Peaceful Arms:  Minding The Values of Sport Shooting

May 1, 2019

The Outdoor Wire keeps us aware that millions of Americans of all ages are participating in weapons sports and numerous businesses are providing us with new styles of weaponry. Hooray! At least one daily news service is telling some of the truth about shooting sports. 

 If we go to the other various internet news services that are competing for your attention, we read little or nothing positive  about shooting sports, but we’re swamped by stories about crimes, crises, violence and evil weapons and people, as well as arguments to ban all weapons, especially guns.

A said fact of this age is that major news sources are 10-17 times more negative and sensational than objective reporting.   Such biased reporting fosters a “Culture of Fear” that makes people more anxious, and perhaps prone to violence. 

This article is about some of the real psychology associated with weapons.  To start off, man is a tool maker. Human intelligence is unique in at least two areas: the ability to harness the element of fire, and the ability to create, manufacture and use tools and technologies, which really are also tools.   Tools are extensions of intentions.  Carbon dating of archeological discoveries shows that some five million years ago Homo habilis was using rocks with a rough sharpened edge.  

Weapons -- guns, archery, spears, slingshot, crossbow, club, knife, etc. -- are devices that increase the ability to defend oneself and to help get food and clothing. Spears, slings and other projectile weapons for combat, defense and hunting, dates back at least half a million years, and is probably much older. Recent studies in South Africa report finding archery equipment 64,000 years old.  

 Weapons not only helped early man get food and defend himself against carnivorous animals and enemies, but scholars generally agree that Homo Sapiens’ brain grew dramatically in size between 600,000 and 250,000 years ago, enabling complex thought and tool-making. This dramatic advancement is a result of consuming extra protein that could only come from a meat-rich diet. 

Some people are anti-weapon, and believe we’d be better off without any weapons because they inflict harm on other people or animals. A classical study in 1967 by psychologists Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage called the “the weapons effect,” asked people to sit at a table where someone was acting like they were very angry. On one the table there was a shotgun and a revolver. At another table there was a badminton racket.  The participants were asked what level of electric shock they’d give to the angry person.  The researchers said to ignore the items on the table – as if that was possible. They found, not surprisingly, that people who sat at the table with guns were more aggressive than were those who sat at the table with the badminton rackets.  It was quite clear that the researchers were biased as anti-gun. And frankly, who would want to sit at the table with an angry man and guns. Both the guns and the man were symbols of potential violence. 

When criminologist Gary Kleck reviewed 21 similar "weapons effect" studies, he concluded: "None of the studies provided any evidence directly supporting the idea that possessing a gun encourages physical aggression, or that the 'trigger pulls the finger.'” When another firearms expert, David Kopel , evaluated complete reports of Berkowitz's research, he found that subjects emerging from the study expressed anger and hostility toward the researchers for putting them in an obviously contrived environment with a gun present. 

Here I quote a real sage, Yoda, who said “Fear is the path to the dark side….fear leads to anger … anger leads to hate … and hate leads to suffering.” So, the answer to what we should do about weapons is ultimately based on two things. How do we learn weapons skills, and what is the psychological state of the weapons user?

I once took a course on self-defense from a former military expert. We shot guns of all types and arrows from bows and crossbows, as well as using knives, spears and swords. Then the instructor took them all away and told us to look for something else to defend ourselves. Some picked up rocks. A couple of people took off their shoes. Someone found a beer bottle. Another picked up a fork. Someone grabbed a pencil. This was all good, the instructor said, as all these objects increased one’s self-protection ability, so they were weapons. Then he added that there are weapons just about everywhere. To illustrate this point the instructor picked up a magazine and rolled it up tightly. He then showed how it could be used to strike an attacker in the head or stomach.  Then he reviewed martial arts moves where hands and feet can be used for self-defense.  The bottom line, he said, is that weapons are everywhere.  

The issue is not weapons per se, then, but how we use weapons, as weapons are everywhere. They are born in our souls.

 If an angry person learns martial arts they could become more proficient at inflicting harm on others, however, research shows that if one learns martial arts to defend oneself, fear decreases and you become more self-confident as you come to know that you are not so vulnerable.  A number of psychological studies report that martial arts actually can lead to health and peace of mind as they increase self-confidence and reduce violent tendencies.

I’ve studied several martial arts. My primary teacher was a former Korean national hapkido champion. His first lesson was to ask what we would do if approached by someone who seemed to want to inflict harm. Some said “Hit first and ask questions later.” The correct answer, he said, was to assume a position of defense, and slowly back away.  This action automatically makes you more in control of what will happen, and defending oneself against an attacker is easier.  

Actor Chuck Norris, a former world champion martial artist, has created "Kick Drugs Out of America," which now reaches over 6000 middle-school kids a year with martial arts instruction. An independent evaluation of KDOOA  found that students who participate in the program for three years have higher grades and better attendance records than do students in a nonparticipant group. Even after one year of participation, "failing student" and "unexcused absence" percentages are lower. And, high school students who have participated in the KDOOA program in middle school are less likely to have serious confrontations with others. 

