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Toxic weapons

In today's world, humans have become the major factor affecting our own environment - and I don't just mean ecology. Of course we are affecting the environment, causing creeping climate change and dramatic variations in weather. But we also have a huge effect on what's around us in the most mundane sense, the things that we work with and use on an everyday basis, what might be called our technological environment. One of the new things we've introduced to that technological environment is certain types of guns, and they're poisoning us from the inside out.

I know that my surroundings matter. It's a vital part of my practice to spend time with my landbase, and my watershed, and to go to places that are set apart to be a little wilder, a little less managed by humans, where the spirit of the place has more ways to express itself. I have relationships there; I spend time with certain beings, trees and animals, experiencing the place through different points of view. And I engage with the environment in its totality, watching the turning of the Wheel of the Year, always similar, never the same. I can tell you that I'm a different person when I spend more time in these sorts of "green" spaces.

Whether you attribute these effects of our surroundings to a spiritual interaction or merely our own psychology, it is undeniable that these interactions affect us, tweaking the alchemy occurring within the vessel of the human spirit, for better or worse. We know, too, that this happens in our technological environments. I'm a different person with an iPhone in my hand. The differences may be subtle - constant connectivity encourages me to be more concerned about what's happening at every moment in my "social network" - but they matter, as when I pass up the actual human socializing happening in my physical location to check on the state of the digital landscape.

So why would it be any different with guns?

Gun advocates like the National Rifle Association are anxious to absolve guns of any role in mass shootings like the three that have rocked our country in the past month. To do so they rely upon the idea that guns - and any technology, or any part of our surroundings - are merely instruments, and that as instruments they can have no effect upon us. We are superior to our instruments, they say; we use tools, tools don't use us. They insist tools can never shape us, never change us, never affect us.

But I know differently. I know my environment - ecological and technological - affects me in an ongoing way.

Guns are particular kinds of tools. There are some things that guns are inherently designed to do, and others they are not. I'm not talking about the ethical implications of using a gun; yes, it matters whether someone goes on a murderous rampage with a gun or a police officer uses a gun to stop a rampage. Either way, guns are being used to shoot, the function that is inherent in a gun's design. Sure, you can work around that to a certain extent - a rifle can be used as a prybar - but not entirely. A gun isn't made to water a tree; its design makes that very nearly impossible.

The purposes inherent in that design mean that a gun is a tool that changes how we see the world. Our perception of our surroundings is affected by possessing a gun just as much as our perception shifts when pay attention to a more natural environment and are reminded that we are not the only living beings in the world.

Over at the Atlantic, there's a more detailed discussion of the philosophical considerations behind this:

What the NRA position fails to convey, therefore, are the perceptual affordances offered by gun possession and the transformative consequences of yielding to these affordances. To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape. It not only offers people, animals, and things to interact with, but also potential targets.

An earth-centered practice encourages us to see life all around us and to realize that we interact with our surroundings constantly. What I put in the water affects the trees that clean the air and provide oxygen for me. These things even happen at great distances, and subtle changes matter: if we use CFCs and destroy the ozone layer, skin cancer increases. Pesticides, fruit trees, bees, honey, and I all interact. We become both subject and object in a vast web of interdependent relationships.

But guns create an emphasis on unidirectional interaction. Most of the technological innovation involved in guns is that they can be used to affect (kill, destroy) someone or something that's pretty distant from you - all the way over there before it has a chance to get to you and affect you - at least, you hope. More importantly, from the perspective of life, guns invite us to see the potential for death all around us. This is what it's designed to do: disrupt and destroy things, mostly living things, so that they die. This purpose is inherent in the physical nature of the gun just as the reminder that we do not occupy this earth alone is inherent in the physical nature of a forest.

It's time for me to point out that I am not a pacifist, and I gladly eat meat, including meat from animals that have been hunted. I can even, I suppose, theoretically understand a desire for excellence in target shooting as a sport. I do not see all guns as irredeemable manifestations of evil. But some kinds of guns and gun technology are so inherently dangerous that they should not be available.

No regular citizen can have a legitimate use for an automatic weapon or an assault rifle or a high-capacity magazine. (In fact, I doubt that most law-enforcement agencies have nearly as much need for them as they like to pretend. Cops are not immune to the siren song of the gun - in fact, if they carry them and rely on them on a regular basis, they're at more risk for having their perception irreparably altered.) We've agreed on this before, and it helped. These things can only shift our perception in the direction of violence, deadly violence against other human beings that has no place in civil society.

The latest shooting in Texas may be the best example yet. It's too early to know much for sure, but initial reports about the contents of the shooter's Facebook page suggest a man enamored of guns and gun violence. We don't know what kinds of weapons he used, but I would be entirely unsurprised if the kind of firepower he had at his disposal affected the way that shooting occurred.

There is stronger evidence to indicate that the available technology played a role in multiple recent shootings. We know the Aurora shooter was overarmed to a bizarre degree. Reports indicate that his assault rifle jammed, possibly in part because of the magazine he had attached. Before it jammed, that magazine would have allowed him to fire approximately one shot every second for nearly two full minutes. After it jammed, he had to switch to another weapon - another weapon! It is unclear whether the shooter at the Sikh gurdwara used high-capacity clips, but he certainly had a surfeit of ammunition available.

We do know with absolute certainty that a high-capacity clip for a semiautomatic handgun increased the violence of the shooting in Tucson in January of 2011 that killed several and injured Rep. Gabby Giffords. That shooter was apprehended when he stopped to change magazines. As I've said before, if he had had a smaller magazine, he would have gotten off fewer shots, and some of those hurt or killed would be alive and uninjured.

Freely allowing assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in our technological environment is the equivalent of wantonly dumping toxic waste into our ecologies. It affects us; it can't not. The fact that some people remain (apparently) unaffected does not mean the effects aren't happening. The difference is that carcinogens work within our cells, poisoning them until some of them turn against the rest of our bodies. We don't always know exactly why it is that some cells succumb and others don't, but there is no question that the carcinogens play a role. We do know some cells are more vulnerable, and that nearly all of us have some of these vulnerabilities. Weapons of extreme violence poison our psyches, causing some individuals to turn against the body politic. We don't always know why some people snap and others don't; we do know that all of our communities have people who can be susceptible to this kind of influence and go on to hurt and kill others.

Saying that guns don't cause shootings is like saying radiation doesn't cause cancer: people just happen to get cancer because of the way their cells react to the radiation, and we can't control that, so the radiation isn't responsible.

We swim in an environment polluted with weapons of extreme violence and we wonder why the cancer of mass shootings continues to metastasize throughout our society.

How long will we wait before we stop poisoning ourselves with toxic weapons?

Last modified on
Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the history of magic with the support of her husband and four cats. Please note that all opinions expressed here are Literata's alone and do not reflect the positions of any organization with which she is affiliated.


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Tuesday, 14 August 2012

    I am a second-amendment rights defender, and owner of a large variety of weapons, including handguns, rifles, and shotguns. But among the weapons we own as a family is NOT any high-capacity semi-automatic assault rifles or high capacity magazines for any weapons. I totally agree with you that such weapons have no legitimate civilian use and should be banned from private ownership. For another story on Paganism and guns, please see our story elsewhere on this site

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Tuesday, 14 August 2012

    I doubt I will ever understand the (largely American) desire to own guns. If you live in a rural area and you keep livestock, I understand you need something to keep the predators out but beyond that? Where is the fun in owning a gun? Why do you need a gun when so few others in other countries who are in a similar situation need one?
    Thank you for this post, Literata, I fear I will never understand the attraction of guns on human beings. I'm sure this post is going to kick up some dust but what you said is worth saying.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Tuesday, 14 August 2012

    @Elani: regarding "why own a gun?" It's a conundrum that better people than I have trouble explaining, so I'll stick with a personal reflection.

    Why do *I* own guns?
    1. For ultimate self-protection. I used to live in a town in which there was one sheriff for 250 square MILES. (That's roughly 500 square kilometers.) Even today, when I live in the suburbs, I realize that my family's protection in extreme situations may depend on me (or my husband and sons.)

    2. Target shooting is a LOT of fun and relaxing. I wrote about this extensively in a SageWoman editorial many years ago, but the basics are: it requires absolute focus, and provides a great deal of visceral and tactile feedback. All I can say is that I *love* shooting and don't get to do nearly enough of it (it's expensive.)

    All our guns are kept in a locked cabinet, with the ammo locked in a separate cabinet for security.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Monday, 24 September 2012

    I agree that violence has no place in a civil society. I would certainly not like to live in a place where I had to worry daily about my own safety. But I do not think guns are toxic, any more than I think my own hands are toxic. I have trained in martial arts for 17 years. I have black belts in two systems. I know all sorts of way to hurt or kill people with my bare hands, and I have considerable training with both blade and stick. About five years ago, I started to wonder what having that knowledge made me. Was I evil because I knew these things?

    I spent some time talking to others in the Pagan community, especially veterans, to help me understand what I was feeling. The conclusion was that it was not the skills, but how they were applied that mattered. This is true of my hands, it is even more true of a sword, or knife that we might use to cast our circle, or an AR15 with a 30-round magazine.

    I believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity, but I also know that bad things happen, and sometimes bad things happen because people do them. Not inanimate objects, people.

  • Literata
    Literata Tuesday, 25 September 2012

    Knowing those things or having those abilities doesn't make you evil. It does make you a different person.

    I'm not saying that you shouldn't know those things. I've studied martial arts (at a very low level) myself. I'm saying that the choices we make have repercussions; the way we structure our environment (mental, emotional, and physical) affects our future choices. Choosing to have lots and lots of very violent weapons, especially ones with no possible peaceful civilian uses, affects the choices we make. It doesn't control them, but it has a shaping influence, and I think that we tend to ignore that influence to our own peril.

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