The gun has an indelible presence in America’s popular consciousness.
The myth-making entertainment industry has embellished and magnified
the gun’s prominent role in the narrative of the nation’s founding and
rapid expansion across the continent over Indian lands and trackless
But reverence for history isn’t what’s really driving the soaring rate
of gun ownership among Americans.
Today something stronger than the hunting culture or nostalgia for an
adventure-filled frontier past is keeping gun fetishism alive —
social paranoia. A dread of unseen threats against one’s personal
safety feeds the demand for automatic assault rifles and handguns,
much to the delight of obliging firearm manufacturers.
Up to 47 percent of Americans reported owning firearms in 2011,
according to the Gallup Poll. Consequently, the U.S. has the highest
rate of gun-related homicides among the industrialized countries.
Changing these statistics is a formidable challenge.
Widespread anxiety over perceived impending violence explains why
there are 89 guns for every 100 American civilians, as reported in
last year’s Small Arms Survey; that’s some 270 million guns
nationwide, the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.
Many believe the high-caliber handgun or automatic rifle is their best
defense against crime. Someone may want to invade your home, rape your
wife and kill your children. A gun would enable you to “stand your
ground,” many are convinced.
The gun is also a tool for projecting personal power. This function
has even spawned an “open-carry” movement that would allow men and
women — who no one should try to “mess with” — to walk around like
gunslingers of the old West.
And while no one really believes the United States is in danger of a
military invasion by any foreign power, a good many gun worshipers
believe that they need to be prepared for a social cataclysm of sorts,
like mass unrest or a catastrophe that ultimately leads to widespread
looting and depredation.
At its core, then, is a lack of confidence that the state can provide
sufficient protection to its citizens. Tied to this is a profound
sense of individualism, of a deeply held belief that only the
individual, not the community or its laws, is the real guarantor of
Thus, while liberals may share some of these same insecurities, the
cult of gun ownership is, as most observers already know, conservative
Writing in the New York Times, number cruncher Nate Silver draws the
link between politics and gun ownership: White Republicans are more
likely to own guns than white Democrats; by 2010 gun ownership among
Democrats dropped to 22 percent but remained at 50 percent among
In its extreme form, gun worship is xenophobic and racist.
Self-proclaimed militias and many so-called doomsday “preppers” fear a
creeping United Nations “takeover” of the U.S. They also warn of an
impending race war in which one must be prepared to defend one’s home
and family against marauding and rapacious black and brown hordes.
This likely explains why whites are more likely to own guns than
blacks or Hispanics and why gun ownership is higher among middle class
households than poorer ones, according to Silver’s findings. And while
most gun-related homicides occur in urban areas, gun ownership is
higher in rural and suburban areas.
While owning a gun is indeed as American as cherry pie, it need not
remain part of this country’s traditions. Owning a broadsword is not
as British as steak and kidney pie, despite the prominent role of
bladed weapons in British history.
It is admittedly not going to be easy to erase the prevalent social
delusions that fuel gun ownership in America, but stricter laws and
regulations can and should start preventing its lethal consequences.
The law of the jungle through the proliferation of guns has no place
in civilized life.