In another study, researchers found that a traditionally taught martial arts instructional program can be an effective treatment program for violent adolescents.   In a similar study, Zivin, report that a school-linked martial arts program was effective for juveniles at high-risk for violence and delinquency. 

Peter Westbrook, 1984 Olympic fencing Bronze Medalist and 13 Time U.S. National Men's Sabre Champion, was raised in poverty and learned to fence as a way channel his anger into survival skills. Westbrook has set up a program that has helped hundreds of inner-city children gain self-esteem through learning fencing. 

Ideally, weapons sports lead to reducing fear, increasing self-confidence, and building self-image as you learn that you do not have to be a victim. They also can even lead to a kind of spiritual quality as in Japanese archery, Kyudo, which is described by Eugen Herrigal in Zen and the Art of Archery. 

The appeal of weapon sports then is, as psychologist Erich Fromm said, is they are “biologically adapted aggression,” which increases self-image and reduces fear.

 Some argue that in search of peace we should socialize youth to deny or sublimate their aggression, including its translation into shooting sports. Psychologist Rollo May wrote of the danger in such thinking: “In the utopian aim of removing all power and aggression from human behavior, we run the risk of removing self-assertion, self-affirmation, and even the power to be. If it were successful, it would breed a race of docile, passive eunuchs and would lay the groundwork for an explosion in violence that would dwarf all those that have occurred so far.” 

Firearms sports originated in the early 1300's in Europe, not long after the invention of firearms. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, by 1472 tournaments were held where marksmen using muzzleloaders shot at distances up to 500 yards. The bull’s-eye was five feet wide. By the early 1500's sights and rifled barrels were common in Europe. 

The vast majority of uses of guns in developed countries are for sport. Today there are some 65-70 million people in the world who participate in target shooting and hunting. For example, in the U.S., while guns are used in defensive purposes about two million times a year, and for gun crime 0.6 million times a year, there are at least 26 million people who participate in various shooting sports. 

Shooting sports were part of the first modern Olympics in 1896. Today there are 18 different shooting sports events in the Summer Olympics, and 8 biathlon events in the Winter Olympics. In both the Summer and the Winter Olympics, more nations participate in the shooting sports events than in any other. The International Paralympics also feature 16 shooting sport events. 

Shooting sports not only are popular; they are also the safest of all popular sports, and getting safer.  

What weapons  sports teach are skills of how to safely use dangerous things, which in turn builds self-confidence.  In an important study of youth firearms ownership, researchers studied 675 ninth and tenth graders. They found that youth who learned about lawful firearms use from their families had lower rates of crime, substance abuse and delinquency than youth who learned about firearms from their peers. 

So, when you read about firearms all being evil, check with the National Shooting Sports Foundation. They report that firearms-related fatalities in the US have been decreasing since 1903, the period between 2014 being the lowest on record. And from 2007 to 2017, unintentional firearms-related fatalities declined by 20.7% while firearms ownership increased by 38%.  And, while unintentional fatalities have been increasing – all types of unintentional fatalities have increased 77.7% in the last decade – firearms unintentional fatalities have decreased 50.5%, and are less than unintentional fatalities due to fires, motor vehicles, and choking. 

What About Hunting?

While there is debate about how much early meat consumption was due to scavenging and how much came from hunting, clearly, when weapons and hunting skills developed, hunting was key to human survival and a prominent evolution force, as well as a touchstone of art, culture, myth, science and technology.

A number of studies find that as many as 65% to 75% of hunters are motivated to hunt because of psychological connections with nature that are unique to hunting. The modern hunter therefore hunts to conserve his soul as much as putting healthy food on the table. In the act of hunting, a hunter touches deeper parts of the soul that are instinctual roots of mankind. As I pointed out in earlier articles on The Outdoor Wire, this is why hunting and religion are closely connected all around the world.

Health professionals Dr. Boyd Eaton, M. Shostak and psychiatrist Melvin Konner suggest that devaluing hunting traditions can weaken healthy social standards and even contribute to juvenile delinquency. They write: “Our ‘ hunting instinct’ has gone awry in ‘civilized’ society, where the thrill of the chase and the kill are no longer part of our experience and there are no clear avenues of expression except, perhaps to our peril, in the streets and subways of today’s urban jungles.” 

Allentown, PA, 6th grade teacher John Annoni teaches inner-city kids. He himself grew up in a tough neighborhood and found self-healing by skipping school and heading into the woods.  In time, he learned to hunt. It was such a powerful force in his life that he later started taking some of his students on nature hikes, and the best of them get to learn how to hunt through Camp Compass. 

Thanks to some 55,000 volunteer Hunter Education Instructors in North America, whose courses are mandatory in all 50 states to qualify for getting a hunting license, hunting is now safer than many popular sports including golf, tennis, basketball, bowling and ping-pong.  

