The Gun Narrative and Gaslighting
The Discordant Debate on Mass Shootings, Clarity, and Sensible Choices
So many unanswered questions
In the recent gun violence and murder of vulnerable and innocent children, anger and questioning come after the shock and grief. Were we misled, gaslighted? Who is the blame? Why again, who is responsible or who was irresponsible? Why is our country the world’s leader in possession of deadly firearms, with little regulation or safety requirements? Another mass shooting has occurred, this time of nineteen innocent and vulnerable elementary school children and two adults killed by an 18-year-old with a military-like assault gun. How do the murderers and perpetrators of gun violence slip through all detection and become so twisted and radicalized to carry out their horrendous actions as in recent mass shootings?
The dark shadow of gun violence darkens the spirit. It hangs heavily over our society more than ever, growing each year, especially since the pandemic. The heart-wrenching toll of gun violence appears daily in the news, on social media, and in the personal accounts of families about the losses of their loved ones. Unfortunately, I return to the subject in this article that I have written about before, compelled by the continuing tragedy of the climbing death rate from gun violence, mass shootings, and the related mental health burden on our society and victims.
Gaslighting is an expression for using deceitful or false narratives to deceive, gain psychological control, or manipulate another person or group for the perpetrator’s benefit. Individuals or groups can deliberately and systematically influence and mislead others with false or deceptive information to control and influence. This deliberate and adverse behavior toward susceptible others occurs in personal and professional relationships, marketing schemes, and political movements. The goal is usually to gain power and advantage for selfish motives.
The term, “gaslighting”, gained popularity from a popular 1944 movie, Gaslight. The word denotes the attempt to gain control or power over others with vulnerability to manipulation. The malcontent individual that succeeds with their efforts often has greater power or advantage. A mild form would be a sales pitch to persuade buyers to purchase perhaps an unneeded product for the seller’s profit. At its more extreme, there is a fear of significant danger or losses if the false presentation of the other is ignored or challenged.
Abusive, sinister, or catastrophic events occur when a personality-disordered individual with extreme narcissism or psychopathy adapts gaslighting as a tool for self-gain, power, and dominance. A more dangerous form of gaslighting is seen in propagandizing groups of people for political gain and power at the expense of the victims or those duped. When this is allowed or occurs, there are always potentially severe consequences, such as losses of security, property, personal freedom, or life itself.
Gaslighting has become more insidious and dangerous with the advances in modern communications, social media, advertising, and propaganda tactics. With wealth more concentrated in the hands of fewer individuals, big businesses, and corporations, the voters will get manipulated to support the gaslighter’s or influencer’s profit and growth motives. There is the risk of the extreme wealth abusing power by sponsoring politicians that dominate and subvert our democracy and political process.¹
In our psychological process and defenses, we sometimes deny or compartmentalize specific painful ideas or emotions, with an altered narrative removed from the actual reality. Such a psychological mechanism might be to function or survive certain threatening situations or inconvenient realities. In the extremes, the mind can reach a state of unreality, delusions, or psychosis. So, in a sense, we are quite capable of “gaslighting” or deceiving ourselves. Perhaps this can be more dangerous than external deception or gaslighting, as we can get further from the truth and reality and become highly vulnerable or dangerous to others. Psychologist Alf Lokkertsen writes further about the meaning behind “what is gaslighting, why we victim blame and how to spot a liar.” ²
As shown both by history and current events, money and religion in politics can undermine our democracy and personal freedoms. Corporations’ political involvement can act against public interests, such as undermining efforts to combat climate change by seeking less regulation for more growth and profits for their industries. Undermining efforts to get needed laws and regulations on guns, especially assault-like firearms, or limiting access to those posing more risk creates the present and persisting danger to the public and horrific and frequent mass shootings.
The number of gun-related deaths this year in the U.S. has soared, post-Covid and record sales of guns and assault-like guns, with the firearms industry having increasing profits. Politicians who receive support from the gun industry have often blocked sensible gun regulations.
