Family responsibility, fantasy life, and American gun culture

I don’t want to spend the day crying, but here are two interesting articles on gun culture and family responsibility that you might find interesting.  First, sociologist Randall Collins says in Lessons from Newtown for Gun-Owning Parents what I was trying to say in this post, only with actual knowledge and a sociological perspective.  He writes about the murderer and his mother:

How could she be so blind? Everything her son did, she interpreted as a manifestation of his illness. The windows taped shut with black plastic were to her just a sign of sensitiveness to light—even though he could go outdoors when he wanted to. The possibility that he was hiding something in the rooms she was forbidden to enter was masked in her own mind by the feeling that she must do everything possible for her son. He had drawn her into his mental illness, building up a family system where he was in complete control. She may have felt something was wrong, wronger even than having a mentally ill son she loved. Though it seems unlikely that they quarreled in an overt way, some signs of tension came through. According to the report, “a person who knew the shooter in 2011 and 2012 said the shooter described his relationship with his mother as strained” and said that “her behavior was not rational.” He told another that he would not care if his mother died. As usual, when one person loves the other much more than is reciprocated, the power is all on the side of the less loving.

The mother entered into and supported his obsession with weapons, while carefully staying out of his clandestine world. In this, as in the rest of their arrangements, they tacitly cooperated. The mother lost her capacity to make independent judgments. This is very close to the classic model of the mental illness shared among intimates, the folie à deux.

Next, Joan Wickersham buys three gun enthusiast magazines and analyzes what they’re selling their readers–mostly fantasies that combine total powerlessness (due to end times, the collapse of civilization, or maybe Barack Obama’s evil stormtroopers) with the belief that a lone gunowner can offer heroic resistance:

Post-Newtown, post-George Zimmerman, when so many people are baffled by America’s gun culture and the failure of Congress to push back against the gun lobby, maybe we can learn something by looking at the gun periodicals and the stories they tell, both explicit and implicit. The gun books are full of the fantasy of being the aggressor, of wielding power (the Kalashnikov upgrades, the silencers). But there’s also the fantasy of being the protector. There’s talk about hunting and competition, but the real story is about an America whose currency is violence and whose message is shoot or be shot. In this story you are Clint Eastwood, or Rambo. You need to be prepared — for a burglar, for someone else’s road rage, for an attack that will require you to ricochet bullets across trunks, for the end of civilization (“My wife has more freeze-dried food than I do, and my son has more ammo,” says an article titled “What Gun is in Your Bug-Out Bag?”). One of these days someone is going to threaten to use deadly force against you or your loved ones. Maybe you’ll need to use your AK-47 or Sig Sauer P226, or maybe brandishing it at the guy who is pointing his AK-47 or Sig Sauer P226 at you will actually prevent a gunfight.

These magazines should be illustrated like comic books:  maybe some of their readers would get the joke.  However, given the pathetic state of white American masculinity, I don’t think that’s likely.  Do you know what is more likely?  Your gun will be used by you or someone in your home in a homocide or a suicide.  Wickersham writes, “The only person I’ve ever known who died of a gunshot wound was my father, who shot himself with a handgun he’d had for 20 years; he bought it to protect his family. The really dangerous fantasy is thinking that despite, or even because of, all this deadly firepower, no one will get hurt.”

At the end of his article, Collins makes an obvious but still very important point:  gun safety starts at home, and so does preventing another school, university, or shopping mall murder spree:

My recommendation is to gun owners themselves. The issue of gun control in the United States has been mainly treated as a matter of government legislation. That pathway has led to political gridlock. That does not mean that we can do nothing about heading off school shootings. Simply put: Keep alienated youths from building a clandestine arsenal where they nurture fantasies of revenge on the school status system, or whatever problems they have with their personal world. Gun-owning parents are closest to where this is most likely to happen. We need a movement of gun-owning parents who will encourage each other to make sure it doesn’t start in our home.

Except they’re the parents who are likely buying and reading these comic-book fantasies/illustrated catalogs for gun manufacturers, who honestly think that End Times or the Obamacare Stormtroopers are more of a threat than the home arsenals they’ve assembled.  I don’t think it’s probably wise to trust their judgement, but at this point, that’s all we’ve got.

