Alan Boraas: It's time to confront our gun mythology

Alan Boraas

If I thought banning assault weapons would help avert school killings, I'd be for it. But it won't help much. Adam Lanza, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold could have killed almost as many with conventional firearms if they knew how to use them. It's not hard to shoot innocent children in a classroom.

What will help solve the problem of school shootings is confronting the mythology of the gun.

Anthropologists know that if you want to understand a culture you have to understand its mythology. Embedded in oral tradition and other forms of mythology are values, contradictions and ways to deal with life issues. The messages entrench themselves in the subconscious and motivate behavior.

Modern American mythology is largely expressed through electronic media. The dominant mythology of my generation was film and three-network television. Families were defined by "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave it to Beaver" and heroism by John Wayne. Film and television are still significant but one of the new mythologies is video games, which, played incessantly, shape young minds.

Though he lived in a nice house in an idyllic New England town, Adam Lanza holed up in a windowless basement complex, spending countless hours playing video games, notably "Call of Duty." Here is a description of the game:

Combat can generate pools of blood and dismembered limbs. Players can use enemy bodies as human shields and execute them at close range. In one sequence, broken glass is placed into the mouth of a man while he is repeatedly punched causing blood to spill from his mouth ... In one scene a player can choose to take part in a massacre of civilians with victims lying in a pool of their own blood.

It's not complex. In "Call of Duty" and similar video games, the player gains esteem by graphically killing random opponents -- the gun is the solution and the vehicle of identity. One ad for "Call of Duty" boasts that "anyone can be a hero."

If you want to do well in "Call of Duty," you learn where to aim. The Navy SEAL who killed Osama Bin Laden used two shots: one to the chest to immobilize him, the next to the head to kill him. That's how you do it in "Call of Duty," immobilize and kill. Bam, bam, you're dead. Reportedly, Adam Lanza used 50 to 100 shots to kill 26 people. He was enacting what he learned from years of playing "Call of Duty." He even wore camouflage and body armor.

But almost no one who plays "Call of Duty" becomes a mass murderer of children. There is another mythology at work here, the mythology of perfection.

By all accounts, Newtown, Conn., is the perfect American town. At the high end of middle class, its Currier and Ives setting is the archetype of America. Happy kids growing up in a wealthy, safe community of million-dollar homes and going off to the Ivy League and becoming doctors, lawyers and business executives.

Once, Adam Lanza was that smiling little first grader full of promise, but for whatever reason he could not conform to the life scenario expected of him. Instead of doing the right thing and shaking the bonds of conformity and striking out on his own, he retreated to his basement compound and immersed himself in violent video games. As he sank into alienation, he apparently hated himself, his parents and the symbol of what he could never be. The pressure to conform expressed itself in a reclusive video gamer and became a recipe for disaster. Finally, he smashed the computer, killed his mother and used the video game model of manliness to destroy the symbol of promise in Newtown -- first graders and their teachers. Then he killed himself. History will know him as a vile coward.

Sometimes mythology goes awry. Sometimes the lessons of the game are not meaningful lessons of life but distorted lessons of perversion. The gun is not the answer.

Banning guns or arming teachers won't do much. But we can arm the curriculum with the power of analysis. Teach how to deconstruct mythology that subconsciously affects behavior. Bring to the surface the values embedded in movies, television, social media and video games. Expose the message that the gun is not the solution to problems, nor is the size of your pistol a measure of manhood.

Arm kids with the knowledge that perfectville is not the only option in a diverse world of possibilities. Fight back with critical thinking.


Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.



Alan Boraas