Should we be surprised at the American obsession with firearms? Probably not. After a century of Hollywood pounding the message home, surely we’d understand by now that the gun is the supreme talisman, a sacred object of veneration, the religious icon that trumps all others.
Guns are the American magic wand. Point a revolver at the bad guy and he’ll tell you all you want to know. Point an M-16 at the enemy and all your problems go away. Build an arsenal of nukes and you’re invulnerable, just like the superheroes who spontaneously sprang up to represent you in simpler times; public-spirited individuals like Captain America, who thoughtfully had a figure-hugging suit made from your national flag. I always wondered about these super-hero suits. How did they hide the seams, and what did they do to avoid becoming extremely smelly due to sweat? Did they have two or three so that one could be sent to the laundry? What gifted tailor put them together, sewing them so neatly that there was never an embarrassing rip as they tussled with the evil ones? And did this tailor become immensely rich, or does he have a little back-street shop – Superhero Suits, Reasonable.
Back in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, when this country was the cultural equivalent of Albania, our puritanical governments strove to keep out all corrupting foreign influences, apart from those officially approved. Consequently, intelligent men (and it was always men), relied for their reading pleasure on endless pulp Westerns by people like Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, who started mythologising the American West as far back as 1912 with Riders of the Purple Sage.
Grown men devoured these novels, not only here in Ireland, but across the English-speaking world, and became infantilised as a consequence – a phenomenon savagely lampooned by the great Irish literary iconoclast, Flann O Brien, in his marvellous and puke-inducingly funny At-Swim-Two-Birds. I was given this book at the age of nineteen and it influenced everything I became in later life. You don’t own it? Stop what you’re doing right now, go out and buy it or steal it.
But, as they say, I digress. American tropes. The Western.
Ah, the smell of the black powder smoke and a stand in the street at the turn of a joke. Guy Clark didn’t get much wrong.
Strip it down to its essentials and you’re talking about thugs. Armed, unstable thugs who might take offence at the cut of your jacket of the set of your jaw, and call you out for a showdown. Or more likely, who might simply shoot you dead as quick as they’d look at you.
It’s a messy business building a vast federation across a huge continent. Among other things, you have to dispossess the people who already live there and who, understandably, take exception, just as you would yourself if a foreign invader attacked you. And the truth is that if you want to take the wealth these people own, you’ll have to murder them, drive them off their lands, demonise them and oppress them. You don’t like that. It doesn’t sit well with your Christian principles, but guess what? Those same principles have proved fairly elastic in the past. Your principles didn’t baulk at slavery and they won’t give way when you wipe out the people who lived in these lands long before you arrived with musket and with drum.
However. You still need a way to feel good about what you’ve done, since you know full well that it was wrong. After all, you’re not a fool. Now, if you happen to be the British Empire, you’ll have done this over seven or eight hundred years, and you’ll have the opportunity to build up an old-money scent of righteousness. You’ll be able to develop an aristocracy out of the robber families who started the enterprise, and you’ll get the space to foster the appropriate languor as you condescend to the natives.
But when you’re a new empire and you want those awkward natives out of the way in a hurry, what are you going to do? The answer is obvious: you do what comes natural to the guilty human spirit everywhere. You do what every crooked cop, every cheating spouse, every sexual abuser has done: you blame those you’ve damaged because it’s too hard to face your own responsibility. Thus, for the USA to legitimise its very existence, it must find some way to justify, to romanticise, even to glorify, violence.
Most Europeans cringe a little when they see Americans stand with their hands on their hearts singing their national anthem. It’s a Cecil B deMille moment, where you almost expect John Wayne to appear dressed as a Centurion.
Hail, mighty Caesar!
It’s hard to escape the suspicion that this has been stage managed, but let’s go back to the two thugs outside a saloon in Laramie, drawing down on each other in a fit of drunken, psychopathic aggression. What normal person draws a gun on another to settle a disagreement? Only a stone killer would do that, and yet out of this mythology, evolved the cult of the gun.
I know it myself. I absorbed all this stuff just as everyone else did. The Navy Colt. The .45. The Buntline Special. The Gatling gun. The Sharps rifle. The Winchester repeater. The Henry. The Springfield. The sneaky little Derringer. The Remington.
Of course, glorification of gun culture didn’t stop with the Old West. It permeated every aspect of Western culture right through the 20th century. What kid hasn’t played cowboys and Indians, or cops ‘n’ robbers? It’s that basic, and it comes down to the same simplistic certainty. Bang, you’re dead, problem gone.
Where would we be without film noir detective stories, and where would the detectives be without their cigarettes and their little 38 snubnosed Smith & Wessons?
Have we not been bombarded with movies throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st, glorifying force of arms? Have we not seen the very same thing with TV series? It’s endless, it’s unrelenting and while we in Europe might have bought into the mindset, imagine the effect it had on Americans who are immersed in the unceasing message that guns are good.