35 thoughts on “Family responsibility, fantasy life, and American gun culture

  1. As I read this (sadly) there is an active shooter situation in Colorado at yet another school. We need to win this “battle” faster. As a former academic and a current high school teacher I convince myself everyday that I have done everything possible to keep my students and me safe from this type of violence. I hope it is true.


  2. Randall Collins’ reading of mental illness (“Mental illness, although it is a noun, is not a thing: It is a behavior pattern that is seen when persons interact”) probably sounds super sexy to sociologists, but it is also flat wrong.

    And since he is more interested in pathologizing the patterns between people than their inner struggles – it seems as though he’s still a few path reports shy of a diagnosis. He wrote not one word about any circumstance in Adam Lanza’s life aside from his mother. The father, again, is completely erased. The friends Adam confided in about his lack of feeling for his mother (supposedly markedly different from other teens’ confidences)? What were the contours of those relationships?

    I am also intensely curious about how Collins was able to measure the comparative amounts of love between Adam and Nancy.

    That’s her name, by the way. Nancy. The dead woman, Nancy.

    I mention it because, except for one lone use, Collins calls her “the mother,” over and over again. So it’s easy to forget that she’s a person, Nancy, not The Mother, archetypal rampage catalyst.


  3. The writings about gun murders above are probably correct. Yet, the points are obvious and not useful. There are always going to be abbreviations such as Adam and Nancy. Responsible parenting will not prevent irresponsible parents.

    The mass shooting phenomenon is an exception, actually a rare exception. What isn’t an exception is the massive, unlimited, widely encouraged and politically strong support of guns for everyone.


  4. I, too, was uncomfortable with the “when one person loves the other much more than is reciprocated, the power is all on the side of the less loving” formulation. “Love” is a complicated (set of) emotion(s), and tends to be experienced, and acted out, in complicated, and gendered (and raced and aged) ways. I don’t think it can be measured and weighed on a scale. It’s also worth noting that Adam Lanza does seem to have cared — in some way, which we will never understand — about his mother (what she thought about him, whether she outlived him, something else?). How do we know? He shot her, when it seems that he could simply have left the house without interacting with her at all.

    In some way, his statement that his mother’s “behavior was not rational” strikes me as more interesting than the one that he didn’t care if she died. The latter strikes me as not terribly unusual in a teenager (especially one who might actually fear the loss of a parent very much); the former could be a projection of his fears about himself, or a reflection of a very rigid personality that clung to the ideal of the “rational” as a talisman, or a repetition of something he’d heard his father (or some other authority figure) say. All would be telling, in one way or another.

    All of the above said, I do buy the argument that Nancy Lanza was complicit in the Newtown murders (including her own), because she supplied the weapons, and failed to take note of the very real signals that something dangerous was building in her own house. And I like the idea of broadening the idea of safe gun ownership to include noticing and acting on such signals. If we’re going to have a culture that normalizes gun ownership, then we also need one that normalizes (and makes legally feasible) going to someone appropriate and trustworthy — the police, a pastor, a mental health professional, a friend, a family member, the owner of a gun shop or range — and saying “I’m in a situation where I need my home to be free of guns for the moment. Please secure these for me, and return them in the following circumstances.”

    At the same time, I have considerable sympathy for Nancy Lanza as someone who did what she believed to be her best in a terrible situation with which she had been struggling for a very long time. It’s a lot easier to see the mistakes from outside the situation than inside (and very easy to see how the current culture of gun ownership, as described by Wickersham, would make it even less likely that she reconsider shooting as a family hobby).

    As for Adam’s father, I’m not sure we have enough information to know whether he was irresponsible to Nancy and Adam, or responsible to himself and his other son, or perhaps a bit of both. The “folie a deux” picture is plausible, and it’s not only very hard to force an adult (whether son or wife) into treatment if (s)he resists, it’s probably also very hard to press for an alternative course of treatment for a young adult child when the child’s primary caregiver resists.

    So I guess I mostly buy Collins’ argument, including some of his points about power/family dynamics, while thinking that he also oversimplifies them in some ways.