 According to the International Hunter Education Association, there are about 1000 hunting accidents in the US and Canada per year, and about 10% are fatal. A number of these are associated with falling from tree stands.  In contrast, the US National Safety Council reports that recreational boating and bicycling account for 800-900 fatalities per year each, and swimming fatalities normally exceed 1000 per year.

A shooting sport that can involve hunting, archery, is even safer.  In 2015 over 23.8 million Americans participated in archery, a 20% increase from 2012.  Archery and bowhunting participation increased over 20% from 2012 to 2015, with 23.8 million American citizens age 18 and older becoming archers. 

What’s driving individuals to archery? According to the survey, 76% of all archery participants are recreational archers, who shoot casually or for fun. 35% are bowhunters who shoot only to prepare for bowhunting, and 20% are competitive archers who practice for tournaments. But there are two other factors. According to the Archery Trade Associaton, well-known TV and film actors, like Geena Davis and Jennifer Lawrence shooting archery on camera, has inspired many women to become archers. And, the National Archery in the School Program, which has over two million kids participating each year, and about 1000 more schools join the program every year. 

NASP began in Kentucky in 2002. Since then over 19 million kids in grades 4th through 2th in 11 countries have participated.  Considerable research finds that when kids take up archery in the NASP program, their school attendance increases, and self-esteem and physical activity also increase. In contrast to many other physical education activities, archery is a life-long sport.  After NASP, 83% of students say they like archery, 70% like their teacher better, 65% intend to be life-long archers, and 53% like themselves better. 

In the view of Carl Jung, the symbols of weapons spring from the depths of the psyche as they represent basic instincts that make us uniquely human and able to survive. Such symbols appear in dreams all around the world, as well as myths and symbols that imply power, truth and justice. Jung said that instinctual symbols have positive and negative potentials. Learning to accept and manage powerful instinctual energies is what turns them into creative, positive social forces, and is a measure of a culture’s success. As Carl Jung said in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections: “A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them.”

Poof that weapons are innate in the human psyche can be seen in children’s play. Ethnologists have shown that in societies where guns aren’t part of the local scene, kids play similar games with bows and arrows and spears.”   It is well-documented that training in weapons sports helps increase a child’s chances for success in life. This is even true for “at-risk” youth. 

The Psychological Value of Hunting

Many of the most-respected behavioral scientists of our times agree that hunting is a natural, healthy part of human nature, an instinct programmed into the master computer of our species for survival purposes.  Dr. Erich Fromm  summed up these opinions in his widely-acclaimed study of the causes and prevention of violence, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness:

“In the act of hunting, a man becomes, however briefly, part of nature again. He returns to the natural state, becomes one with the animal, and is freed from the burden of his existential split: to be part of nature and to transcend it by virtue of his consciousness. In stalking the animal he and the animal become equals, even though man eventually shows his superiority by use of his weapons." Fromm explains his position by pointing out that the motivation of the modern sport hunter is pleasure fused with ethics, while the motivation of the sadist, who might torture and kill pets or other small animals, is revenge.

Dr. Melvin Konner, Emory University professor of psychiatry and anthropology and one of the creators of the Paleo Diet, reports in his award-winning his seven- year study of the biological origins of human behavior, The Tangled Wing, finds that ethical hunting is not associated with psychopathology or violence. He states: "..there is little or no evidence, physiological or behavioral, to suggest that predatory aggression has much in common with intra-species aggression." 

In support of the many psychological writings and studies about hunting is a study by criminologist Chris Eskridge who compared hunting license sales with violent crime rates on a county-by-county basis throughout the United States. Eskridge found a significant inverse correlation; i.e. as hunting license sales go up, violent crime goes down.    This is consistent with other studies that owners of sporting firearms, who are more common in rural areas, tend to learn shooting skills from parents and family, have fewer accidents, lower rates of violence and use their firearms for sport shooting more often than protective owners.  This is an example of how more shooting, not less, may contribute to peace and social stability.

Weapons are some of man's most important tools: they are a cornerstone of our culture and consciousness. If we fail to learn the significance of weapons in our lives, the fear of them will rule us. We need to unsheathe the blade of truth to put weapons sports in their proper place, and respect its place in our lives by teaching maturity. As the instructor told us, almost anything can be a weapon. 

In a letter, Thomas Jefferson advised his nephew :"A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the Body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks." 

Yes, one sad thing about these times is the number of mass shootings at schools, churches, and even festivals and weapons are involved. That’s a reality of life these days. To understand how you can survive if you find yourself caught up in a mass attack, I recommend a recent book, Surviving Mass Attacks: What to Do When the Unthinkable Happens, by Dr. Gary Jackson. Dr. Jackson is a psychologist and also a former CIA and Secret Service Agent.  He learned about this through the school of hard knocks, which is definitely a real powerful teacher about weapons. 

--  James A. Swan, Ph.D.