Shooting Down Negative Sport Shooting Stereotypes

Nov 2, 2017
The tragic mass shooting by a lone gunman perched in a suite on the 32nd floor in the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas targeting an outdoor music concert on October 1, 2017, clearly sent shock waves through the nation, and beyond.

We know how this happened, but why remains a mystery, although the shooter was prescribed an anti-anxiety drug that can release anger and psychoses.

As a psychologist, I'm not supposed to diagnose a person without a personal assessment, but news reporters don't seem to have such professional restraints, and one of the things about the shooter that was frequently mentioned is that he had an Alaskan hunting license. It turned out that this wasn't true. The shooter had a fishing license only.

That correction makes hunters breathe a little easier, but the error also suggests that the people who wrote the first articles were a little quick on the trigger to target hunters.

We live in an age of unprecedented information. At first, we called it "The Information Age," but as we became aware of the emotional impact of information overload on people, people began calling our times "The Age of Anxiety." Finally, sociologist Barry Glassner wrote a best-selling book entitled The Culture of Fear that hit the bullseye.

As Glassner says, we are inundated by negative news that is 10-17 times more negative and sensational than neutral and factual, and it's causing a lot of stress, misperceptions and unwarranted fear.

In times of fear, people cope in various ways. Some people become addicts. Alcohol used to be the most common addiction. Marijuana is edging up as recreational use becomes legal in more states, but more people now die from opioid painkiller overdoses than from heroin and cocaine combined.

We are also addicted to sitting and watching electronic screens. In the last century we have become a new species: "Homo sapiens indoorensis," as many people spend 6-8 hours a day watching electronic screens. This is resulting in 40% of adults becoming obese, and according to CDC, the number of kids who are obese has tripled since the l970's.

To cope with stress, you can walk, jog, stretch, do yoga or tai chi, and/or meditate, and they all help, but studies show that being outdoors and spending time in a natural area is the best tonic of all.

Relaxation is certainly part of the antidote for stressful times, but exercise is also an important way to release tension and be healthy. Many prominent psychologists such as Erich Fromm have clearly shown that humans by nature, have instinctual aggressions which they need to express in ways to keep themselves safe, healthy and happy; burning fat, building muscles, increasing self-confidence, and learning to enjoy performance. For well-over 90% of human history, these aggressive energies were used gathering food by hunting, fishing, and gathering, and then starting about 10,000 years ago growing crops, as well as self-defense.

Today, far too few people spend time getting their hands dirty and bloody getting food for the table. Instead they channel their aggressive energies into athletics of some kind, resulting in what psychologists now call "biologically adapted aggression."

Living in a culture of fear and anxiety, some adopt a vegetarian diet to try to mellow out and avoid harvesting animals and fish for food. (Despite all the media attention being given to vegetarianism, less than 3% of Americans are vegetarians and .5% are vegans.) While vegetarian diets can be healthy for some, a number of studies have found that people who are vegetarians tend to have more problems with anxiety and depression. Psychoanlyst Alfred Ziegler finds that vegetarianism can be a clue to someone becoming anorexic.

Other research finds that that 86% of vegetarians return to eating some meat, and 70% of vegans do so also – primarily for their health. Research has also shown that 1/3 of animal rights activists eat some meat. Explain that.

Being good at sports is one way to express our instinctual energies to be healthy, but another very good reason, is to be able to develop self-confidence and protect yourself.

Mental Health and Weapons

One of the basic aspects of human nature is tool-making. And, traditionally one of the most important uses of tools are to get food and protect ourselves – weapons. Weapons are simply an expression of our intention that amplifies our abilities. Clubs, spears, swords, knives, archery and guns are what most people think of when you say "weapon," but in reality you can make a weapon out of just about anything – magazines folded the right way can be lethal weapons.

Weapons have the potential to harm, but learning when and how to use "weapons" so people don't get hurt builds self-confidence, which definitely reduces anxiety and fear.

Personally, I believe that the real issue about what happened in Las Vegas, as Jim Shepherd said in the Outdoor Wire on Oct. 5, is the failure of our mental health system.