  5. CNN comments section today, “It’s the parents’ fault. They don’t raise their children right.”

    Why on earth does that matter for the innocent victims? We can’t force people to raise their children right, even if that’s the truth of what the problem is (doubtful). We can, however, make it harder for kids who weren’t raised right to get weapons that can kill a lot of people.


  6. “I, too, was uncomfortable with the ‘when one person loves the other much more than is reciprocated, the power is all on the side of the less loving’ formulation.

    I think that’s just reality. Family relationships are always about power at least as much as they’re about love. It’s like the madman theory of political bargaining: the side that cares more about the consequences of doing (or not doing) something will always cave. There is more power in not caring, especially when the person who doesn’t care has been supplied with a home arsenal by his mother.


  7. I think that’s just reality. Family relationships are always about power at least as much as they’re about love. It’s like the madman theory of political bargaining: the side that cares more about the consequences of doing (or not doing) something will always cave. There is more power in not caring, especially when the person who doesn’t care has been supplied with a home arsenal by his mother.

    I agree, and the statement makes a bit more sense to me when you substitute “care” for “love.” It makes even more sense (and, perhaps, better describes the power dynamics)if you substitute something like “is invested in a particular outcome.” Nancy Lanza was, I think, very much invested in a particular outcome (or, perhaps, a sliding scale of increasingly-less-satisfactory-to-her outcomes, ranging from Adam having something resembling a normal life to his at least staying connected to her in some way). It’s much less clear what Adam Lanza was invested in; in fact, I doubt he knew himself. I’d still argue, though, that shooting his mother despite the fact that she wasn’t likely to impede his other plans shows that he had some pretty strong feelings about her, or at least associated with her. She was powerful, or at least represented something powerful, in his eyes.


  8. One of my thoughts was, “I wonder how they feel now, the NRA tools who worked against the Colorado Democrats who passed the teeny tiny gun control law?”

    But I’m just a slow learner. The gun mags make it too clear. If there had been more guns, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Right? Duh.



  9. Guns are always the solution, never the problem.

    There still is no information about where the shooter got his gun, which apparently was a shotgun. Unless it was purchased very recently it would not have been subject to the gun laws passed here earlier this year. No word on his age, but of course, no one under 18 can (yet) walk into a gun shop or show and buy a gun. My bet is that it was unsecured–or retrievable by him–in a home to which he had access (his parents are divorced & so he had access to two residences.) So Collins’s recommendations might have stopped this person from hurting his classmates and killing himself.


  10. It’s interesting that after the fact, people look at this young person’s heartlessness, endless playing of violent violent video games, and obsession with guns and say, surely this parent ought to have realized this person was bonkers! When before the fact, undoubtedly this parent of a mentally very unwell person was clinging to these behaviours as giving some heartening evidence of normalcy.

    I think Cordelia Fine’s wonderful book has been mentioned here (_Delusions of Gender__,), but the relentless campaign to insist boys (and of course later men) are “bad” at emotion, and naturally insensitive to others, etc. etc. isn’t an idea this one parent carved out of soap on her own.

    Ditto for the video games and guns: I am guessing it was really, really reassuring to her to be able to say to herself and others, “oh, you know, young men and their shoot ’em up video games! Young men and guns! They just love them!”

    And the fact is — 90% of people with whom she had those conversations would not react with horror and disgust. They’d chuckle fondly. After the fact, we all think, oh, but combined with black plastic over the windows? But BEFORE the fact, it’s probable that she was thinking, yeah, black plastic over the windows — that’s his autism. But the guns and video games and heartless hostility? That’s all boy!

    Writing about a very different sort of case, Nick Hornby has a wonderful account in his novel _A Long Way Down_ about the desire to have some “normal” points of contact with your child and with others when your child is not “normal” (the child of one of the characters in the novel is profoundly cognitively disabled, and Hornby has a child with what sounds like pretty involved autism). In the novel, it revolves around the mom sort of creating a version of events in which her teenage son is a fan of a particular football club — it’s harmless and the only consequences are sort of sad and awkward. But the point is this kind of “normalizing” — including in terms of gender norms – is really understandable.

    What we might want to return to is how frighteningly disturbed are some of the available narratives about gender normalcy.


