The Sacred Matter of Guns in American History

The question is not about "mental health." Nor is it about how to regulate the sale of firearms. What matters most here and now to better grasp the power and meaning of owning guns in American life is American history, which is a sad but familiar tale of gun worship and gun carnage.
10/14/2015 12:38 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2016

Guns. Guns, guns, guns, guns and more guns. Americans and their guns. Americans love their guns. Guns are everywhere. All kinds of guns. Some Americans stockpile, others have one handgun in the lockbox in the closet; some are connoisseurs and others could care less about technological innovation and aesthetic beauty.

Still, one fact is indisputable: Americans kill with their guns in non-combat military environments at a rate that far exceeds most if not all other so-called civilized societies. In fact, you could now say that the lines between war environments and peace environments no longer hold in American society--now Americans don't know any other circumstances but living with combat-ready citizens and combat level carnage, which can happen anytime, anywhere--workplaces and churches, hospitals and classrooms. No where is safe.

I think it's safe to say that many Americans worship their guns, though they themselves might not see it quite in that way.

It's alluded to many times when the topic of gun violence is at the top of the news cycle: there's something religious about guns. For Garry Wills, writing after the Sandy Hook massacre of children and adults, guns are an "object of reverence." Our Moloch, a god who requires the sacrifice of children, in his religious mapping of this phenomenon, and a sign we are living in a "deeply degraded culture."

Perhaps more akin to a fetish, in the old-school meaning of the term, the gun has magical powers for Americans who are looking for the same thing the so-called "primitive" societies craved: safety from enemies, protection from danger, strength and access to power--survival basically, and a constant living in fear.

The question is not about "mental health." Nor is it about how to control and regulate the sale of firearms. What matters most here and now to better grasp the power and meaning of owning guns in American life is American history, which is a sad but familiar tale of gun worship and gun carnage. From the get go, guns make America and Americans make guns sacred.

Hunting and sport, I think, are secondary in the religious equation; protection and fear, on the other hand, are elementary. The historical roots are obvious from the Revolutionary War and that pesky second amendment, but what seals the deal takes place in the nineteenth century and is generally and conveniently labeled: "manifest destiny." More specifically, Americans had to conquer the frontier in order to stand up and spread the sacred, world-redeeming, ordained by God, special mission of this nation.

While diseases wiped out native populations through the century, dishonest and disgraceful treaties took land away as western territories were cleared for American interests, and the horrors and perversions of slavery were driving the dreams of expansion across the continent, guns were a constant presence.

Not only a constant as a material object on the frontier, in households, with the military, carried by the police, handled by criminals, sold by dealers and so on; but also a symbol, with symbolic power in popular imaginations and cultures, carried by frontiersmen and cowboys, lawmen and sidekicks who avenge wrongdoing, justify terrible violence, and ensure moral order.

The gun solves the problem of living on the frontier in the minds of many Americans--it is an instrument of God's will, national duty, communal safety, and personal salvation, all wrapped up in one seemingly inanimate object.

We are no longer living in the nineteenth century, but the frontier experience and the "wild west" sensibilities from that distant time still live on today, in our time, and in current debates about gun control.

It would be nice if we could find a simple fix to gun violence: only give guns to people who are mentally stable; or make all the guns disappear; or just give guns to everybody with the hope that that makes everyone safer. But it is obviously not that simple.

In this case, given the religious values at stake in the debates and the sacred status of the gun for so many, it may be that the more we understand the deeper historical and cultural currents underlying the problems of gun violence in America, the more difficult it is to believe that the problem can ever be solved.