Quit Worrying And Love The Gun?
In my 12 years of living in America, few things have made me feel my foreignness quite so much as the Second Amendment and its surrounding gun culture.
My birth nation the United Kingdom doesn’t have anything like an equivalent of the Second Amendment, and firearms, while not actually outlawed, are far less prevalent in society. Guns are so proportionally few in number, in fact, that most of our police officers are routinely unarmed apart from a (currently nightstick-style) truncheon, as they have been since the founding of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police force in the Victorian era.
It’s something I often use as an example when people here in Texas ask me about the land of my birth. “Is it very different over there?” they ask, and one of the things I’m likely to bring up is “well, carrying a concealed weapon is a crime, and even most of our police don’t have guns”. Some people here in Texas seem not to know what to do with this information. “If the police aren’t armed, who has the guns?” one man asked, apparently expecting me to say “the criminals” or something. He really didn’t know how to handle the idea that guns aren’t endemic and that we wouldn’t generally consider owning firearms a right.
Obviously, I’ve struggled long and hard with that sort of bafflement operating in reverse. The insane rate of gun deaths in America. The Second Amendment itself. The fact that even after the deadliest mass shooting in US history the government is unable to pass even rudimentary commonsense legislation restricting some of the more lethal hardware available, or to close the loophole in the law allowing people to avoid background checks when acquiring a gun through private sale.
It doesn’t take a genius to wonder whether America’s gun violence problems are directly connected to America’s Second Amendment to its Constitution.
If you’re going to tell people they have a right to juggle with chainsaws, you shouldn’t be surprised if hospitals are constantly having to patch up those who are less than expert at it. It does sort of beg the question of why, though, and I’ve struggled for a long time to come to some sort of understanding of what the purpose and reasoning behind the Second Amendment are.
Various not entirely helpful theories are propounded by gun rights advocates. “The Second guarantees the First” is a common bumper-sticker justification for the Amendment, putting forth the idea that the right of individual citizens to bear arms is what stops the government from infringing on the rights listed in the First Amendment: freedom of conscience, of speech, of movement and of association.
While it’s in some ways an attractive theory, especially given the notoriously suspicious general American attitude to authority and government, to me it falls flat, in part because I am a foreigner. My native country has never felt the need to tell its citizens they have a right to go armed, neither has any other developed nation of which I’m aware. If the right of citizens to bear arms is what holds governments back from tyranny, we ought to see a far higher incidence of tyranny among non-American nations, with them scoring far lower on the international freedom indices used to compare the amount of freedom possessed by citizens across national borders. Whereas in fact some developed nations with extremely restrictive gun laws continually score higher than the United States in political freedoms granted their citizens.
Some people put forth the idea that it’s the knowledge that US citizens own 30% of the world’s guns in just 3% of the world’s population that restrains other countries from attacking. I’m not sure why these people have such a low opinion of what’s generally acknowledged as the world’s most powerful military – certainly the most technological – but apparently we can’t guarantee that the US military could successfully hold off an invasion. This sort of Red Dawn fantasy was a little ridiculous when that film came out during the Cold War, and it doesn’t seem any more sensible to me today in 2017.
It is a little more in line with what my considered reading of the Second Amendment suggests that the framers of the Constitution believed it was for, though.
Of necessity I’ve had to become familiar with the text of the Amendment, such that I can now quote it verbatim: “A well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state, the right to bear arms shall not be infringed”.
I’ve gone through various interpretations and failures to understand this phrasing, including investigating to find out what on earth a militia is and what it has to do with anything. I don’t want to reprise the whole development of my thought on the matter here, but my understanding of a militia is that it was a type of 17th- and 18th-Century temporary military unit composed of farmboys and hunters and basically anyone who had a weapon and hadn’t been press-ganged already. In Europe, militia were notorious for their general indiscipline, battlefield cowardice and off-field brutality. If you were using militia, it was because you had nothing else
And yet in America, the idea of militia dovetailed with the Founding Fathers’ concept of the citizen-soldier who would take up arms in defence of nation and family and then return once more to their fields to take up the plough.
