By Jorge Amselle
Hoplophobia is a term made up by the late and great Jeff Cooper to describe an irrational fear of firearms that seems to grip so many anti-gunners. I don’t know but I assume that Cooper was being clever and not literally offering a medical diagnosis. However, Bruce Eimer, a licensed and board-certified clinical psychologist, and Alan Korwin, a long time and well known firearms researcher and writer, are actually doing just that to millions of anti-gunners they seem to perceive as suffering from mental illness.
I admit that these two gentlemen have forgotten more about psychology and firearms than I will ever master but I must disagree with their premise no matter how eloquently and thoroughly presented in their recent column; HOPLOPHOBIA: Gun Fear The Most Dangerous of All Phobias. I would nevertheless encourage folks to read their column in full.
The authors base much of their discussion on the work of Dr. Sarah Thompson, M.D., “a psychiatrist and former Executive Director of the Utah Gun Owners Alliance,” who has written on gun phobia. To their credit the authors admit that Dr. Thompson herself disagrees with their conclusions and “claims Hoplophobia is little more than name calling and rare.” She is right and they are wrong.
Let’s start with the definition of a phobia. As Eimer and Korwin write “a phobia is an extreme, irrational, overwhelming and disabling fear of an activity, situation, place, item or object.” The key term here is a “disabling fear.” This often manifests itself in a physical reaction (fainting, seizures, panic attacks, crying, hyperventilating, etc.) or a significantly life altering/impairing reaction (becoming a shut in, avoiding all travel, developing an obsessive compulsive disorder, etc.).
This excludes people with normal fears or even an extreme dislike of dogs, of flying, of enclosed spaces and yes, of guns, and who are still capable of functioning normally in society. The number of people who actually suffer from a debilitating level of diagnosable phobia and are literally mentally ill as a percentage of the population is fairly small and that is including all phobias.
The authors cite research from the National Institutes of Health to make the claim that “specific phobias are highly prevalent.” So being a jerk I looked it up. Among 13-18 year olds, who are normally stressed out anyways, NIH says the incident of “anxiety disorders” is 8 percent. Among adults NIH estimates that close to 20 million people suffer from a specific phobia, or less than 7 percent of the population and that is all phobias. So the percent of the population that actually suffers from Hoplophobia specifically is probably not very large.
Yet Eimer and Korwin make the patently absurd claim that “Hoplophobia is far and away the most dangerous of all phobias, because of its unique nexus to political action. Because sufferers act out their fears in the political arena, it represents a significant and under-appreciated threat to the nation.” Paranoia is diagnosable mental illness too maybe they should research that next.
Are they claiming that Hoplophobia is the most common form of phobia? Yes they kind of are by lowering the criteria for how they diagnose the condition. They claim this is a result of popular media that incessantly displays images of gun violence. But media has also brought the public countless and extremely popular gun related reality and outdoor shows that portray firearms and gun owners in a more positive light. This in fact may be a reason why polls show support for gun rights at all-time highs.
One real cause of phobia can be as a result of a traumatic event, like being bitten by a dog as a child, witnessing or being directly affected by gun violence or being molested by a clown (don’t ask). Eimer and Korwin make this claim explicitly, writing “At least three of the most virulent anti-gun-rights crusaders in the nation suffered extreme gun trauma before entering the fray: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (discovered Harvey Milk’s body), Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (husband shot dead on commuter train) and Sarah Brady (husband disabled in assassination attempt on President Reagan).”
So all three of these people are suffering from a mental illness as a result of their traumas, an irrational and debilitating fear of guns, correct? After the Milk incident Feinstein got a handgun and concealed firearm carry permit. Sarah and Jim Brady were both gun owners and shooters and claim to be so to this day. Let me include one more, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who was and is a gun owner and now supports gun restrictions. That doesn’t sound like folks with a debilitating fear of guns or any sort of phobia to me.
The political argument is equally absurd. The authors claim that Hoplophobia particularly manifests itself in political action that restricts the freedom of others (mainly them, and me) and thus is the most insidious. Maybe so but don’t people with dog phobias vote for leash laws? Anyone with any phobia can be motivated to vote that way regardless if they fear immigrants, air travel (me), or most anything else that exists in the public arena.
The reality is that people who support gun control do so for a variety of reasons and the biggest one is lack of understanding and fear. Not a phobia, just normal fear. Guns are dangerous, they are not toys. They need to be treated responsibly and with respect. Fear of them is a normal reaction. Fear of most unfamiliar things is a normal reaction which humans and all animals evolved for survival.
The way to address this is through outreach, discussion and education to increase familiarization and comfort. Instead the authors are destructively doing the opposite. They are labeling gun control advocates as literally crazy people in need of psychiatric counseling. That shuts off any further debate or exchange and it is counterproductive and harmful to our cause. You want to stop Hoplophobia? Take a beginner shooting.
NIH link to youth and anxiety
NIH link to specific phobias
Link to Original Article
Jorge Amselle is a certified firearms instructor and writer covering all aspects of the industry from military and law enforcement firearms and training to the shooting sports. His youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/amselle