  11. Kathleen: I agree entirely. I wrote about this last year in the aftermath of the Newtown murders and suggested that no one would have permitted a girl child to be so socially and emotionally withdrawn and unempathetic as the murderer in Newtown was permitted to become. I still stand by that judgment: the same behavior in a girl or young woman would have meant that her parents would have insisted on theraputic intervention long before it got too far.


  12. It was so obvious that the article was written by a man.
    Cherchez la femme and all that.
    I still think that Nancy Lanza was in a kind of hostage situation; she might have been terrified of Adam.
    If she had called the police, they wouldn’t have helped her because he hadn’t done anything illegal, and she would have been left in the house with a pissed off psychopath.
    It’s my belief that Mrs. Lanza was a victim of domestic abuse long before her son pulled the trigger.
    Collectively, we grant women, especially mothers-post mortem-all kinds of magical powers that they do not possess.


  13. I still stand by that judgment: the same behavior in a girl or young woman would have meant that her parents would have insisted on theraputic intervention long before it got too far
    Because, nine times out of ten, the parent wouldn’t be afraid of the girl: Afraid for but not afraid of.


  14. Nancy Lanza received almost $300,000 a year in alimony. She could have hired a team of personal bodyguards to help her remove Adam and the guns from the house. She didn’t understand, she didn’t see it, she didn’t know it was coming, but she was accidentally culpable by letting Adam have his fantasy world full of violence from the time he was a very young child and giving him the guns. She just didn’t fucking get it, the same way most Americans absolutely refuse to. Loving violence means wanting to try it out “for real”. DUH. Having the guns makes it so easy. DUH. The toxic media culture that says people exist to be exploited makes it that much easier. DUH. Masculinity that is one degree away from pure sociopathy says it is good to be this way. DUH.


  15. The Fascist Bush regime, the war machine, the fuck-people-capitalism, the drone strikes, the CEO’s and banksters who crash the economy and ship jobs overseas and then demand cuts for the little people — DUH.


  16. Sweet Sue: most parents are no more afraid of their boys than they are of their girls. If parents are afraid of their sons, then maybe they should reflect as to why that is. Why were they capable of raising non-terrifying daughters but apparently unable to raise sons who aren’t violent? I understand your sympathies, but in Nancy Lanza’s case I think they are misplaced.

    I’m dubious of your argument here for the simple reason that Nancy Lanza continued to help her son assemble a home arsenal to the day they both died. I agree with Fran’s judgment and with Collins’s: Nancy Lanza was a willing accomplice in her son’s pathology as well as his first victim.

    For the most part, I agree with where you’re coming from (i.e. that mothers are unfairly blamed and fathers unfairly let off the hook in our culture). However, some mothers are doing a terrible job. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Nancy Lanza’s choices were neither in the best interests of her son nor of the community they lived in.


  17. We have the highest rate of child abuse in the industrialized world:

    We medicate our kids the most:

    Child poverty? Almost the worst:

    We spend all our money on the military (gun manufacturers are doing great!) and the social part of society has taken/is taking a huge hit as a result. The answer is not a magic pill, pretending the problem is isolated to the mentally ill; it’s not more medicating of kids, giving them speed addictions, diabetes, ticks, stigma, etc.


  18. I have of course zero insight to the Lanza family situation but I’m inclined to agree with Sweet Sue regarding domestic abuse in thus situation. I write this because I have seen that (albeit not involving guns) and can imagine easily how a mother becomes trapped in an unwell relationship with an extreme child. I’d further suggest that abusive behaviours are learned behaviours. This story is not just about the mother and child.


  19. I don’t understand why it’s so very important to say that Nancy did a terrible job but it is not at all important to say that Peter did a terrible job.

    If Nancy is to blame, it follows that Peter is to blame.

    But it seems there is no appetite for in blaming Peter.


    Why do we need more information before calling in a judgment about this father? Why is the standard of proof higher?

    It’s not my interest to take after him with a pitchfork, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    And if some people’s theory is that Peter left his very ill son in a home with ready access to guns and in the care of a woman who was not equipped to care for him, I don’t understand how those same people’s theory is so silent about Peter’s level of culpability.

