Firearms are now in the spotlight. Gun control advocates are planning a march on Washington on January 26, and the National Coalition to Stop the Gun Ban has published an open letter to Congress.

All parties involved are coming up with strategies to make the nation safer and actions are being taken, but one of the biggest barriers to clear thinking about weapons is “hoplophobia,” the irrational fear of weapons, which is fostered by sensationalist media. Let us not forget that even the Dalai Lama has supported self-defense. Sarah Thompson, M.D. has written a most important article about understanding the psychology of the fear of weapons, especially firearms–“Raging Against Self-Defense: A Psychiatrist Examines the Anti-Gun Mentality.”

In forming your opinions, here are some facts to consider about shooting sports.

Almost anything can be used as a weapon

Hands, feet and head, pencils, chopsticks, and even magazines and newspapers can be turned into very lethal weapons. Man is a tool-maker. Weapons are extensions of intention. Weapons are, therefore, part of the human soul. You cannot have a world without weapons.

Children’s play shows how using weapons for enjoyment begins. In his important study of children, fantasy and violence, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy Superheroes and Make-Believe Violence, Gerard Jones reports that “Ethnologists have shown that in societies where guns aren’t part of the local symbology, kids play similar games with bows and arrows or spears.”

British child psychologist Penny Holland, in her book, We Don’t Play With Guns Here, states that after 30 years of a ban against playing with guns and swords, in the UK there is no evidence of a decline in the desire of kids to play violent games. The kids simply go behind the teachers’ backs and substitute pieces of wood, pencils, crayons, and fingers for swords, spears and guns.

Weapons sports are healthy

Over two millennia ago, Plato wrote in Laws: “The techniques of fighting (are) skills which all citizens, male and female, must care to acquire.”  The best way to transform fear of weapons to respect for them is by using them, especially in weapons sports, which develop mental concentration and eye-hand coordination skills. The transformation of weapons into sport is an example of “biologically-adapted aggression,” which is a sign of positive mental health–don’t deny instincts, use them in creative ways. The eminent psychologist Rollo May has said:

In the utopian aim of removing all power and aggression from human behavior, we run the risk of removing self-assertion, self-affirmation, and even the power to be. If it were successful, it would breed a race of docile, passive eunuchs and would lay the groundwork for an explosion in violence that would dwarf all those that have occurred so far.

Consider that weapons are teachers, and shooting sports are an excellent way to teach respect for weapons. Personally, what concerns me is when people buy guns and other weapons and don’t use them enough to become proficient with them.

Shooting sports are very popular

There are some 65-70 million people in the world who currently participate in target shooting and hunting. The vast majority of uses of guns in developed countries are for sport. In the U.S., while guns are used in defensive purposes about two million times a year, and for gun crime 0.6 million times a year, there are at least 26 million people who participate in various shooting sports, including nearly 14 million hunters (pdf file).

Shooting sports were part of the first modern Olympics in 1896. Today there are 18 different shooting sports events in the Summer Olympics, and 8 biathlon events in the Winter Olympics. In both the Summer and Winter Olympics, more nations participate in the shooting sports events than in any other sport. The International Paralympics also feature 16 shooting sport events.

Legal weapons ownership is not associated with crime

A US Justice Department study (pdf file) tracking a cohort of boys through four years of high school in Rochester, NY, found that boys who owned legal guns had lower rates of drug abuse, delinquency, and crime than boys who owned no guns did. One of the authors of the study, criminologist Alan Lizotte, says that this finding is consistent with several other studies he has conducted that show that boys who own illegal guns are socialized by illegal gun-owning peers, and they commit significantly more crime than those who not own guns, or those who own legal guns. Sport gun owner kids tend to be socialized by parents, and in general they are involved in less criminal activity than either illegal gun owners or non-owners.

According to Florida State University criminologist Dr. Gary Kleck, US firearms owners are more likely to be middle and upper middle class who are not as a group psychologically abnormal, more racist, sexist, or violence-prone, and more often are married and living in stable families. And they use their weapons primarily for sport–target shooting and hunting.

Ethical hunting develops positive values and ethics

To understand the mind of the hunter, one must distinguish between sadistic criminal behavior toward animals, such as torture and mutilation, and the motivations of the ethical hunter. Sadism involves prolonged suffering of victims. Ethical hunters seek a quick, clean kill.

When University of Nebraska-Omaha criminologist Chris Eskridge compared hunting license sales with violent crime rates on a county-by-county basis throughout the United States, he found a significant inverse correlation; i.e. as hunting license sales go up, violent crime goes down. Eskridge concluded that hunting serves as an outlet for stress and tension that otherwise could contribute to violent behavior.

Using the ProQuest Psychology Search Engine that indexes over 400 journals in the fields of anthropology, psychology, and psychiatry, I found 258 articles that use the word “hunting.” None report any studies of hunting and mental illness. I spoke with the Research Department of the American Psychological Association. They agree that hunters are not prone to mental illness. In fact, the opposite seems true.

Dr. Melvin Konner, Emory University professor of psychiatry and anthropology, in his award-winning book, The Tangled Wing, based on a seven-year study of the biological origins of human behavior supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, states: “…there is little or no evidence, physiological or behavioral, to suggest that predatory aggression has much in common with intra-species aggression.”

Many of the best-respected behavioral scientists of our times, including Sigmund Freud, William James, Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, Marie-Louise von Franz, and Karl Menninger, have written that hunting is a natural, healthy part of human nature. It is a very basic instinct programmed into the master computer of our species for survival purposes for over two million years that has been elevated by ethics to become a “sport,” which enables us to express our basic biological identity, and be guided by social ethics, religious teachings, and laws.

Dr. Erich Fromm summed up these opinions in his widely-acclaimed study of the causes and prevention of violence, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness:

In the act of hunting, a man becomes, however briefly, part of nature again. He returns to the natural state, becomes one with the animal, and is freed from the burden of his existential split: to be part of nature and to transcend it by virtue of his consciousness. In stalking the animal he and the animal become equals, even though man eventually shows his superiority by use of his weapons.

“Predatory aggression,” as Fromm calls hunting, is a positive form of biologically adapted aggression, the expression of which is good for mind, body and spirit. Fromm said that the motivation of the modern ethical sport hunter is pleasure fused with compassion.  He also states that this contrasts sharply with the motivation of the sadist, who might torture and kill pets or other small animals, for that is revenge.

Health professionals Eaton, Shostak, and Konner, write in their outstanding health and fitness book, The Paleolithic Prescription, that devaluing hunting traditions can weaken healthy social standards and even contribute to juvenile delinquency. They write:

Our ‘ hunting instinct’ has gone awry in ‘civilized’ society, where the thrill of the chase and the kill are no longer part of our experience and there are no clear avenues of expression except, perhaps to our peril, in the streets and subways of today’s urban jungles.

Thanks to hunter education, which is now required in all 50 states, it’s now statistically safer to be in the woods during hunting season than to drive to the woods. According to the National Safety Council, hunting is far safer than baseball, tennis, golf, and even ping-pong.

We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education is sadly neglected.

-Henry David Thoreau

For those who want to explore the psychology of hunting and sport shooting in more detail, see my research paper “Peaceful Arms,” and/or my book In Defense of Hunting.

Image copyright iStockPhoto.com/Mark Rose

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