“Since when did gun become a bad word?”

A week after the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the National Rifle Association posed this question, along with its solution to the problem of violence in our streets: More guns in the hands of more people.

I think there are a few other questions we should consider first. Since when did guns become idolized symbols of patriotism, glorified manifestations of power and unassailable entitlements of freedom? When did we begin to confuse a sportsman’s right to hunt with the paranoia of a survivalist who amasses weapons capable of launching a small war? Why are we the only country in the civilized world that asks our most vulnerable citizens to assume the risk of having weapons of mass killing in the hands of the general public?

And please tell me when the iconography of American values shifted from Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms to the image of a machine gun, an assault rifle and a high-capacity magazine wrapped in the American Flag?

The NRA tells us it is video games, and movies, and inadequate mental-health services that are to blame for Newtown. As a practicing clinical psychologist, I am well aware of these issues and their contribution to the problem of violence in our culture. But the frame we put around a problem matters. And the NRA’s frame would have us look at all of these problems through one very distorted lens: how we can make the world safe for their guns. That is not only an impossible task, it is an absurd one that puts gun ownership above the security of our children, teachers, police officers and citizens.

The answer to the NRA’s question is simple. “Gun” is supposed to be a bad word. Ask any police officer or soldier who has used one to take a life. It is not a god or a symbol or an idol. It is a tool that performs a tragically necessary purpose when all else has failed, when humanity cannot find a better way.

In the next few weeks, as Vice President Joe Biden’s study group prepares recommendations for action, the NRA will rally its forces. They will flood the halls of Congress with lobbyists to make the case that no new gun laws are needed, that no infringement or limitation on their right to arms can be tolerated in America. They will articulate the view that the freedom to own weapons is the ultimate one, no matter what its cost.

But I keep thinking about those other freedoms, the ones Franklin Roosevelt defined as universal values, and which Norman Rockwell illustrated so effectively: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and, most importantly, the freedom from fear. The kind of fear I keep visualizing on the faces of 6 year olds facing down a deeply troubled young man whose mind fractured that December morning and who needed to go no further than the basement of his own home to obtain an arsenal of weaponry to act out his despair and rage.

So I would like to suggest a different call to arms. Take back our American flag. Wrap it around your child, your grandchild, the children in your classroom and neighborhood. Wrap it around every person you love who struggles with mental illness or developmental handicaps. Let every congressman and senator and government official see those images, and hear our message: These are the arms we want protected.

Mary E. Plouffe is a clinical psychologist and writer living in South Freeport.