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Let’s acknowledge legitimate motivations on both sides of the gun issue

pro-gun protest
REUTERS/Hans Pennink
Many Americans feel very strongly about guns, and they all have psychological reasons for their positions.

Many Americans, including me, feel very strongly about guns. When people feel very strongly about something, there is always a psychological component. People on both the left and the right have psychological reasons for their positions on guns.

Mariah Levison
Mariah Levison

First the right. For the last few years, commentators on the right, and individuals such as my father-in-law, have been claiming that the left is condescending. The left portrays the right as a bunch of backward, aggressive fundamentalists who have been duped by the rich and powerful into voting against their economic interests. On guns, the left portrays the right as violent cowboys who poorly conceal their desire to feel powerful by shooting and killing things.

This view is inaccurate and intellectually lazy. Here is why. Underlying nearly all human behavior is an attempt to fulfill a basic human need such as safety, security, belonging and significance. Humans are biological creatures who are motivated to improve their life circumstances. So, no matter how irrational or unkind a person or group’s actions appear, the underlying motivation of the action is the positive intention to fulfill a fundamental need.

The left’s view of the right’s position on guns is indeed condescending, and also inaccurate, because it paints the right as both irrational and having negative intentions when the truth is that the vast majority of all behavior, including the right’s position on guns, is motivated by the rational and positive intention of fulfilling a fundamental need.

People on the right have two legitimate concerns about gun control. The first is that they agree with the original reason for the Second Amendment, that citizens need arms to check the power of their government and to protect themselves from their government. I know many liberals who mock this sentiment. They are wrong to do so. One needs only to watch the news for 15 minutes to hear about several governments that are currently abusing their citizens; they include Syria, North Korea and Sudan.

Is U.S. really an exception?

The United States is not the exception that many liberals think it is. The United States embraced slavery, allowed and continues to allow unjust treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system and interned Japanese Americans during World War II. Granted,  the United States has never behaved as poorly as Syria or North Korea, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. I doubt the Germans thought that the government of their highly educated society was capable of turning against many of its citizens in the unfathomable way that it did during World War II.

The second legitimate concern about gun control among those on the right is that they feel that the ability to protect oneself and one’s loved ones from mortal danger is the most fundamental of rights and responsibilities. The eminent psychologist Abraham Maslow posited that humans’ needs are hierarchical. Obviously people must first fulfill their physiological needs for food, water and air. What comes next in the hierarchy is the need for personal safety. After that comes a need for a psychological sense of security. This includes feeling that one’s loved ones are safe.

All of our other needs, such as our need for social relationships and a sense of achievement, come after the more elemental needs for safety and security. There are strong arguments on both sides about whether or not guns make people safer. That is not my point. My point is that the right wants access to guns, not because they are crazy, aggressive cowboys, but because it helps to satisfy their need for a sense of psychological security.

The left’s motivations

Now the left. The left’s position is also driven by their need for safety and security. Many liberals believe that they would be safer and more secure if there were fewer guns in the country. However, the left is also motivated by the exigency to maintain their sense of identity. The idea of using force to protect oneself contradicts the humanistic principles that constitute liberalism.

Humanism has a high regard for all human beings, holds that human beings have an inherent capacity for good and growth, and views reason as the basis for decisionmaking. Christianity also espouses a general love of mankind but it is tempered by the concept of original sin, which is explicitly excluded from humanism.

Therefore, the left supports gun control because it has faith in individuals’ and society’s ability to tap into its fundamentally good nature and use reason to create a society that is safe and secure. While many people on the left have been deeply shaken by the recent mass shootings, using violence to create a safer society contradicts their beliefs about both human nature and themselves.

Policymakers need to relinquish the intellectually lazy stance that the other side is naïve at best and crazy at worst. Instead they must recognize the legitimate motivations that underlie each side’s position – safety and security, the ability to check the power of the government and protect oneself from the government and the desire to create a safe society by means other than force. Only when they do so will politicians arrive at policies that will both minimize gun violence and get through both Congress and the White House.

Mariah Levison is a mediator, facilitator and trainer, and is the program director at the Conflict Resolution Center.


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Comments (12)

Defense vs. offense

This commentary totally misses the point that the great majority support the right to have weapons for self-defense

The gun-control question arises when quantities of weapons known for their excellent offensive capabilities and accessories and ammunition that amplify their offensive capabilities are bought and sometimes used in dreadful ways.

Nothing better than a short-barrelled shotgun for home defense. Nothing like the sound of the slide racking to speak louder than words, saying "get out of my house". Bad for conducting for a mass shooting, though. Compare that with a high-velocity round that will pass through multiple walls and go a mile or more--hardly appropriate for home defense. More appropriate as an offensive weapon, though.

Don't confuse defense with offense. That's where the real argument is.


The problem is that the data show that having that shotgun in your house is much more likely to result in someone in the household getting killed by it than it is to deter an intruder.

