I’ve been thinking about this a lot–especially since my “Frontier” class in the summer. What is the American obsession with guns? Why do we, as a culture, cling so fiercely to our right to carry? How does this right trump the rights of ordinary citizens, students, children, parishioners to go about their lives doing what America promises them: to learn, speak, and worship freely?
My theory: we like the after-effect of a mass shooting. I know that sounds perverse, so let me explain. After a shooting–the killing of innocents–we locate the heroes, the people who sacrificed themselves for others, who took bullets for someone else, who tried to disarm the murderer, who stormed the airplane’s cabin and crashed the jet rather than allow the flight to hit its intended target. We like these stories a lot. I would argue that we like them so much that we’re willing to let mentally unstable people purchase arsenals that they later use to storm churches, schools, campuses, airplanes, and so on. The “beauty” of these mass shootings is the origin myth of America. Fighting our British oppressors, clambering our way Andrew-Carnegie style to the top of the capitalistic heap, fighting the federal government that oppresses us with labor laws, fighting “the man.” We fight, fight, fight. Birthed in violence, Americans re-enact the story over and over again in each incident of mass violence.
There are lots of academic books written about this cultural predisposition: historian Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence and Gunfighter Nation, spring to mind. And the notion of a “frontier” perpetuates our violent tendencies. We crave vigilante justice. When laws don’t suit us–when the feds attempt to control us–we turn to tar & feathering, burning-at-the-stake, lynching, bombing, mass shooting. Of course you can argue that other cultures participate such violent movements well. True. But here in America, we like to think we do it bigger and better than anyone else. And we do. More deaths by gun violence here than anywhere else–by a long shot.
Guns–and our rights to own them (no matter how dysfunctional we may be)–are sacrosanct. Without our Browning rifles, who would we be? And this question names the real culprit here: fear. We fear the unknown world of gun control. We fear the changing landscape of America (abolition, women’s suffrage, immigrants, LGBT marriages) and want our guns to protect us from the unknown. Because guns are what protected us on the frontier.
But we don’t live on a frontier anymore. Not physically at least. The 1892 US Census marked the end of uninhabited land–less than two WHITE people per square mile–in the United States. We’ve not had a veritable “frontier” since the 19th century, and we’re now in the early decades of the 21st century. The frontier has closed, but our cultural need for the concept of a frontier hasn’t ended–and perhaps never well. As Americans, we desire a space that marks a more authentic experience of the world than the disembodied postmodern, technological world we actually inhabit. There, we can encounter our true selves and remember what it means to be human. In other words, the “frontier” makes us feel real. And so the myth of the frontier continues to describe what it means to be an American. So if American = frontier and frontier = guns, American = guns. We are our guns. Breaking down this equation means deconstructing the reality of American existence. A fear-ridden prospect.