The opioid pharmaceutical companies were unregulated in their deceptive marketing and distribution of high-risk, highly addictive, and deadly products. Their deceptive marketing, success in sales, and the population’s use of narcotics resulted in an epidemic of addiction-related deaths. It dramatically worsened when a synthetic product, fentanyl, took over the supply of opioids in illicit channels. Even with the increased regulation and accountability of the leading manufacturers and distributors, legally and financially, a high opioid death rate persists as so many illegal drugs are still available on the street. Another growing issue that gets gaslighted and downplayed is the profound and devastating impact of climate change and global warming, which appears to rapidly progress with the loss of lives and property with the potential for worsening destruction. Recent news is reporting the expectation this year of a horrendous hurricane season and ongoing problems with draughts, fires, and violent storms with tornadoes.
There has been reporting as information becomes available on the most recent mass shooting in the New York Times by writer German Lopez in the last few days. In his May 26 New York Times article, he writes that more guns in the U.S. mean more deaths unique to this country as he explores recent occurrences and statistics. He acknowledges that though people hold extreme racist views or suffer from mental health problems in other countries; it is easier here in the U.S. for those people to pick up guns and kill. Studies support the fact that there are more homicides, suicides, and mass shootings when and where there are more guns. It has also been shown that stricter gun laws help reduce gun deaths when enforced in other countries.
Some proposed and sensible solutions to reduce mass shootings of the innocent and vulnerable are: to have more thorough background checks and licenses of firearms; red flag law to allow law enforcement to confiscate guns from high-risk individuals who display signs of potential violence; assault weapons ban to restrict or prohibit access to military-type assault rifles or high magazine cartridge packs. However, most gun deaths are from suicide and a smaller number from homicides related to violence on the street or home from handguns. But it is still felt that the number of deaths from guns would decrease with a reasonable level of regulation and gun laws.
An article, How to Reduce Shootings, by Nicholas Kristof, updated May 24, 2022, in the New York Times, points out that the U.S has more guns than any other country, with over 300 million guns, about one for every citizen and gun murder rate higher than most other countries. He argues that guns should be at least as regulated as automobiles. Kristof, as others have felt that to gain some bipartisan support for change, might fare better with a public health approach as having:
- Background checks;
- Protection orders for men subject to domestic violence to not have guns;
- Ban people under 21 from purchasing firearms;
- Safe storage when children are in the house, as well as trigger locks on guns and ammunition, stored separately;
- Enforcement of laws on straw purchases of weapons and some limits on how many guns can be purchased in a month;
- Consideration of a one-time background check for anybody buying ammunition;
- End immunity for firearm companies;
- A ban on bump stocks that mimic automatic weapon fire.
A current example of gaslighting around congressional action on new laws for gun sales, regulations, and red flag laws has come from politicians receiving campaign financing from the gun industry that profits from less regulation. There is an attempt to refocus the narrative away from law and the need for more regulation by focusing on or blaming other factors, rather than guns, such as the slow response by police agencies or the back door of school being unlocked, etc. The other issues that have come up, such as the most recent mass shooting, certainly need attention and solutions. Still, the issue of guns themselves needs to be the prominent focus, as suggested by statistics and research.
Issues and Factors Behind Increasing Gun Deaths
With the growing incidences of gun violence and related deaths, debates persist about why this is happening and how to prevent it. Discussion often revolves around:
- Problems with more people having guns
- Greater social-economic disparities and polarized politics
- Mental health issues and lack of public funding for services and resources
- Lack of regulatory laws related to guns and gun possession
In a world that has become more technologically advanced, you would have expected a drop off in firearm-related deaths. Gun possession, either legally or illegally, has increased more than any other time in history, especially in the United States.
According to The Gun Violence Archive, gun deaths have increased each year in recent years. Suicides get less attention than gun-related murders but have long accounted for the majority of United States gun deaths.³ According to the Pew Research Center, in 2020, 45,222 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S., according to the CDC. Over half of the gun deaths were related to suicide. Three-quarters of all U.S. murders involved a firearm.⁴ All the statistics on gun deaths have increased since the COVID pandemic, including suicides, homicides, accidental shooting of bystanders, or victims of stray bullets and crimes. Guns have now surpassed motor vehicle deaths, in 2020, as the leading cause of death in children.⁵
The fascination with guns and firearm ownership persists and increases year to year. There is a belief that a powerful weapon provides greater protection, increases a sense of safety, enhances a feeling of personal freedom and prowess, and enjoyment in certain recreational activities. Indeed, if you are a person who wants to protect their possessions, family, or property, or are a hunter, a collector, a gang member, or a thief, then a gun maybe even more valued.