First of all

Your interpretation of the original intention of the Second Amendment is not self evident, which weakens your argument.
Second, the fact that both sides on a question have equally valid motivations does not make the facts that they cite in support of their proposed actions equally valid.
There is good scientifically valid data on the relative risks and benefits of gun ownership.

Where is the data on the benefits of gun ownership

I am just curious as to where to find the data Mr. Brandon. I am in no way implying that the data doesn't exist I because there may be some really good data out there. I would like to look at it.

Susan Perry's column
has some data, and links to David Hemenway's meta analysis.

I agree, that a weakness in

I agree, that a weakness in your case is a questionable interpretation of the intention of the Second Amendment in the 18th century and its applicability to a strongly urbanized United States today.

But I'm hard-pressed to see where you get by saying that everyone, on both sides of our gun violence crisis, is responding to primal urges. Everybody wants to stay alive. Good. But, How we go forward? How do we solve any problems of gun violence in our society?

This is a nicely warm fuzzy piece but

exactly how does this move us forward?

I also think that the author misses the point. I don't understand why people feel so insecure that they have to rely on military style deadly force. I understand some of it is fear motivated but why are folks so fearful.

As Mr. Rovick says the sound of a shot gun bolt hitting home can be pretty intimidating because it is pretty clear that you won't miss.

I think Mr. Brandon has confused shot guns with other types of guns. The 2011 Murder statistics by state show that 83% of all murders are by hand guns.

Define tyranny

I will be more convinced of the right wing position about the potential need for guns for countering tyranny when they broadcast the example closer to home that it was appropriate for Black radicals in the 1960's to arm themselves for self-defense purposes given the tyranny they faced from police and FBI harassments, or the Klan. And I'd love to see the NRA (retroactively) stand behind the American Indians (with guns) who occupied Wounded Knee in the early 1970's because of the tyranny of the tribal government there. But if tyranny is deemed as something more related to a government health program that covers everyone, I'd rather do away with the guns.

It's about fear.

The gun debate is about fear. Whether we want to cling to guns and live in the old world of fear and fear based exploitation or whether we want to evolve into a more empathic global society.

Second Amendment

Its purpose was to bolster the government militia for defense against indians and Redcoats, not to shoot our government's militia - themselves.

Thank you, Mr. Westgard

I'm totally in agreement with the headline for this piece, but Ms. Levison misses a fundamental point by misinterpreting the “original reason” for the 2nd Amendment. She’s not alone in this, as quite a few people I’ve read on the “pro-gun” side of the argument have said essentially the same thing.

What I’m referring to is Ms. Levison’s statement that people “on the right” “…agree with the original reason for the Second Amendment, that citizens need arms to check the power of their government and to protect themselves from their government…”

The notion that the purpose of the 2nd Amendment (or the entire Constitution, in the minds of some who call themselves “conservative”) is to somehow protect citizens from their own government is at odds with the wording of the amendment itself. What Ms. Levison and some “pro-gun” supporters ignore is the beginning phrase of the amendment: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…”

A militia is a part-time, citizen-based armed force that is an EXTENSION of government power. The point of a militia is to project the power of the government into an area or situation in response to a military threat, a natural disaster, or some other, equally serious and equally widespread event. The modern-day equivalent might be today’s National Guard, the purpose of which has never been envisioned to be protecting us ordinary citizens from the federal government.

Historically, Mr. Westgard is right on target, and if the role of today’s militia has changed, there’s been no acknowledgment of that change by anyone in authority at either the state or federal level.

The better, or at least more effective argument, in my view, is the second point Ms. Levison presents: that many people feel the ability and wherewithal to defend themselves and their homes is fundamental. While that speaks to Dennis Ringstad's point about fear, it's nonetheless an honestly-held viewpoint.

"Fundamental Needs"...

Yes, Ms Levison, "fundamental needs" are important to all people...they are important to children, parents, and other citizens also. They were important to those who were slaughtered by gun violence and are important to those citizens who are fearful about the excess number of guns in this Country.
Ms Levison's right approach does not give credence to the 'fundamental needs' and rights of those many victims of gun violence. Her one-sided writing does not address the concerns of the majority of this Countries' citizens over the excess number of guns and the ease of availability of these guns to any and all.
How many guns are enough guns, Ms Levison? There are presently over 300 million guns, and counting, in this Country. Is 400 million enough? 500 million? When is enough, enough Ms Levison? How much fullfillment of your "fundamental need" is enough?
The right's excess 'psychological security' of the past decade plus has literally gone unchecked as the NRA, GOA, NSSF, and the Weapons' manufacturers have 'had their way' with their financial control of Congress.
I'd be interested in knowing if Ms Levison and other gun advocates took time to watch Tuesday evening's documentaries of this gun topic on public t.v......a program which was designed to broaden the understanding of this issue to all viewers.
(Tune in tonight for a continuation of this discussion).
My experience with my gun advocate contacts is that few of them will take the time to listen and attempt to understand the entire scope of this gun issue.
The 'left' is not going to take away your guns, Ms Levison. What the sensible people of this Country wants is common sense guidelines and regulations for this cancer which is eating the heart out of our Country.