America’s historic obsession with gun ownership & freedom
If you searched the word “Freedom” on Instagram, what would you expect to find? Uplifting stock photos of an open sky, or the Statue of Liberty?
Those are fair (and accurate) guesses but in reality one thing in particular sticks out: guns. Any non-American would likely be baffled by this. But as an American myself, I must admit I’m not surprised; guns are a powerful symbol in American culture, and in this polarised Left vs. Right socio-political climate, guns have also become one of the most pervasive symbols of the Right. In extreme cases there are those who believe that not owning a gun, or being against gun ownership, is a sign of being un-American. The objective of this article is to try and determine why. For this, a little context is needed.
For those that aren’t familiar, the gun debate in the United States hinges on interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads in full: “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”. The politicisation of the gun debate means that the issue has been thrust into the national spotlight many times over the second term of the Obama Administration, thanks to the recent rise of high-profile “mass shootings” and the gradual discovery of the National Rifle Association’s tremendous lobbying influence in Congress.
I should stress here that the United States does have a long tradition of citizen-soldiers, going back to before the country was even founded in 1776. The classic symbol is the “Minuteman” of the American Revolution; a hardworking, ordinary citizen who would arm himself and be called upon to fight “at a minute’s notice”. This picture falls neatly in line with the traditional American values of patriotism, self-determination, and financial independence; so it’s not too much of a jump to conclude that responsible private gun ownership could be seen as American as well.
Consider also the historical context of the drafting of the Constitution. Professional standing armies, though necessary on the European continent, were too costly and logistically difficult to maintain in America, especially if the only major threats were raids or incursions by native Americans. Add to that the fact that standing armies could be, and often were used as tools of oppression, it is natural that the framers of the Constitution would consider armed citizens a necessary check on the power of federal government. Today, many hard-line gun activists still consider it their patriotic duty to own guns in case of “encroachment” from Washington. Though this does raise an interesting question: how patriotic are those who hoard guns with a view to potentially using them in an armed rebellion?
This is not the first time that political divisiveness has been exploited to convince the public that opposition (typically from the Left) is “unamerican”. During America’s second Red Scare (the perceived threat from Communism) in the 1950’s, an Orwellian investigative committee called the “House Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC) was formed solely for the purposes of investigating and prosecuting public servants and private citizens with ties (real or imagined) to communism and the Soviet Union. Concurrent, though unrelated, was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to expose communism in the entertainment industry, which led to a well-known anti-communist witch hunt where accusations of being “un-American” were used as political weapons to defame or destroy rivals and left-wingers.
Although HUAC has since been abolished, and it did not take long for McCarthy to fall out of favour, one important phrase did come out of the era, credited to radio host Walter Winchell: “America: Love it or Leave it”. This phrase, often used by the Right, has appeared in various forms since McCarthyism. It espouses a simple, black-and-white mindset that appeals to those who would weaponize patriotism. If one person is not wholeheartedly in support of everything America does or has done, or disagrees with what some may see as “core principles” of Americanism (such as gun ownership), then the only logical explanation is that person must be un-American. To this end, weaponized patriotism is comparable to the strawman of Communism constructed in the 50’s; deflecting attention from the flaws of an ideology by manufacturing public outrage against those that disagree with it.
Americans are 129 times more likely to be killed by another gun-toting American than they are by say, an Islamic terrorist. Consider the fact that 63% of Americans “feel safer” in a house with a gun. Furthermore, unlike car accidents (statistically the number one killer of teenagers), statistics on gun violence are woefully underreported. Furthermore, loopholes exist in the process of buying a gun; restrictions are much less tight in some states than in others, and it is even possible in some cases, to buy a gun at a gun show up-front, cash in hand, no questions asked. These all seem like common-sense, bipartisan issues to be addressed; after all, everyone can agree that guns should not be sold to absolutely everybody, right?
Wrong, according to the gun lobby and the lawmakers it bankrolls. A common pro-gun argument is that by making it harder to legally own a gun, all that happens is the creation and expansion of an underground black market for guns. Curiously, Republican lawmakers seem to have no qualms with pumping massive amounts of taxpayer money into the War on Drugs, enabling widespread corruption and providing massive profits for drug lords while sending college students to prison for marijuana possession. But if this were pointed out, a pro-gun advocate would be able to smugly point to the second amendment and say “these are our rights,” with a clear implication that if you object to the second amendment, well then, of course, you must object to American citizens having rights in the first place.