I watched T.V. westerns and played cowboys or cops and robbers when I was young. Violence and weapons were often a part of video games. However, rarely today do video or virtual programs teach about the safe use of weapons or the consequences of bringing gaming violence into the real world.
During my career in the medical field, I have seen death from many different illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters — including the COVID pandemic. However, firearm possession and ownership, both guns and now assault-like weapons, are at an all-time high and appear to significantly contribute to the growing number of gun-related deaths and mass shootings. More guns now get into the possession of violence-prone people who represent a substantial risk of endangering themselves and others.
The selling and marketing of potentially dangerous products, including guns, opioid pain medication, and divisive political ideology, has become more sophisticated and, in many respects, adverse to our society. Opioid marketing and prescribing for pain issues have led to an epidemic of addiction and opioid-related deaths. The successful marketing of non-factual, gaslighting, and self-serving political ideology has bought genuine threats to the survival of our democracy and the ability to pass gun laws to decrease the continuing epidemic of deaths related to firearms.
According to most statistics and reports, the increase in gun purchases correlates with the rise in gun-related deaths. In 1996, Australia passed the National Firearms after a mass shooting. A 28-year-old man, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, shot and killed 35 people and injured 18 others, called the Port Arthur Massacre. Under the new law, semi-automatic, self-loading rifles and shotguns were banned with stricter licensing and registration requirements, and a mandatory buyback program for the banned weapons was imposed.⁶ Though people will argue about the statistic or deny, gaslight, or spin the argument that guns and change in gun laws are not the explanation, however, none can deny that the reduction in firearm massacres up to the present in Australia and the immediate and continuing decrease in firearm suicide and firearm homicide are significant findings.⁷ There are no easy solutions in sight — a stalemate persists in the U.S. with the polarized political ideology about guns, ownership rights, resistance to governmental regulation, and licensing.
Predisposing Factors to Gun Violence, Injury, or Death
High risk of self-harm or harm to others related to guns would include individuals that have:
- Easy and ready access to firearms, especially when an individual is prone to acting out violently toward others or one’s self, as people with troubled personalities that are prone to unstable moods, anger, and rage
- Severe paranoid, anti-social, borderline, narcissistic personalities or those that suffer from delusional or psychotic states who would be considered more at risk for gun acting out
- Vulnerabilities because of drug or alcohol abuse and addiction and other mental health issues such as severe depression who would be at a higher risk of suicide or homicide
- Increased feelings of rage, rejection, low self-esteem, and social isolation as well as those with developmental handicaps and lack of socialization skills
- Feelings of being marginalized, oppressed, bullied, victimized — with chronic resentment, fear, and anger, and the perception of not fitting in
- Had exposure to violence: growing up witnessing domestic violence or being the victim of sexual, physical abuse, or bullying
- Accumulated obsessional grievances of the wrongs done to them by others
- Psychological, behavioral, or developmental difficulties, limiting the ability to integrate social information and proneness to misinterpret information from others
- Inadequately functioning personalities that lack the social skill and mental/emotional stability — possibly due to growing up in an unsupportive, dysfunctional, or abusive family
- Been overly influenced by the media, violent video games, adverse peer support groups (gangs), family, neighborhood, or their social media consumption — especially when there is a glorification of violence, guns, or exposure to extreme ideas
- Ability to purchase or possess firearms developed for wartime use
Once primarily used for recreation, hunting, protection, and self-defense, guns are increasingly being used for violent behavior and aggressive actions toward self or others. Gun deaths associated with gang and criminal activities remain a significant problem when firearms are readily available. Severe injury or death can occur when a disgruntled person with a grudge to settle is prone to explosive anger or rage and obtains or has a lethal weapon.
The Contribution of Mental Health Issues
Mental illness or impairment can underlie violent actions by a person. In legal terms, the determination is whether a perpetrator of violence, as a shooter, was criminally insane, not competent or unable to use self-control, or lacked appropriate judgment — lack of capacity to refrain from violent acts. Laws differ in the various states about what makes a person dangerous enough to himself or others. A determination occurs regarding the need for involuntary commitment for psychiatric care or legal incarceration for their protection or the protection of others.
People can be vulnerable to the influence of harmful leaders or media that put out propaganda and seductive political messages to gain power and followers. The message or rhetoric might drive fear or advocate for the righteous taking of action, retribution, or violence against the perceived enemies, oppressors, or wrongdoers. To support the gun industry, the message might be that the regulation of gun sales or the industry is an attempt to remove your personal freedom. Conversely, the message can support the indifference and rejection of authority or promise to gain notoriety, fame, or importance of serving a perceived higher cause and taking the inspired violent action — a scenario seen in domestic and radicalized foreign terrorists or lone actors of inspired violence.
A vulnerable mind can become fixated on unusual or unrealistic ideas, leading to an inflexible, anti-social, and misguided mindset. Fixations are more dramatic when there is a propensity for rigid, delusional, or paranoid thinking. Obsessional thinking can be severe in personality disturbances, bipolar, or schizophrenic-like illnesses.
The more fixed or obsessional thinking or reasoning becomes, the less one can learn from social contact. There is also the inability to learn from reliable information or feedback from others. The person loses the intrinsic checks and balances of mental flexibility and reasoning in the extreme. As a result, learning and modifying behavior adequately and taking part in regular social activities are lost.
Mass shootings have occurred when a disgruntled employee was able to obtain and build up an arsenal of handguns and assault weapons. After developing resentment toward other workers and the employer, several fellow employees were killed. In most of these situations, a long history of personality and mental health problems is often uncovered. A term used in the past was “going postal” — a reference to the past mass shootings in postal facilities by a disgruntled or mentally disturbed employee.⁸
People wait for more information after a violent crime or shooting, often expecting that there will be something in the mental health history to explain the murderer’s behavior. Others against gun laws or regulations will look for non-gun factors to highlight in their persuasive rhetoric. Generally, it is true that significant adverse factors in a person’s mental health and personality development can lead to dysfunctional thinking, behaviors, and tragic outcomes — if not recognized early and addressed. Often the issue of mental health is used in gaslighting by those that stand to benefit from fewer gun laws and regulations.
Frustration Over Lack of Progress in Curbing Gun Violence
There is much concern and frustration that beneficial action to limited or better-regulated ownership and possessions of guns has not occurred. The polarization over gun control issues by our population, elected leaders, and members of Congress has led to a paralysis of any positive action for change. As a result, our country, one of the most modern, economically advantaged, and democratic, has become a disproportionate leader in gun violence and mass shootings than other economically developed countries.
The United States has about 5% of the world’s population, but more than an estimated 30% of all mass public shootings occur in this country.⁹,¹⁰ The debate goes on about individual rights, second amendment rights, gun rights, too many guns on the street, including military-grade assault weapons, and the lack of mental health services. Common cited problems with the mental health system are the lack of services, inadequate screening, and poor identification of an individual at risk of acting out in an irrational, violent, or deadly way.¹¹,¹²,¹³
The availability and possession of so many guns in our society is a factor that is hard to ignore. When a shooter has more powerful, rapid-fire assault weapons with him, there is always the potential for a more significant number being wounded and killed. Therefore, gun laws, access to guns, improving gun control laws, and enforcement would undoubtedly be a helpful direction for lawmakers to take with the support of citizens, gun owners, the gun industry, and political leaders.
