Reviewing unsubstantiated, mostly “derogatory… speculative literature
on the personality characteristics of gun owners”, the NIJ Evaluation
(p. 120) mentions “the psychoanalytic” view that “weapons are phallic
symbols representing male dominance and masculine power.” The idea of gun ownership as sexual aberration has been casually espoused by such anti-gun luminaries as Arthur Schlessinger, Jr., Harlan Ellison, Mike
Royko and Joyce Brothers.
The only serious study endorsing this view is by psychiatrist Emmanuel Tanay who sees “the need for a gun” as serving “libidinal purposes … to enhance or repair a damaged self-image…,and involving “narcissism…,passivity and insecurity”
There is no viable argument for the penis theory as against pragmatic explanations for gun ownership. Psychiatrist Bruce Danto rejects the penis theory because it fails to account for female gun ownership. In
fact, 50% of those who own a gun for protection only are women (especially black women), even though women are much less likely than men to own guns for sport. To say the very least, this pattern is more easily explicable by reference to women’s felt need for protection than by feelings of penile inadequacy.
Dr. Danto also notes that the penis theory would predict that male gun owners would be inclined toward the largest barrel and bore weapons available. But the respective popularity of guns of different sizes uniformly appears to reflect purely pragmatic concerns.
The penis theory is equally incapable of explaining other demographic differentials in gun ownership. When all gun owners are counted (not just those who own for protection alone) survey evidence shows that gun owners are disproportionately rural, Southern, male, Protestant, affluent and middle class… [and that] weapons ownership tends to increase with income, or occupational prestige, or both.
The explanations here are, once again, purely pragmatic; hunting is more an activity of rural people generally, and Southerners particularly, than of city dwellers; among urbanites, guns are most owned by the
affluent because they are more likely to hunt — and also to have the money to afford guns and property that they may feel the need to defend; most guns are owned for sport and males engage in gun sports more than
females. As to Protestants, survey evidence shows them more likely to hunt than Catholics or Jews (Protestantism is most predominant in rural areas); and, beyond that, Protestants and gun owners both tend to be descended from older American stock, retaining cultural values redolent of the “individualistic orientation that emanated from the American frontier….”
In contrast, the penis theory has no explanatory value for these demographic trends. Are Protestants or the affluent or rural dwellers or Southerners more subject to feelings of penile inadequacy than Catholics or urbanites or the poor etc., etc.? In this connection it may be relevant to note that surveys show gun owners are no more hostile to feminism and the women’s movement than are non-owners
The foregoing contains some, but not all, of the arguments made in Don B. Kates & Nicole Varzos, “Aspects of the Priapic Theory of Gun Ownership” in William Tonso (ed.), THE GUN CULTURE AND ITS ENEMIES 93, 95 (1989). For a later example of the priapic theory see Feldman TB, Johnson PW. The Self Object Function of Weapons: A Self Psychology Examination. Journal of The American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 20(4)m 561-576m 1992. The authors elaborate a freudian theory of male deviance (phallic narcissism) according to which gun ownership sublimates
subconscious distress resulting from obsessive fears of sexual inadequacy. They note that John Hinkley, killer of John Lennon, wrote a poem entitled, “Guns are Fun,” which goes, in part, “This gun gives me
pornographic power…and the world will look at me in disbelief, all because I own this inexpensive gun…Guns are loveable. Guns are fun. Are you lucky enough to own one?” p. 570.
Anti-gun health advocates seem blind or unconcerned about the danger that their emotions may preclude rational evaluation of gun ownership. Psychiatrist Emmanuel Tanay, M.D., who admits that he loathes guns to the point of being unable to look upon or touch them with equanimity, asserts that gun ownership betokens sexual immaturity or neuroticism.
Dr. Tanay deems it evidence of this: that gun owners actually “handle… with obvious pleasure” these horrid objects which so repulse him; that collectors “look after” their collections, “clean, pamper and polish” their guns: “The owner’s overvaluation of his gun’s worth is an indication of its libidinal value to him.”
As further evidence, Dr. Tanay invokes Freud’s view of the sexual significance of firearms in the interpretation of dreams. This is particularly ironic because Freud’s comments were not directed at gun ownership or owners. Insofar as Freud addressed the matter at all, he seems to have deemed fear and loathing of guns a sign of sexual immaturity and neuroticism.
We are emphatically not endorsing Freud’s view as either applicable to Dr. Tanay or explanatory of his views. Our concern is with the effect fear and loathing of guns has on the intellect, not the libido. On Dr. Tanay at least the effect is that he can’t recognize how gun collectors’ tastes might differ from his own, nor can he comprehend passages from Freud; in fact, he is unable to read them without imposing a meaning almost opposite to what they actually say.