As if obesity wasn't bad enough, 40 million Americans are dealing with a mental health problem. The reason this is happening traces back to the mid-l960's when President John Kennedy first launched "The Great Society" program. A key element was primary prevention of health problems, including mental illness When the program was announced, state mental health hospitals began to close down as the new program was supposed to reduce the need for psych hospitals. But the Great Society program never really happened. Since then not only have we not created the needed primary prevention programs for people in general, but programs to adequately treat returning vets with PTSD also aren't adequate to fit the need.

Part of primary prevention is getting the facts to people to reduce stress and cope with reality, and unfortunately mass media today are more of a problem than a solution to what's needed. One of the biggest failures of modern media is to get out the facts out about shooting sports, as a type of healthy adapted aggression, even when we have Olympic champion shooters.

As an antidote for media bias and misinformation, let's look at some quick facts about shooting sports, because they have become a target as sensationalized media tries to stereotype everyone with a gun, or any weapon, as crazy or pathological.

Online you will find "news" claiming hunters being sadists, sociopaths, psychopaths, and criminals, especially after Cecilgate. Some definitions and corrections:

a) Sadism – enjoyment of inflicting pain and suffering on another. If hunters did this, their game would get away. Quick kills are what hunters want.

b) Sociopathy – committing violent acts to get people's attention, and enjoying it. Spending a lot of time and energy to get people's attention would scare away wild animals.

c) Psychopathy -- feeling no guilt about committing violent acts. Ethical hunters are dedicated to finding animals they shoot, and dispatching them as quickly as possible. Many say prayers over game killed. Most all hunters feel close to nature and wildlife, which is why they raise and spend far more money on conservation than most environmental groups.

d) Criminals – According to game wardens, criminals they find in the woods are seldom sportsmen. A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey found that 82% believed that "a lot" of hunters break hunting laws or practice unsafe behavior, such as drinking to excess and firing guns recklessly. Actually, game wardens tell me that less than 3% of all citations they give out involve intoxication, drug use or unsafe use of weapons. In all 50 states, in order to get a hunting license one must pass a hunter education class, and wardens teach a lot of the classes. This is one reason why hunting has become one of the safest of sports, as safe as ping pong and safer than tennis or golf according to the National Safety Council. And sport shooting is even safer.

When University of Nebraska-Omaha criminologist Chris Eskridge compared hunting license sales with violent crime rates on a county-by-county basis throughout the United States, he found as hunting license sales go up, violent crime goes down. Eskridge concluded that hunting serves as an outlet for stress and tension that otherwise could contribute to violent behavior.

Emory University psychiatrist and anthropologist Melvin Konner, one of the founders of the very popular Paleo Diet, states in his acclaimed book The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit that "…there is little or no evidence, physiological or behavioral, to suggest that predatory aggression has much in common with intraspecies aggression. All over the world are examples of vegetarian societies whose members fight violently among themselves and have the natural weaponry to inflict great damage." Anthropologist Colin Turnbull not only agrees, but finds that cultures that hunt tend to be more peaceful.

Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck has probably reviewed more studies on the psychological makeup of weapons users than anyone else, finds that, "gun owners are not, as a group, psychologically abnormal, nor are they more racist, sexist, or pro-violent than non-owners are."

A study of high school students in Rochester, New York, by Lizotte and and Sheppard, found that kids who owned and used legal guns (which means with parental supervision), had lower rates of crime, drug use and delinquency than kids who had no guns, or those who had acquired them illegally.

Weapons Sports Are Actually Good for You.

Modern archery is derived from the use of bows and arrows in hunting and warfare that began over 10,000 years ago. Today, one of the most successful outdoor recreation programs in history, is the National Archery In The Schools Program, where kids are taught to use bows and arrows that could be lethal weapons. There are now nearly 14,000 schools involved and at least 2.3 million students. NASP is alive and well in 47 states, 8 Canadian provinces and 11 countries.

Before NASP began, there were about seven million archers in the US. Today there are over 18 million. There have been no serious accidents to date with NASP programs. The only popular sports that are less dangerous than archery are badminton, bowling and ping pong.

Weapons Sports Can Help Make People More Peaceful

Weapons can be dangerous, but ultimately it's one's mental state, and the cultural context that determines how weapons are used. About 40% of the homes in the US have guns. What would happen if nearly every home had a gun? Ask the Swiss.

All healthy Swiss men aged between 18 and 34 are obliged to do military service and all are issued with M57 assault rifles or pistols which they are supposed to keep at home when not on active duty. Even before required training begins, young men and women may take optional courses with the Swiss army's M57 assault rifle. They keep that gun at home for three months and receive six half-day training sessions.>>
In Switzerland, gun ownership isn't a big deal. Additionally, entire families take part in shooting competitions- (above) using everything from air pistols (center) to Assault Rifle 90, the Swiss service rifle (below). Photos by Stephen Halbrook, with permission.>
After discharge from service, the soldiers are given a bolt-action rifle, free from registration or obligation, and they can get other guns if they want. Officers carry pistols rather than rifles and are given their pistols the end of their service. Virtually every Swiss home has a gun. A popular Swiss saying is that "everyone is their own policeman."

Switzerland has between 3.4 million and 4.5 million military and private firearms in circulation to over half of the people in a country of 8 million people. Despite the prevalence of guns, the violent-crime rate is low: government figures show about 0.5 gun homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010. By comparison, the U.S rate in the same year was about 5 firearm killings per 100,000 people.

Gun ownership is one thing, but what you do with guns is very important. Where we have golf courses in most towns, the Swiss have shooting ranges as sport shooting is the national sport. Schools have shooting teams and about 600,000 Swiss belong to shooting clubs. Kids as young as 12 belong to gun groups in their local communities, where they learn sharpshooting. The Swiss Shooting Sports Association runs about 3,000 clubs and has 150,000 members, including a youth section. Many members keep their guns and ammunition at home, while others choose to leave them at the club.

On the second weekend in September each year, about 5,000 girls and boys, aged 13 to 17, take part in Knabenschiessen, a rifle marksmanship contest. The winner is honored with the title King of the Marksmen.

To illustrate how mental health in a culture is so important to violence, Honduras and Switizerland both have about 8.2 million people. Honduras does not allow gun ownership and yet it has the highest homicide rate in the world. Switzerland has many guns and its homicide rate is very low, only Liechtenstein, Monaco, Iceland, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan, have lower rates and they have very strong laws about gun ownership.

According to attorney Steve Halbrook, who has written extensively about Switzerland and guns, "The EU's reaction to terrorism has been to try and restrict gun ownership even more. Switzerland is resisting and gun sales are way up."

So, taking some lessons from the Swiss, what can we do to reduce violence associated with weapons in US?

1) Support youth sport shooting programs like National Archery In the Schools, and programs that help train young people to responsibly use and compete in shooting sports. This helps them respect weapons more than fear them. Also, support the programs that prepare shooters for the Olympics that consists of 15 different events -- nine for men and six for women in three different disciplines, with five events for rifles, five for pistols and five for shotguns. Incidentally, in Scandinavia, biathlon championships are more popular on TV than the Super Bowl.

2) If you've never been to a shooting range, visit one. Actor Robert Stack, who was once the national skeet shooting champion, used to say "You meet the nicest people at shooting ranges."

3) We badly need to improve and offer mental health programs, especially primary prevention. Mental health should be included in school classes to help kids grow up with more self-confidence and interpersonal skills.

4) Screen what your kids watch on TV and computer devices. And, support TV and films that show responsible use of all weapons where there are true heroes.

5) Support news media that sticks to the facts. To quote NY Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, "Bad news is news, and good news isn't. We cover planes that crash, not those that take off. A broader truth that we journalists don't acknowledge often enough: in many ways, the world is becoming a better place."

We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected.
--Henry David Thoreau

— James A. Swan, PhD