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Real Guns, Infantile Fantasies

November 29, 1987|David Glidden | David Glidden is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside

RIVERSIDE — It can happen at Newport or a beach on Maui, a recurring fantasy I have. And the same thing always triggers it: the vision of a flying billboard towed by a biplane flying low and just off shore. It can be an advertisement for T-shirts, beer or suntan lotion, or even make a statement. Sometimes the sight of such banners in a continuous parade of advertising can drive me crazy. So I reach into my duffel and pull out a Stinger missile, hoist it on my shoulder, take careful aim and fire. The flying billboard disappears. I see myself a local hero.

A satisfying fantasy to contemplate. And each of us is subject to such infantile wishes. Psychiatrists say it's a good thing that we have them, to give vent to our frustrations. Unfortunately, the line dividing our fantasies from reality gets blurred once we have the means to act them out. It's a good thing that we don't have Stinger missiles as part of our standard beach equipment.

As every parent knows, little boys, especially, fantasize over owning handguns. And if a parent takes the plastic gun away, a stick will do instead. As a runner I've been "shot" by many little boys hiding behind trees and taking aim. And I've noticed the satisfaction in their faces once they have me in their sights. Playing cops-and-robbers or playing army is just the sort of thing male children like to do, although using plastic pistols that look like the real thing can turn children's games into tragedies.

It's not so hard to understand, even if you toss out all that stuff and nonsense about penises and Oedipal complexes. A child doesn't have much control of his life, over what to eat and when to go to bed. He is always being told what he can or cannot do. So the fantasy is there to arm himself and take the world over.

It's fun for children to think about taking over this way, especially if they can imagine themselves praised for doing so. So these fantasies of violence are typically presented in the context of doing something morally redeeming, such as shooting at the running robber or the enemy foot soldier. Even so, the thrill is in the shooting and the power that it represents, since children often have to switch sides in their games of right and wrong to oblige companions.

Infantile fantasies are not limited to children. The same is true of adolescents who go back and forth, daily, between infancy and maturity. Shooting at classmates or randomly at houses, in enemy territory occupied by rival gangs, is just the sort of thing you would expect if infants could bear arms.

There is legislation, enacted and pending, to outlaw toys that look too realistic--imitation automatic rifles and especially plastic pistols and revolvers. The goal is to protect children from the consequences of appearing armed and to protect ourselves from imposters. But we are not yet ready to disarm adolescents and adults from the real thing. We outlaw the appearance of deadliness but not deadliness itself.

Just like children, adults have their own vivid sense of vulnerability to the world's power over them, to poverty and crime, to their environments or employments. Adults, too, picture some socially redeeming context, such as shooting a rapist in the night or maybe just a boss for denying a raise. They too see themselves as using handguns in the cause of righteousness. And we all take heart when such justified shootings happen, when a woman reaches in her purse to pull out a small revolver and plug her attacker. Most of us are glad she did it, since we would like to do it too.

No one is going to tell handgun owners what to do when they have a pistol. The trouble is, the moral justification to use these weapons evaporates when the circumstances don't oblige and some other justification can just as instantly be concocted in its place. There is not a criminal among us who has not had his own excuse for violence.

There's a reason why handguns are called Saturday Night Specials; that's when people use them on spouses or neighbors. Handguns are the guns most likely to be used in a moment of sudden anger and they suit this purpose nicely.

Not all of us are fuzzy on the difference between fantasy and reality, not all of us are impetuous enough to shoot another human being. So suppose there is a woman living in Los Angeles who buys a handgun to protect herself against the threat of violence. She is not looking for an excuse to reverse the world's dominion with the power of her piece. Wouldn't it be rational for her to buy a handgun?

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