Op-Ed: A Disease of the Soul by George Merrill


“I’ll give you the gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands.” This statement has appeared variously over the years. It’s been canonized (no pun intended) in America recently when then president of the NRA, Charlton Heston concluded a fiery speech with this same phrase while he triumphantly raised an old flintlock in his hand high in the air.

The message is clear, but the deeper meaning of it is more hidden and insidious. I have not read or seen any media coverage of conversations about where the passion originates for owning firearms, especially the kind designed exclusively to kill other human beings. They are not for target practice, skeet shooting or for hunting deer or rabbits. The assault weapons are for war and conquest, not for a for a day’s shoot at the gun club. Their primary purpose is to kill an enemy efficiently and quickly.

If you’re not in combat where the passion for having the gun makes sense, in a civilized society this passion seems odd, out of place, as if it’s addressing an unacknowledged need that has been kept hidden and only expressed obliquely.

Is there some driving force about this disturbing trend in gun violence – so far perpetrated exclusively by men or boys – that has not reached the light of day? I suspect there’s a strong possibility that some of the same priapic obsessions that have recently come to light as the sexual abuse epidemic has exposed wealthy and powerful men, also relates to the sense of power and dominance that owning and shooting guns may produce in some gun enthusiasts. Men are three times as likely to possess guns than women, and from all appearances, the ones mostly inclined to use them in mass shootings.

As vigorously as the NRA tries to recruit gun ownership among women, guns remain a guy thing.

Human sexuality has always been a delicate matter to examine openly. Historically women have been more candid than men have and Freud’s revelations, while informing us, rocked society for generations. If human sexuality was a tidy matter, it would not be coming up today in ways that expose how little we have known about it and how our sexuality insinuates itself into all aspects of our lives, not infrequently through violence. In common banter, a man accused of shooting blanks is an insult to his virility. All of the variations in the themes of our sexuality are slowly being recognized and discussed but not all are comfortable in recognizing our discoveries or even talking about them.

What has characterized all the mass shootings is the powerful exercising their power over the powerless. The shooters are all male and each seems seem driven by dark forces of the soul of which they remain unaware. Essentially, having the weapon empowers the shooter. The victims have little if any means of protection. They’re sitting ducks. I suspect such power can be the ultimate aphrodisiac. Although not lethal, the sexual predator demonstrates a similar power by exercising his will over those who, who for a variety of social or professional reasons, cannot resist or fight back.

The mass killer and the sexual predator have this much in common: in addition to being male, a dread of psychological and social impotence and very likely other kinds as well.

I think we are talking here about a disease of the soul that is becoming a national epidemic.

Montaigne, the wise observer of our human condition wrote this four hundred years ago.

“ . . . the diseases of the soul, the greater they are keep themselves more obscure: the most sick are the least sensible of them . . . they must often be dragged into light by an unrelenting and pitiless hand. . . from the caverns and secret recesses of the heart.”

In order to treat diseases, they first have to be identified and then the public alerted and remedial action taken. Our congress may be our best hope right now. Congress has a majority of men with extraordinary social and economic capital who can exercise significant power on behalf of the powerless . . . like our children.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. David Lloyd says:

    And the number of mass shootings of late makes this even scarier! Enhanced background checks yes. But add the law that was allowed to expire in 2004 during the W. Bush administration — no purchases of automatic guns, period! As Mr. Merrill notes, killing deer with an assault rifle makes no sense (if for no other reason than you would be eating bullets, not deer meat!). Very exciting that young adults are getting involved! Now the rest of us need to get out there and vote!

  2. Martha Suss says:

    I get your points…But getting congress to accomplish anything these days is an “act of Congress” more than ever and they are a soulless bunch of self serving do nothings themselves. Beholden to their donors ie the NRA, the Koch Bros etc.

  3. Lawrence Myers says:

    Merrill cogently relates two heretofore untied phenomena: sexual predation and gun power, both stemming from male dominance insecurities. But the male need to demonstrate dominance is far broader than these two issues in our society. Women are familiar with glass ceilings. Blacks are familiar with police bias expressed in shoot first. Protestors are familiar with massed force.

    Our young are taught to accept lockdowns and passive waiting for paramilitary forces whose training is now based on rules of war, not rules of civil society. And the armed forces/Defense Department/Homeland Security are more than happy to take on the role of national savior, demanding ever more of our national budget and asking for admiration for their sacrifices in endless conflicts. Don’t you see a pattern here? This is a tremendously insecure society, particularly older, white and male, turning to the use of overwhelming force as a psychological crutch. Those who understand history know that ancient Rome followed the same path in its decline from a republic to a dictatorship hoping for salvation from its legions.

    The public fixation on individual mental aberrations in mass shootings is missing the key point that guns are an integral element of a much larger social pathology.

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