Unravelling America’s sick obsession with firearms
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