It certainly seems as though the colonists didn’t want a permanent standing army. I guess their experiences with the sorts of British Redcoats that the French would later nickname “les Goddamns” made them so suspicious of armies that they wanted no truck with any of it. They wanted a militia, not an army. Soldiers with nothing to do only lend themselves to oppression.
In this context the Second Amendment makes perfect sense. If your national defence is resting on militia, it’s a borderline treasonable offence to take away the weapons that make a militia possible.
It does rather make the Second Amendment the obsolete artifact of history that I always suspected it was, though.
Why there’s still a Second Amendment today, when there’s an entire permanent US military on which America spends more money than some countries’ entire GDP, seems like merely the inherent conservatism of Americans and their reverence for and reluctance to re-examine the basic provisions of their Constitution.
The fact that the people have apparently a Constitutionally-guaranteed right to own killing weapons doesn’t necessarily make it a given that a majority of people are going to, though. There are all sorts of quaint, archaic laws on the books, not only in the UK where I grew up but all over the world including America, banning and permitting all manner of improbabilities, but the mere fact that they’re on the books doesn’t mean anyone’s really paying attention to them.
No, to answer this we turn to the other imponderable of American culture: as a gun-owning friend once put it, “Americans, we love our guns”.
It’s taken me even longer to assimilate this truth than it took to come to an understanding of what the Second Amendment thinks it’s for. “We love our guns”.
I could recognise easily enough that it did in fact seem to be the case. One only has to look at the numbers. But it made no sense to me, particularly the staunchly pro-gun stance of many Christians. How could anyone who follows the Prince of Peace want anything to do with promoting the ownership of weapons whose primary purpose is to kill?
Obviously they must be ignorant. Or brainwashed by the gun manufacturers’ NRA mouthpiece. Or just supporting gun rights because it’s a conservative cause and American Christianity has become overwhelmingly identified with the political Right.
I suspect that this may be more than a little unfair. I still struggle with the idea that a genuine Bible-believing Christian might feel justified, in certain circumstances, in taking the life of another person when Christ died for them just like He died for me, but I recognise that I seem to be in a distinct minority holding that view here in America.
The scary thing is that my gun-loving friend was right. Americans really do love their guns, and it’s not necessarily because of stereotypical Yank cultural ignorance or personal bloodyminded stupidity.
I’m coming to the conclusion that gun advocates really don’t see guns in the same way, that the gun has a dramatically different symbolic value to most people in the United States than it does for me.
To me, a gun is a killing weapon, end of story. Gun rights advocates, at least in my experience, like to bring up the fact that the police define a car as a deadly weapon, or that you can kill someone with a length of steel pipe or a hammer, or that the 9/11 terrorists killed so many not with a gun but with an aeroplane. It’s not the gun, they claim, it’s what it’s used for.
Whether this doesn’t imply that US society as a whole is sick and violent is a question I choose to leave open right now, but in my mind there’s a difference between a car, which is intended as a means of transport to get from point A to point B but which occasionally gets abused as a weapon, and a gun, whose entire purpose is to shoot a bullet at a target and to kill what it shoots. There can be reasonable uses of this killing capability, for example hunting to feed one’s family, but at the end of the day a gun is made to do one thing: to kill.
More, guns make it easy to kill. You can kill someone with a knife, but you have to be much closer to them and use a lot more effort. In my thinking the ability to kill with the crook of a finger is a terrible power to wield, one that I wouldn’t trust myself with. To place that power in the hands of the meanest, most prejudiced and violent knuckle-dragging troglodyte seems like inviting horror.
I’m not trying to say that all gun owners are prejudiced knuckle-draggers, but by their nature as instruments of violence, guns would seem to attract the violent and appeal to the base killing instinct. A person who is peaceable and placid by nature would seem to have less inherent interest in acquiring a firearm.
Guns, to me, are by their very nature death-dealing devices of inherent designed potential for violence, and it’s this perspective that’s stymied me for so long in assimilating “we love our guns”. How could any rational, reasonable person possibly love a tool of violence and death?
It’s possible, even likely, that I’m being a little double-minded in this, because I have a thing for swords. Objectively, a sword is at least as much a tool of violence and death, but in my defence it’s not a current tool of violence and death, so that in the modern gunpowder age a sword is more or less a prop, a decoration, an anachronism owned for its symbolic value rather than its cutting-edge (sorry) killing technology.
