October 4, 2017

Are Guns Satanic?


"Biggest Mystery in Las Vegas Massacre: The Killer’s Motive."

That was a headline in the New York Times two days after Sunday's massacre in Las Vegas, and the article that followed didn't have much to offer that would help solve the mystery. As I write, no articles have.

There's no indication Stephen Paddock had any particular political or racial animosities. No explanatory note or manifesto has emerged. Those who knew him say there's no evidence he was crazy, although of course anyone who did what he did certainly was. Still, as yet we have no idea why he would want to fire repeated fusillades of bullets into a crowd of thousands of country music fans. Whatever his motive, he clearly took his weaponry seriously. Police say he had 23 guns in his hotel room and 19 more at his home, together with thousands of rounds of ammunition. 
In the coming days and weeks we'll undoubtedly be hearing considerable discussion and debate about the need to limit access to guns, and for good reason. It's indisputable that the contagion of gun violence must be addressed. Nonetheless there's an aspect in the relationship between guns and gun owners that most if not all of those discussions will overlook. It's a subtle, speculative factor that relates to my interest in the impacts of technology. It's not meant to overshadow more straightforward explanations, among them that Stephen Paddock was simply a man filled with hatred.

Post-massacre pleas for gun control by definition focus on ways we can make it harder for murderers to get their hands on murderous firearms. The implicit subtext of this is that a gun is a tool that can be used or misused, depending on who's using it—the gun itself is innocent. This ironically echoes the rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, which has long argued that guns aren't the problem, bad people are. As second amendment absolutists are fond of saying, "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."

What we don't talk about is the influence of the gun on the person who becomes a perpetrator. On the one hand, to even suggest that the gun is in any way an active participant in the manner of its use seems more than a little screwy—it's an inanimate object, after all. On the other hand, we don't find it hard to understand that a gun gives a person who holds it a sense of power and invincibility he wouldn't otherwise possess. We can characterize that perception as nothing more than a psychological construct on the part of the gun holder. And indeed, it's a construct based on a significant measure of reality. If I have a gun and you don't, my invincibility isn't merely a product of my imagination. 

I believe there's more to it than that, though. I think guns can and do exert an influence of their own. This is an extension of a theory I discuss in my book, which holds that the same can be said of pretty much any inanimate object in our environment. We don't usually think much about it, but the fact is we're in relationship with the things that surround us, and that relationship is reciprocal.

In The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton explore the sorts of relationships people develop with the furniture, appliances and decorations in their homes. They describe these and other household items as signs, or “objectified forms of psychic energy.” An exchange of psychic energy, a transaction, occurs, they say, between individuals and the things they possess. We “charge” the objects around us with psychic energy and those objects return that energy in a sort of ongoing feedback loop.

Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton go a step further. They argue that the meaning of objects we encounter isn't limited to the meanings we project onto them. Objects make their own, independent contribution to the conversation by projecting into the world their inherent character and characteristics. Objects also arrive, they add, with built-in meanings “scripted” into them by the culture, and those meanings are communicated to us when we encounter them. “Without doubt,” Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton write, “things actively change the content of what we think is our self and thus perform a creative as well as a reflexive function.”

Family keepsakes, carriers of meaning

The idea that objects project meaning into the world finds support in philosopher Davis Baird’s concept of “thing knowledge.” Simply by being, Baird says, artifacts communicate knowledge of how they were built and why they work the way the do. Those who know how to “read” this knowledge can understand it as effectively as a printed diagram or a spoken explanation. That is why an inventor, simply by looking at a device, is able to incorporate its elements or principles into another device. It's also why companies can reverse engineer their competitors’ products. Baird's idea was anticipated by Henry Ford, who insisted that inventions are far more than lifeless objects. "You can read in every one of them what the man who made them was thinking—what he was aiming at," he said. "A piece of machinery or anything that is made is like a book, if you can read it. It is part of the record of man's spirit." This extends Marshall McLuhan's famous maxim that the medium is the message. The same can be said of any technology.

Guns communicate meaning more readily than most objects. They have a palpable presence. I'd wager that almost anyone who's taken hold of a revolver of any size has experienced the frisson—a sort of electrical shudder—it radiates. To assume the gun itself doesn't contribute to that frisson—to think it's all projection—is the same as assuming it makes no difference whether you live in a mansion or a ghetto. Again, whether we're aware of it or not, we're in relationship with the objects around us, and the relationship is reciprocal.

Saint Anthony tormented by demons

What caused Stephen Paddock to acquire the arsenal of guns he carried to his room at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino? It will be reassuring if and when specific answers are forthcoming. The fact that he owned so many firearms suggests that a process akin to addiction may have been at work—it's as if he was taken over by the desire to possess more and more guns. That desire might have worked synergistically with his absorption with gambling and his rootless lifestyle. And again, some form of hatred presumably played a decisive role.

Was he especially vulnerable, then, to the seductive entreaties of evil spirits? Given that a gun is built specifically for purposes of destruction, some religious people might describe the origin of its allure as Satanic. I mention Satan metaphorically. I personally am not religious—I'm agnostic—but I understand the symbolic power of religious imagery. Satanic influence can be interpreted as a way of acknowledging the possibility that we, like every organism on the planet, may be affected by an array of physical and psychic energies flying around and through us, including the energies emitted by proximate artifacts. Call those energies spirit, or spooky action at a distance, or information, or whatever. Just don't assume they don't exist.

In some sense, then, I think it likely that Stephen Paddock not only owned a lot of guns, but that he was also owned by them. His possession was obviously of the most extreme variety. Still, who among us can say that we haven't in some fashion been owned by objects we possess?  

©Doug Hill, 2017


  1. Guns embody the divine power of life and death. Holding that power in your hand makes you a god, hence the numinous frisson (correct spelling). With that power in hand, you can both claim and destroy whatever you want. Hence its central place in the American (un)holy trinity of God, Guns and Greed.

    1. Thank you, Christian, for this insightful comment. Unholy trinity indeed. (And thank you for pointing out my misspelling of frisson!)