    One does not simply divorce one’s son.


  20. From what I understand, the father of the murderer didn’t decide to cut off contact; the murderer made that decision. Why? We don’t know. Maybe because the father wouldn’t cater to the pathology and insisted on treatment? Maybe because he refused to buy the kid guns? Perhaps. I would love to hear his story, but I’m assuming that the reason we haven’t is that it’s probably much more morally complex & less politically satisfying than we would like to hear.

    I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to suggest that a woman who supplied a home arsenal to an unempathetic, isolated person with a documented extensive fantasy life involving violence going back to elementary school exercised bad judgment and parenting skills. I think that’s prima facie evidence of poor judgment, even if a mass murder isn’t the result. So much more often, it’s murder (usually of family members) and/or suicide.

    However, I freely admit that my analysis of her may well be defensive. There is a big part of me that needs to believe that situations like this one are avoidable and preventable **if people are pay attention.** I agree with Fran that the causes are many and systemic, but I also think Collins has a point that these mass-murderers have a pretty clear profile (young, male, and usually white) and history (extreme isolation & a fantasy life filled with violence).


  21. To follow up on curmudgeon’s point — if parents sort of signed off every time a teenage child said, “I hate you and want nothing to do with you”, well, we’d have a LOT of kids in the streets. I think the father saying it was his (at the time adolescent) son’s “choice” not to have a relationship rings a little convenient. It sounds as though the kid was one with whom people were glad to have a reason not to interact — though I say that really to avoid picking one parent over the other as “the problem parent”.

    I’m not too interested in heaping blame on either parent, there’s too much we don’t know about mental illness and too much we do know about how crap society is at dealing with a ton of things (guns, violence, gender, mental illness) for me to feel like that’s the most germane conversation to have.


  22. But in the absence of any political will to change things, how can change happen unless people look to themselves and their families? That’s what I liked about the Collins essay. We aren’t in control of everything in this life, but we can monitor and even control to some extent what happens in our own homes & families.

    Blaming parents after the fact of a mass-murder isn’t very productive, I agree. But we can learn from these examples, I think, and maybe people will change their own behavior (start locking up guns, or start thinking more critically about their sons’ engagement with violent fantasies and the rest of society, etc.)


  23. maybe people will change their own behavior

    I think many people writing about this story are looking for ways to not see themselves in it. As long as that is the case, there will be no substantive change.

    I do happen to feel connected to the story through my own life experience (albeit mild in comparison). One thing experience tells me is that you can’t understand the behaviour of the son without exmining the behaviour of the father. I tried to write this above but was perhaps too indirect.


  24. Sweet Sue: most parents are no more afraid of their boys than they are of their girls. If parents are afraid of their sons, then maybe they should reflect as to why that is. Why were they capable of raising non-terrifying daughters but apparently unable to raise sons who aren’t violent

    I’m not talking about parents; I’m talking about mothers.
    Adam Lanza didn’t live with his parents.

    Why were they capable of raising non-terrifying daughters but apparently unable to raise sons who aren’t violent

    Adam was taller and stronger than his mother.


  25. I think truffula makes an excellent point–at the same time that American culture normalizes male violence in its collective cultural fantasy life, it racializes and classes that same violence in the “real” world in ways that also hinder legislative action. Hence the people interviewed last year in Newtown who said something to the effect of “This is especially shocking and horrifying because we didn’t think this could happen someplace like *here,* to people like *us.*” There was a very similar quote in something about the Colorado shooting just yesterday, where “here” and “us” is code for wealthy suburban communities and white people with money. The unspoken assumption, of course, being that such violence is something that happens “there” (cities) to “them” (poor people of color).

    This strikes me as just as, if not more pernicious than the gun mag culture. Although coming to the question of gun control very much from an East Coast, urban perspective, I probably underestimate the power of the latter. There must be some interaction between them, at least at a micro level, given that the mass school shootings of recent years have all taken place in wealthy, predominantly white, suburban communities. Does the combination of an alienated, mentally ill young man immersed in gun culture + the suburban “It can’t happen here” attitude mean people are less inclined to intervene? I am struck by the contrast between such non-interventions as seem to have occured in the Lanza case, and the mass interventions that have been i stitutionalizes in many urban, minority neighborhoods, where every student is presumed to be inclined to armed violence, the prevention of which justifies extraordinary, quasi-military measures (metal detectors, locker checks, zero-tolerance behavior policies, etc.).