To me, swords are symbolically associated with knighthood and the Mediaeval code of chivalry, with its virtues of honour, integrity, faith and the protection of the weak. Only a very distant secondarily are they a functional weapon, unlike the gun, which is purely and simply a functional weapon and has absolutely no mystique or positive symbolic value to me at all. Indeed, it almost stands in opposition to the sword as a symbol of the coarser, less spiritual and refined values of the modern age.
Is it possible that other people might imbue the gun with positive symbolic value? That ownership of a gun might for some be less about owning a death-dealing weapon and more about some intangible value like personal liberty or self-reliance?
Of course other people of other cultures place different significance on things. Though the idea’s usually found in reference to “primitive” cultures, I suspect most cultures actually have certain totem objects imbued with strong symbolic value, like the British Crown Jewels or the American bald eagle.
The situation is complicated in the case of guns because the gun is a currently-employed killing weapon and has all of those associations as well, but it’s well within the bounds of probability that for the people about whom I most wonder at their enthusiasm for firearms ownership, the gun isn’t merely a killing device; it has a symbolic meaning that’s completely outside my ken.
Commentators on the gun issue in America frequently use words and phrases like “freedom”, “independence”, “self-reliance”, “rugged ability to take care of things oneself”. In the past, this might as well have been Martian for all it touched me. Not only do I not associate the gun with any of that, but I don’t even consider some of those to be important. Or even virtues.
Yeah, I’m a foreigner. Did you expect me to be an American with this accent?
Independence isn’t that important to me on a personal level. I’m more into the idea of interdependence, mutuality, cooperation. The “rugged self-reliance” that takes care of business without needing anyone else seems almost psychologically unbalanced and basically futile: macho posturing that more often than not creates a big problem whenever it tries to solve a small one. If guns are symbolic of this, count me basically uninterested.
I guess the gun-rights advocates are right, at least in my personal case. I really don’t share your values. In my case it actually does make me unAmerican, but there seem to be plenty of people in the States that are at least as nonplussed by the apparent love of the gun as I am. The people who, after a horrific mass shooting like Las Vegas, reopen the historically futile debate over firearms with calls for tighter regulation of these intrinsically dangerous weapons. The people who fight against the depressing knowledge that there will be another mass shooting just as bad as this last one if not worse. The people who advocate for what I’d describe as rational and reasonable legal control.
Because a gun isn’t just a symbol of rugged individualism. It’s a deadly weapon, by its very nature an instrument of violent death. The dichotomy of this dual nature as both weapon and symbol is a pretty good summary of the American gun debate. And “Americans, we love our guns” finally seems to have an answer for why? that makes an ounce of sense.
Americans probably don’t love guns because they are twisted closet-sociopaths who love violence and death, though you could certainly make a case that the USA as a whole is fairly violence-obsessed. It just might be that there are important symbolic values for many Americans connected with owning a gun, and that they love guns because guns represent a value they cherish.
I’m probably never going to personally love guns. Neither they nor their ownership hold positive symbolic value to me, and even the values I’m told are associated with them are mostly not ones I place particular emphasis on. Freedom is good, for instance, but my freedom is necessarily limited by law, morality, courtesy and the common freedoms of everyone else. My self-image and identity aren’t bound up in owning a weapon. At least, not this weapon; I’d still love to get a broadsword. But even there, I’m quite able to live my life without one.
As a Christian, I question whether our self-image and identity ought to be so wrapped up in weapon ownership rather than Christ, but when I can lay down forever my desire to have a sword, then I can frame the identity-marker of gun possession as possible idolatry. I question whether the values expressed in the symbology of the gun are ones we ought to be promoting as Christians, but that’s not quite the same issue.
I don’t think I’ll ever see the Second Amendment as anything more than a historical artifact or ever really share in this great American obsession, but perhaps in finally grasping the value and symbolic aspects of the issue I can better understand that chimerical and seemingly unnatural beast, the Christian gun-rights advocate. Or even just the gun rights advocate, no matter the rest of their functioning belief system.