12/07/2015 04:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2016

Do Americans Worship Guns?

In 1996 after a 43-year-old man with 4 handguns murdered 16 children and a teacher at a school in Dunblane, Scotland, the British government reacted with a ban on private ownership of automatic weapons and handguns on Britain's mainland. That legislation still enjoys widespread public support. The contrast with U.S. legislators' know-nothing, do-nothing response to mass gun violence could not be greater. One wonders why.

In the same New York Times article that looked back at the Scottish example, Samuel Walker, professor emeritus at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, commented that many Americans have an entirely different attitude toward guns than most other people around the world. Our autistic response to gun violence "reflects the worship of guns," he argued, and our treatment of guns as "a religious object."

Reading that quotation, I thought of a classic statement on commodities as religious fetishes from a source I occasionally use as required reading in my courses on modern European social history. In his magnum opus Capital, Karl Marx once wrote that in the nineteenth century commodities exerted an unnatural power over people. Everyday objects seemed like something from "the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world." It was as if they were "independent beings endowed with life," not unlike the natural fetishes of ancient civilizations in which--I quote from the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols--"shells, pebbles, pieces of wood, excrement" could possess magical powers over people.

Many gun-owning Americans would probably react with skepticism or outright anger to this suggestion. They would argue guns are a legitimate form of self-defense in an unfortunately violent society. They would argue guns are part of a family tradition, handed down responsibly and faithfully from generation to generation. They would point to how American frontier history was closely associated with guns as tools of everyday life. And others would recoil against the term "fetishism" itself, which in contemporary usage is inaccurately equated with sexual fetishism or perversion.

Yet there is much evidence around the country that guns do indeed command an authority usually reserved for sacred objects. Recently a pro-gun website,, featured an article by Dan Zimmerman that began with the following passage: "Most people purchase guns as fetish items." Zimmerman went on to argue gun owners should not only admit they fetishize guns but also be proud of their strange fascination with them. As for the idea of engaging in a DGU (an incident of defensive gun use), he opined there was as much chance of that in his lifetime as there was of winning the lottery.

Even more revealing was an Esquire article from 2013 by Stephen Marche entitled "Guns are Beautiful." Marche wrote that, "guns are one of the primary avenues by which ordinary Americans experience beauty." They are "the machinery fantasy of choice," replacing the automobile as a fetish object. But Marche also argued that gun violence would stop only when such attitudes changed. Guns, he argued, were once associated with masculinity (they are, after all, also phallic symbols) and rugged individualism. But the American culture of frontier freedom, if it ever really existed, is no longer relevant in an interconnected world crisscrossed by environmental destruction, political and economic crisis, and rapid (and often progressive) social change. Marche's final question is worth considering: "We're all clinging to something. What can we find to cling to that isn't machinery of death?"

There is bumper sticker circulating that reads "Pro-God. Pro-Guns. Pro-Life. Anti-Obama." I find the juxtaposition both evocative and deeply disturbing. If it's true that many Americans worship their guns, then not even the slaughter of innocents will move the country beyond its present murderous impasse.