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Shrinking in an expanding world

Photo by Tony Webster, Minneapolis, Minn. 2010. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Tony Webster, Minneapolis, Minn. 2010. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Maybe gun control proponents should try harder to understand those fears, and where they come from.

Following a life-altering event, many of us are faced with two starkly different choices.

We can contract and withdraw into ourselves. Or we can gradually expand, grappling with both the acute pain and a new reality that’s dawning.

We may seek answers that will fit what we already think.

Or we might glimpse that since the world as we know it has been shattered, another response is possible.

Following watershed experiences such as a sudden loss of a loved one, a life-ending illness, or some other calamity, there is often a profound opportunity to grow in positive directions. Yet in order to adapt and go forward, we may need to look at things differently. And reassemble those pieces in a new way.

Psychologists call this modifying our assumptive world, applying Piaget’s theory of accommodation to how we process trauma. Rather than trying to fit the oversized jigsaw pieces from our old life back together—discovering that the new information, the new reality, cannot be shoehorned into what we’re used to–we’ve got to reimagine and solve a new puzzle.

I may be going out on a limb here, so please bear with me. I wonder if some of this applies to the distressing intransigence towards reducing gun violence in this country. Please of course jump in with your comments, or otherwise set me straight. Perhaps I am entering a political fantasyland.

Yet I wonder if there’s a connection between these individual responses to trauma and whether we expand or contract in our understanding of preventing mass shootings, and gun control.

Circling the wagons, blaming others, is a time-honored response.

For sure, this is such a complex issue. Both sides appear so polarized, and are often stereotyped as such by a lazy mainstream media that appears driven mainly by the latest extreme video footage. The vitriol that occasionally spews from gun owners who claim that the government is attacking their constitutional rights, or from liberals who know nothing about how firearms are legitimately used, or appear too aloof to acknowledge people’s fears—the noise can be deafening.

Yet isn’t this intransigence (often on both sides) an example of people contracting en mass? Withdrawing into their opinions, avoiding other worldviews–and even facts? Denying that there is common ground to find solutions?

Recently, a gun owner who lives in my region of Massachusetts wrote a letter to the The Boston Globe. He directed it to a man who had sat next to him on the commuter rail, an “angry liberal” whom he overheard ranting about the gun lobby such as the National Rifle Association.

The writer, an NRA card-carrying member, had a legally owned 9mm pistol in its holster, which he apparently carried for the extremely remote possibility of defending against a shooter on the train. The gun owner didn’t respond to the vocal gun opponent, writing:

“I don’t hate you. I don’t have any ill feelings toward you. I don’t wish to do you harm. And I don’t regret sitting next to you. On the contrary; I feel bad for you. It must hurt carrying that much hate inside of you.”

Last week, the truly modest executive orders on gun control announced by President Obama were predictably derided.

The measures include expanded background checks through a clarification of existing regulations, clear definitions of a licensed gun dealer’s responsibilities, and increased funding for mental health care. Before the massacre of nine people at a South Carolina church in June, the alleged shooter bought a .45-caliber handgun despite admitting to drug use. The New York Times reported that the F.B.I. director said a breakdown in the background check system had allowed the man charged to buy the gun.

The president, I believe to his credit, called out in an op-ed piece: “We all have a responsibility.”

What I will characterize as denial on this issue is systemic. Gun sales spike across the country following each mass shooting or proposal from the White House. Some of us might consider this response to be insidious, evidence that the gun lobby is accountable to no one and how fear-mongering reigns.

Yet perhaps gun control proponents should try harder to understand those fears, and where they come from.

Circling the wagons, blaming others, and arming oneself, is a time-honored response. To survive. To remain independent of an overreaching bureaucracy. To restore one’s sense of control in a world gone mad.

And slip that information into the fold of what one already believes.

To continue reading, please click here for my blog on Psychology Today. Be well.

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