Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Fake Guns Are Dangerous But We Miss the Real Problem

I recently read a short article in the Danvers (MA) Patch about the dangers of fake guns and an injury that occurred to one child as a result of them. Apparently, there is also a growing trend where groups of young people shoot projectiles at random people and film their reactions and then share them on social media. Yes, really. It is this latter craze that truly caught my attention.

Has the world gone completely mad and have we fallen off our moral axis and lost our moral compass? The temptation is to say: yes. We are world in distress and nothing seems right. But, I think if we press on to understand this story, we may realize some things that are affecting children (and adults too), namely, we are not processing our real feelings.

Let me explain.

Reading this article made we think of several things immediately: Uvalde, Ukraine and unraveled. We have a massive school shooting where earlier intervention by police could have saved many. We have a war where fewer lives could have been lost if power weren’t so prevalent. We have young people enjoying the scared, shocked and stunned reaction of their victims — an unraveling thought. Those are the kind of thoughts that make us decry that we are in a world gone mad.

As an educator who specializes in trauma and its impact on learning and psycho-social development, one would think I have a ready answer for the fake gun craze. Children have often used guns as toys — water guns, BB guns, cowboy guns… the list is endless. The phallic nature of guns has not gone unremarked. Police have shot children holding fake guns. Fake guns have turned out to be real (think Alec Baldwin).

I have seen the use of play guns in my work and in my home. At one point in the life of my son, I took away all the guns he had, suggesting they were not play things. Shortly thereafter, I saw him holding and aiming a carrot. (He turned out just fine and is a professor with zero interest in weapons.)

What Explains the Seemingly Inexplicable Filming Craze?

As I reflect on the fake gun story above, I think that we have missed the current psychological processes driving this craze. I think young people are actually scared. I think they have experienced too much violence, seen too much violence, heard about too much violence. And, rather than expressing those fears and concerns (to themselves or to others), they invert the feeling process and get some satisfaction out of seeing others get scared. In other words, rather than recognize and deal with being scared themselves, youth are using the reactions of others to ease their own uneasiness. In the process, they can destroy relationships and friendships.

It sounds inverted but our brains often play these kinds of tricks on us. We take our fears and foist them onto others, often without realizing what we are doing. (I suspect bullying falls partially into this grouping.) And in doing so we destroy some good things.

We will never stop the sale of fake guns. We can barely make a dent on real guns. We likely aren’t going to stop violence in any grand way — whether on television, video games, movies or social media. But, surely, we can do something.

A Suggestion

Here’s one suggestion and one that has meaning far beyond the fake gun issue. It is not the only solution and it is not a panacea. That said, we can help young people express and process what they are feeling. And, we know that often feelings of anger and fear get repressed and leak out in other often unhealthy ways — unnoticed or ill-defined. Add this: Humans who get satisfaction out of seeing the fear in others cannot all be psychopaths or masochists or sadists. But, as humans, we can get some psychic benefit from seeing others feel the agony we are feeling. It is a type of transference.

In other words, youth are filming scared reactions because they — the youth — are scared. At least that is a partial explanation for the fake gun video trend.

Why not spend more time understanding and exploring what our young people are feeling and the potential causes of their being scared and fearful and angry are many: COVID, death, dying, violence on Jan. 6th, wars, school shootings, family dysfunction. And let’s listen to what they have to say. Let’s hear them explain the videos and the odd pleasure they are getting from seeing others scared. And ask kids why they want to shoot when some much harm comes from real shooting.

My point is this: I suspect that if we listen to young people share what they are feeling, we will better understand what they are doing with their feelings. And we often do things with feelings that aren’t productive or reflective of what is actually going on. We get mad or scared or anxious, rather than process those feelings. And, in our behaviors, we are acting out or acting badly or harming others.

My suggestion then is at one level simple and at another level complex: we need to spend more time listening to and understanding our youth and we need the adults who are in a position to do this to step into the fray. We need teachers and parents and counselors and psychologists and religious leaders and community leaders to help us, as if they have added time in their already complex lives.

We need to stop the initial reaction I had about craziness of the craze and instead, understand the craze and its causes. Only then will we begin to find our collective way back to our moral axis, develop our respect for others and our increase our understanding of ourselves.

The image at the start of this blog expresses what I am saying in a different way. We are unbuttoned so to speak. We are feeling things without understanding them. The red blot at the bottom reflects blood. We are provoked and that is evoking feelings. We need to understand what is pushing our buttons. Literally and figuratively. Only then will we stop filming the scared reactions of others and focus on resolving our own fears and anxieties in healthier ways, ways that don’t hurt others and lead to understanding and forward progress.

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Karen Gross

Karen Gross

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Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor