Gun crazy

Un­rav­el­ling Amer­ica’s sick ob­ses­sion with firearms

Sunday Herald - - NEWS -

TO­DAY about one-quar­ter of Amer­i­cans own guns. The av­er­age owner has three or four. Fewer than eight mil­lion peo­ple, only three per cent of Amer­i­can adults, own roughly half the guns. Mem­bers of that tiny mi­nor­ity of su­per-en­thu­si­asts own an av­er­age of 17 guns apiece. It seems plain to me that they keep these ar­se­nals be­cause many of them have given them­selves over to fan­tasy. The way I did as a child, and still do on the rare oc­ca­sion I shoot, they imag­ine they’re mili­ti­a­men, pi­o­neers, Wild West cow­boys, soldiers, char­ac­ters they’ve watched in movies and on TV, he­roes and an­ti­heroes played by Clint East­wood and Mel Gib­son like Davy Crock­ett or Rambo. They’re like chil­dren play­ing with lightsabers, ex­cept they be­lieve they’re fight­ing off real-life aliens (from the Mid­dle East, from Mex­ico), and their sta­teof-the-art weapons ac­tu­ally wound and kill.

Why did gang­sters start hold­ing and fir­ing their hand­guns side­ways, even though that com­pro­mises their aim? Be­cause it looks cool, and it be­gan look­ing cool af­ter film­mak­ers started di­rect­ing ac­tors to do it. For the same rea­son, half the states now re­quire no li­cence for peo­ple to carry their guns openly in public places. We are ac­tors in a 24/7 tableau vi­vant, schlubs play­ing the parts of heroic tough guys.

Spec­tac­u­lar mass killings hap­pen in Amer­ica far more of­ten than any­where else, and not just be­cause we make mas­sacre-per­fect weapons so easy to buy. Such killers are also en­gaged in role-play and are mo­ti­vated by our na­tional dream of overnight fame. Ex­perts say that most mass killers are not psy­chotics; rather, they’re cit­i­zens of Fan­ta­sy­land, un­happy peo­ple with flaws they blame on oth­ers, the sys­tem, the elit­ists, the world. They worry those re­sent­ments into sen­sa­tional fan­tasies of vengeance, and they know that act­ing out those fan­tasies will make a big splash and force the rest of us to pay at­ten­tion to them. Be­yond the free-float­ing Amer­i­can myths un­der­ly­ing law-abid­ing Amer­i­can gun love – the fron­tier, bad-ass in­di­vid­u­al­ism, ac­tion movies – there are the spe­cific fright­ened sce­nar­ios driv­ing the diehard fe­roc­ity con­cern­ing gun reg­u­la­tion.

The least fan­tas­ti­cal is the idea that if a crim­i­nal threat­ens, you want a gun handy to kill him. Be­ing pre­pared for a show­down with a bad guy is the main rea­son gun own­ers give for own­ing one, and that an­swer has dou­bled since the 1990s. Dur­ing the same pe­riod, the chance of an Amer­i­can ac­tu­ally hav­ing such an en­counter has de­creased by half. In New York, where re­stric­tions on own­ing and car­ry­ing guns are among the strictest in the US, the chance of be­ing mur­dered is 82 per cent less than it was in 1990.

Keep­ing a hand­gun for pro­tec­tion may be fool­ish, but it’s not ir­ra­tional. Even though vi­o­lent crime has dra­mat­i­cally de­clined, in a coun­try where every fourth per­son owns a gun, the han­ker­ing to be armed is un­der­stand­able. But be­yond the prospect of pro­tect­ing one­self – and by the way, among the mil­lion-plus Amer­i­cans in­ter­viewed in 10 years of Crime Vic­tim­i­sa­tion Sur­veys, ex­actly one sex­ual as­sault vic­tim used a gun in self-de­fence – sev­eral out­landish sce­nar­ios and pure fan­tasies drive the pol­i­tics of gun con­trol. One newer fan­tasy has it that in the face of an at­tack by ji­hadi ter­ror­ists, armed civil­ians will save the day. An­other is the fan­tasy that pa­tri­ots will be obliged to be­come ter­ror­ist rebels, as Amer­i­cans did in 1776 and 1861, this time to de­fend lib­erty against the US gov­ern­ment before it fully re­veals it­self as a tyran­ni­cal fas­cist-so­cial­ist-glob­al­ist regime and tries to con­fis­cate every gun.

This up­ris­ing sce­nario, when it ap­peared in the 1960s, stirred peo­ple only on the fur­thest fringes of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. It is now deep in the main­stream, thanks in large mea­sure to the work of the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion (NRA) and its af­fil­i­ated hys­ter­ics. How did that hap­pen?

When the Founders wrote the Con­sti­tu­tion, they en­vi­sioned a very small per­ma­nent na­tional military. If Amer­i­cans needed to fight wars, the states would as­sem­ble their mili­tias. And so the Sec­ond Amend­ment: “A well-reg­u­lated Mili­tia, be­ing nec­es­sary to the se­cu­rity of a free State, the right of the peo­ple to keep and bear Arms, shall not be in­fringed.” For more than two cen­turies, the Supreme Court avoided mak­ing any sweep­ing de­ci­sion about what the Sec­ond Amend­ment meant. The court okayed pro­hibit­ing cer­tain kinds of firearms, such as sawed-off shot­guns. In 1980, a de­ci­sion pass­ingly noted that the Sec­ond Amend­ment guar­an­tees an in­di­vid­ual’s right to have a gun only if it bears “some rea­son­able re­la­tion­ship to the preser­va­tion or ef­fi­ciency of a well reg­u­lated mili­tia”. States and cities that wanted to re­strict gun own­er­ship did, and oc­ca­sion­ally Congress en­acted mod­est reg­u­la­tions. Mean­while, peo­ple who loved own­ing guns could in­dulge their love in the United States more freely than al­most any­where else on Earth.

But af­ter the NRA’s apoplec­tic-fan­ta­sist fac­tion took con­trol in the late 1970s, it be­came the cen­tre of a pow­er­ful new po­lit­i­cal move­ment that op­posed all reg­u­la­tion – the types and num­bers of guns and ac­ces­sories and ammo peo­ple could buy, who could buy them and how eas­ily, reg­is­tra­tion, li­cens­ing, even a re­quire­ment to use safety locks.

Nev­er­the­less, Congress in the 1990s man­aged to en­act two laws – one re­quir­ing most gun buy­ers to pass an FBI back­ground check and an­other ban­ning the man­u­fac­ture of cer­tain semi-au­to­matic guns and of mag­a­zines that hold more than 10 rounds. In 1995, the NRA re­sponded by send­ing a hys­ter­i­cal fundrais­ing let­ter to its mem­bers. Signed by its CEO Wayne LaPierre, the let­ter ar­gued that the new as­sault weapons ban “gives jack­booted Gov­ern­ment thugs more power to take away our con­sti­tu­tional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, de­stroy our prop­erty and even in­jure and kill us”.

That let­ter was the mo­ment the NRA set­tled in deep­est Fan­ta­sy­land. It seemed de­mented even to Repub­li­cans, dozens of whom had voted for the as­sault weapons ban in Congress. For­mer president Ge­orge HW Bush re­signed from the NRA in protest. Just days af­ter the let­ter went out, the anti-gun reg­u­la­tion ac­tivist Ti­mothy McVeigh blew up

This is an edited ex­tract from Fan­ta­sy­land: How Amer­ica Went Haywire: A 500-Year His­tory, by Kurt An­der­sen, pub­lished in hard­back by Ebury Press on Oc­to­ber 12, £20

the Ok­la­homa City fed­eral build­ing. The gun rights zealots, how­ever, did not re­think. They sought to­tal vic­tory, so needed to con­vince a ma­jor­ity of the Supreme Court to rat­ify their new ev­ery­body’s-a-free­lance-mili­tia­man in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Sec­ond Amend­ment once and for all. When the ban on semi-au­to­matic weapons ex­pired in 2004, it was not renewed. In cases in 2008 and 2010, the Supreme Court fi­nally agreed to de­cide the fun­da­men­tal mean­ing of the Sec­ond Amend­ment. In both cases, jus­tices went with the new read­ing. Now our Con­sti­tu­tion does in­deed guar­an­tee each one of us the right to own firearms.

So that’s how we got here. The NRA has won. Yet they seem no less para­noid or an­gry, still con­vinced that tyranny is right around the cor­ner and that fed­eral agents are com­ing for their guns.