    Rather than pitting one explanatory framework against the other, it seems important to ask how the different cultural codes around guns and gun violence interact, and with what effects on preventative intervention at the individual level and on political intervention at the collective level.


  26. Just to clarify, it was truffula’s point about people not wanting to see themselves that got me thinking about the “This doesn’t happen here” response, although you were talking about nternal family dynamics. In terms of the political consequences, though, isn’t there a smilarly raced and classed set of assumptions at work there, too about when single parenting should be seen as pathological and this requiring society’s intervention?


  27. Sweet Sue: testosterone does not explain murderous rampages. Most men don’t behave this way, and most parents (mothers and fathers) aren’t afraid of their boys.

    Ellie, you make good points about the denial operating within communities as well as families. White, middle-class enclaves are **exactly** where these mass-murder rampages happen: in universities, in high schools, and in shopping malls. To some extent, denial is maybe a reasonable defense against always feeling vulnerable. But denial also (as you and truffula suggest) lets people off the hook from recognizing problems with isolated young men & doing something about it.

    That said: the Arapahoe High situation appears to be very different from the Sandy Hook murders in that the would-be murderer wasn’t socially isolated. Also, he apparently bought the shotgun and copious amounts of ammo himself, as he was 18. He came to school to settle a score with his debate coach, although the amount of ammo and the molotov cocktails on him suggest he may have intended greater damage than he inflicted.

    A 17-year old girl remains in critical condition this morning. She was apparently shot in the head randomly.


  28. @Historiann and @Ellie – I was really struck by Ellie’s point about the coded language of affluent white suburbanhood, and immediately thought of what Historiann wrote in her next comment. One never hears of alienated African American teenagers going into a poor high school and killing a mass of people. Yet middle class white people spend an enormous amount of time blaming the poor for their poverty and violence endemic in poor communities. Yet when violence becomes endemic in white affluent spaces we act as though it is akin to a freak accident that no one could stop, prevent, or foresee, even though the same thing happens over and over and over again.

    What fascinates me most about the Lanza case is the fact that he killed his mother. I’d be interested to read a professional profile of him for that reason. (If you look at family murder statistics, a son killing his mother is the *least* likely situation, by a significant statistical margin. Moreover, mass shooters generally do not hurt family members before their rampages. So clearly there are unique elements to what was going on here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the symbiotic – that’s not quite the right word, but perhaps you see what I mean – relationship that evolved between them made him feel like if he was going to die, she would have to die, too, as a kind of extension of himself.) But that is pure speculation on my part. I’m not a psychologist.


  29. “testosterone does not explain murderous rampages. Most men don’t behave this way, and most parents (mothers and fathers) aren’t afraid of their boys.”

    However if someone is behaving this way, then they are scarier when they are bigger and stronger than you. I agree with Sweet Sue. It is quite possible that a lot of what Nancy Lanza did and went along with was because she was afraid. To blame her after the fact like this seems rather cruel. She was left alone with this ticking time bomb that nobody else was willing to help her with, and when that time bomb goes off, then it’s her fault of course for not handling that time bomb like an expert bomb-defuser that all mothers instantly turn into once they give birth, not of the others who left her alone with that time bomb.


  30. The murderer was something like 112 pounds, soaking wet. He was no hulking beast, so “testosterone” does not explain anything. Furthermore, he was dependent on his mother in every way. She fed him. She protected him from having to deal with any part of the outside world he didn’t want to deal with. She also purchased every one of the guns he used in killing her, himself, and 26 others. He was permitted to live the life of a secretive, violence-obsessed well-armed toddler by one person: his mother. She may well have had reason to fear him by last fall, but that’s because SHE BOUGHT HIM THE HOME ARSENAL.

    If Nancy Lanza isn’t blameworthy, then apparently no mothering can ever be blamed. While in general I object to mother-blaming, in this case it seems entirely appropriate.


  31. Pingback: Wrung out. | Historiann

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