Wise Directions and Tips
Take the essential holistic steps for emotional health when drawn into frustration, in-action, immobilization, or over-focus on the “stalemated” issues around gun violence and lack of control to foster change or improvement — begin taking active care of yourself first with practices such as
- Lifestyle changes like improving diet, nutrition, and exercise
- Increasing your spiritual openness and attunement, in finding ways to increase your times of feeling more connected to life beyond your usual restrictive focus on worries, anger, resentments, or hopelessness — move toward spiritual expansion, balance, or emergence from the darkness that may seem to dominate you at times
- Discovering empowerment by reentering community activities, giving help, nurturance, and support to others
- Finding supportive people with shared interests — learn, study, and practice valued things with a teacher or group
- Practicing mindfulness, meditation, yoga, exercises, spiritual practices, or studies that suit you
- Doing artistic and creative endeavors that get you moving and opening-up
- Considering reconnecting to your own religious or spiritual traditions or find a holistic therapist or wise counselor, if you feel stuck
- Doing personal work that will benefit you and others as well — you will be like a small ripple in a pond that can influence your surroundings and grow into a tidal wave of positive change — light will begin to shine into the dark places.
Positive Advocacy and Action for Change
Advocate for increased funding from individuals, philanthropic institutions, businesses, corporations, and governmental sources for:
- Mental health training and support for law enforcement agencies and personnel in the deescalating of crises without the excessive use of force or for taking immediate action when needed
- Mental health, social services, and support agencies — make available more places to call for help and referral options
- Specialty trained mental health personnel to assist law enforcement in response to drugs or alcohol intoxication, mental health, or disabilities crises
- Drug addiction programs to decrease the contributors to drug and alcohol addiction and related mental health issues, gang violence, drug trafficking, and dealing — direct more funding toward drug education, treatment, and rehabilitation programs that reduces drug abuse rather than to systems that just incarcerate people for drug-related offenses
- Increase public education about the warning signs of emotional and mental health disturbances and their related potential for violence
- Encourage those with concerns about someone’s health and safety to get involved and reach out to a qualified mental health provider for consultation and guidance
- Support taking money out of politics and letting public funds support all public office seekers — removing hidden money donations from Political Action Committee (PACs), wealthy individuals, businesses, or corporations — set limits on all contributions and require transparency
- Support the election of sensible candidates that are public servants who have the interests of the people they serve as the priority
- Support funding and legislation that promotes gun registration, licensing, and education about safe firearm use
- Restrict or reduce the marketing and selling of military-level assault rifles and weapons designed for military conflicts
- Become more aware of and avoid being influenced by false information, gaslighting coming from media or news outlets, political propaganda, and rhetoric that may foster the growth of hate, racism, and discrimination that motivate division, hatred, and violence
- Take more notice and any action possible to stem the inappropriate abuse of communications technology and social media — that may give an unfair advantage to business or corporate entities for gaining profits, power, or domination over rivals
- Increase the monitoring and study of violence in the entertainment and video gaming industry that may affect vulnerable individuals prone to be influenced by repeated exposure to violent media
- Reach out for support, mental health service, or a support group if you have lost a significant other, family member, or someone in your community — especially if you feel isolated, suffering from loss, experiencing sleep or mood problems
- If you have been a victim of gun violence, consider becoming an advocate for gun regulation and safety in your community or an increase in mental health services — these actions can bring positive changes in community services, government, and administrative actions
I appreciate your interest in a perplexing topic that has affected too many tragically. I hope that wisdom will prevail and bring resolution to this enduring heartache in our nation. Please share this article with others. Ron Parks, MD
Please comment! What do you think is needed to stop the growing number of gun deaths?
⁴ Pew Research Center, August 16, 2019, Gun deaths in the U.S.: 10 key questions answered | Pew Research Center
⁸ This Is How Many People Have Died of Gun Violence This Year, Douglas A. McIntyre, April 16, 2021, This Is How Many People Have Died of Gun Violence This Year — 24/7 Wall St. (247wallst.com
⁹ Mass Shooting, Wikipedia Encyclopedia Online, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_shooting, April 2021Public Mass Shootings in the United States: Selected Implications for Federal Public Health and Safety
¹⁰ Policy, Jerome P. Bjelopera, Coordinator., et al., CRS Report for Congress, March 18, 2013, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43004.pdf