From hunter to hunted

Ancient vase depicting the Greek myth of Actaeon, the Hunter

Amid the debate about guns and violence little seems to be said about the true nature of guns. Some say “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” and in some sense this is correct. People have killed each other for a long time, well before guns were invented. Guns are an extension of killing technology; from fist, to club, to knife, to sword, to arrow, to spear to gun…and from gun to rocket, to intercontinental ballistic missile. What unifies all these is aggression. Whatever justifications offered in favor of guns, nothing changes this truth: guns are essentially tools of aggression.

The roots of aggression are complex, set deeply and many-branched. Animals are hard-wired to detect threats and respond, in many cases through the use of physical force. Claws, fangs, venom, muscle strength, and threatening vocalizations are variously employed to drive away threats. These same tools are employed by predators to kill other animals for food. Human beings share a common history of biological development with wild animals; that aggression is among the tools available to people is not surprising.

What distinguishes people from other animals, however, are sophisticated forms of communication that can be used instead of aggression. Our ability to reason employs what appear to be uniquely human abilities of complex abstract and recursive thought, in short the ability to see things from another person’s point of view and thereby provide alternatives to our primitive hard-wired threat response of aggression.

Fear is a powerful emotion that emanates within our most primitive biological underpinnings. If our survival is threatened our involuntary limbic system kicks in; adrenaline begins to flood our body, heart rate and respiration increase, reflexes become more sensitive, muscles tighten. Our response to fear moderates with the nature of the threat, but changes only by degree. Those who have difficulty dealing with fear and cannot moderate their response often respond to even minimally threatening situations as if they are a matter of life and death.

For those who live in a constant state of anxiety and fearfulness with over-stimulated limbic systems and bodies constantly flooded with stress hormones, readily available guns can create dangerous problems for themselves and others. Moreover, while danger remains an ordinary experience of being human, artificial stimulation of fear is an effective means of making money. Commercial entertainment – video games, movies, television and the like – are buttressed by an incessant cultural narrative about dangerous terrorists, drug dealers, street crime, and gangs, all serving to keep one’s limbic system working overtime. Will reason overcome our aggressive response to fear? One hopes, and the widespread availability of guns is currently front and center in considering this question.

I am reminded of the Greek myth of Actaeon the Hunter. While hunting with his hounds Actaeon stumbled upon the chaste Goddess Artemis bathing naked in the woods. Artemis, protector of woodland and wildlife, cast a spell forbidding him to speak, and if he should he would be instantly transformed into a stag. Upon hearing his hunting party Actaeon cried out, and was transformed. Changed from hunter to hunted, he was pursued by his own pack of hounds and torn to pieces.

Unless reason intervenes, our continuing aggression against nature and each other risks the retribution of Mother Earth, while the 300 million guns we own, it appears, may hound us to our death.