part of being human, but owning a gun makes it much more likely that one of those moments will go on to have life-altering or -ending consequences for the owner or someone they love. 

If not for the human tragedy, it would be darkly funny that owning a gun makes it more, not less, likely that those the gun was bought to protect will die badly. Instead, it’s a cruel irony that has cost a great many people their lives.

But we all want to protect ourselves, and feel some measure of power and control over our lives. That’s a good thing—we just need a better method. If guns don’t actually work, what does?

Here’s where the irony stops being cruel. Stiffening our defenses against the world with weapons is counterproductive—but lowering those same defenses can help. The more we can surrender to the moment and accept life exactly as it is—beautiful, ugly, perfect and painful all at once—the more truly powerful we can become. As we learn in twelve-step groups, the first step to overcoming a situation you can’t control is accepting that you can’t control it, that it’s got you beat.

We’re attracted to guns because they give us a sense of power over death, but death is coming for all of us anyway. Really, it’s with us now, because death and life are inseparable and intertwined: part of the same whole. Everyone understands this, but most of us try to hide from it.
What if instead, we give that understanding space to breathe, and learn to live with the awareness that death is our birthright? That’s a simple idea, and the work of a lifetime—a pathway to peace within ourselves and among our fellows. If we learn to accept death and the uncontrollable nature of life, we don’t have to spend our energy fighting against it, and we are free to pursue what really matters.

Who among us would not benefit from that?

I would like to see our political leaders join together to pass strong, comprehensive gun control legislation, and make a committed, sustained effort to drastically reduce the number of guns on our streets and in our homes. My personal belief is that no one should own guns, although reasonable people could and will disagree with me. But regardless of where I, or anyone else stands on the issue, I don’t believe that serious, lasting reform will emanate from the halls of Congress until we the people have ourselves had a change of heart.

When we realize our arms don’t serve us, perhaps we will lay them down.

Ian is a writer and the founder and editor of Open Heart Beginner's Mind.