LAPIERRE says FBI checks “are just the first step in their long march to de­stroy­ing our Sec­ond Amend­ment-pro­tected rights”. Thus the NRA made sure that cur­rent fed­eral law re­quires that the record of every gun buyer who goes through a back­ground check be de­stroyed. Nev­er­the­less, one of LaPierre’s lob­by­ists has noted that if the gov­ern­ment did main­tain “a data­base or a reg­is­tra­tion of Amer­i­cans who are ex­er­cis­ing a con­sti­tu­tional right”, that would be “just like [if] they ... main­tain a data­base of all Methodists, all Bap­tists, all peo­ple of dif­fer­ent re­li­gious or eth­nic back­grounds”. Ex­treme Amer­i­can gun love re­ally is a lot like Amer­i­can re­li­gious faith. So one un­likely pos­si­bil­ity, a fed­eral reg­istry, leads to a supremely im­plau­si­ble fan­tasy, con­fis­ca­tion of guns. Such fan­tasies have be­come re­spectable. It was a mile­stone when, at the be­gin­ning of this cen­tury, the NRA’s president – Charl­ton He­ston, a movie star fa­mous for play­ing 19th-cen­tury Amer­i­can soldiers – urged mem­bers “to de­feat the di­vi­sive forces that would take free­dom away”, then lifted a replica of a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War ri­fle and snarled “fight­ing words for every­one within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed ... From my cold, dead hands!’” In other words, He­ston was say­ing: You’ll have to kill me if you try to take away my guns. Af­ter that, the threat of armed in­sur­rec­tion be­came more ex­plicit. In­stead of ig­nor­ing the first half of the Sec­ond Amend­ment, the gun rights move­ment em­braced the idea that civil­ians needed guns for para­mil­i­tary pur­poses. And fi­nally the Supreme Court agreed. One of the de­ci­sive opin­ions, writ­ten by Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia, says that the Sec­ond Amend­ment al­lows ev­ery­body to have guns so that they can spon­ta­neously form mili­tias when nec­es­sary – that is, to make “the able-bod­ied men of a nation ... bet­ter able to re­sist tyranny”, to join an armed “re­sis­tance to ... the depre­da­tions of a tyran­ni­cal gov­ern­ment”, to shoot and kill mem­bers of a US “stand­ing army” they don’t like.

Are the gun zealots like dogs who catch the car but don’t want to stop bark­ing and snarling? Or the child who threat­ens to hold his breath un­til he dies? De­spite their es­sen­tially to­tal vic­tory, they de­mand more: the free­dom to fire dozens of rounds with­out reload­ing; to carry guns any­where they please, like cops or soldiers; a still greener green light to shoot peo­ple if they feel threat­ened.

Rea­son­able peo­ple hoped that af­ter the mas­sacre in 2012 of the 20 first-graders and six adults at the Sandy Hook El­e­men­tary School in Con­necti­cut, the delir­ium might be­gin to break. The killer’s mother, who home-schooled him, “had a sur­vival­ist phi­los­o­phy, which is why she was stock­pil­ing guns”, ac­cord­ing to her sis­ter-in-law. The stock­pile in­cluded the ri­fle with which her son mur­dered her. All the guns had been legally pur­chased by his mom. Yet the sis­ter-in­law de­fended her – she “wasn’t one to deny re­al­ity. She would have sought psy­chi­atric help for her son had she felt he needed it”.

She wasn’t one to deny re­al­ity. Right af­ter the mas­sacre and ever since, con­spir­acists have fan­ta­sised al­ter­nate re­al­i­ties about what hap­pened. The killings and “cover-up” were ob­vi­ously un­der­taken by the gov­ern­ment and me­dia to gin up sup­port for gun reg­u­la­tion. Some de­cided it hadn’t ac­tu­ally hap­pened at all, that it was all a staged fan­tasy, with ac­tors play­ing griev­ing par­ents on TV. Two months later, the same day President Trump spoke to the right wing’s big an­nual Con­ser­va­tive Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Con­fer­ence, Wayne LaPierre de­liv­ered an ad­dress too. They had com­pletely won.

So how could he keep the mad­ness go­ing? By pre­sent­ing an even cra­zier new fan­tasy of armed pa­tri­ots’ self-de­fence. “Right now,” LaPierre told them, “we face a gath­er­ing of forces that are will­ing to use vi­o­lence against us ... some of the most rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal el­e­ments there are. An­ar­chists, Marx­ists, com­mu­nists, and the whole rest of the left-wing so­cial­ist brigade”. Af­ter 39 years with the NRA, is he re­ally itch­ing for an ac­tual civil war, or are his hor­rific movie-trailer vi­sions just good for busi­ness? “Make no mis­take, if the vi­o­lent left brings their ter­ror ... into our homes, they will be met with the ... full force of Amer­i­can free­dom in the hands of the Amer­i­can peo­ple and we will win.”

Above: Peo­ple flee af­ter Stephen Pad­dock started shoot­ing in Las Ve­gas. Right, a Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion event in At­lanta Pho­to­graphs: Getty Im­ages

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