It was depressing to see how many Americans reacted after the Aurora cinema shooting. A dismaying number believe that if all the people watching the movie had been armed, the shooter would have been stopped. Why? Because they grew up steeped in action hero movies where nobody dies in the hail of lead except the bad guys. Many Americans have been thoroughly infantilised by the exciting, entertaining but ultimately mindless propaganda that the media has become in that country.
Somehow, by fantasy, all the people watching a movie will pull out their personal weapons and shoot a killer with an assault rifle, and nobody else will be hurt.
Bang! You’re dead. Lie down.
Somehow, by a bigger fantasy, an army can roll into a country that never attacked the USA, and the only people killed are the bad guys, aka insurgents which through the medium of Fox News became a term of abuse. In most civilised world views, an insurgent is one who rises up, but of course, the danger is that they’d have to think it out and that would never do. After all, if the Iraqi insurgents were simply rising up against foreign invaders, then where does that leave the Plains Indians, the victims of genocide? Were they insurgents too?
A mystique of violence is necessary if you’re ever to achieve any sort of justification for violence, and in the overarching scheme, it doesn’t matter all that much if the occasional madman runs loose and murders a few dozen people. The gun must become part of the culture. You have no option but to make it a quasi-religious symbol.
What justifies these psychopaths wandering around the West with lethal weapons? Many things, I suppose, including the fact that the Wild West really was wild, and that the territories they roamed were not part of the United States. But at the same time, there was always the Second Amendment providing comfort to anyone wishing to carry a lethal weapon.
It’s worth quoting the Second Amendment word for word.
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.
Look at that carefully. What does it not say? If you accept what most Americans think it means, which is a blanket guarantee that everyone can have a gun, there’s no need for the first clause. It might as easily have been written this way:
The right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
If the Founding Fathers wanted everyone to have access to weapons, why didn’t they just say it this way? The fact is that they wrote it in the context of a militia. This provision was devised at a time when people were terrified that the English would return and, like Switzerland, saw the need for instant moblisation against attack. It was also a time when the States were highly suspicious of central government in a nascent federation, and reserved the right to resist tyranny by force of arms.
You’ll hear much talk by Americans of the need to balance the excesses of central government by being able to rise up and resist Washington if necessary. Good luck with that. Last time anyone tried such a move, Washington engaged in a merciless war of utter devastation against its fellow countrymen, a war that laid waste to the Southern States. If you think any State could rise up today against Washington, think again. Atlanta was destroyed with horse-drawn cannons. Today, it would happen with Cruise missiles and Abrams tanks
Forget it. Forget militias, and therefore, forget the right to bear arms. This is all nonsense.
Only a few insane survivalists believe they will ever rise up against an oppressive central government, and if they try any such thing, they will be ruthlessly hunted down and extirpated.
Now, combine all these with a storybook foreign villain and you have a recipe for disaster. The American sterotype of the crazed Islamic terrorist is disturbingly similar to the 1930s German stereotype of the grasping, manipulative Jew, and carries within it much of the same political genetics.
When a nation comes to think of itself as superior to all others, this is the sort of thing that happens and when you combine it with a large section of the population that is utterly ignorant of the greater world outside its shores, this is when the world needs to worry.
The reality seems to be that average American citizens have come to believe their own cartoon analysis of political reality, as fed to them these days by Fox, and it seems that presidential candidates on both sides are content to accept the current, staggering level of gun crime in their country.
The more I compare America with Europe, the less I see in common. It’s true that we have adopted much of American culture, and that we have been enriched as a result. It’s true also that we speak a language sharing many common features, and by “we”, I also mean most of Germany, Holland and Scandinavia. But I don’t detect the same aggressive jingoism among ordinary Europeans. Nor do I detect the same level of religious fundamentalism. Even in a country as traditional as Ireland used to be, I can’t imagine anyone being rejected by the electorate for being an atheist, or for being unmarried, and yet, it’s inconceivable that an American president would be either of these things.
What does this have to do with gun-worship?
It’s this. Religious fundamentalism creates unshakeable certainty. Political paranoia does the same. Juvenile, Disneyfied analysis creates the climate in which ignorance can breed. Introduce a juvenile mindset that believes the gun is the solution to all life’s problems, inject it into the most powerful nation on earth, and you begin to see how we might have a problem.
There are those who say that guns don’t kill people. People kill people.
That’s true, but if, as seems to be the case, America has more than an average share of potential mass murderers, isn’t that all the more reason to restrict their access to the sort of weaponry that can mow down an entire movie audience, or a whole classroom full of children? It’s true there will still be the occasional bomber, but explosives are hard to make and transport. It’s true the nutcases will still be there, but wouldn’t it be better if the only weapon a homicidal maniac could get his hands on would be a club, a rock or a knife, instead of an M-16?