For many years, I have pondered the question of why so many conservative Americans have such a strong attachment to guns and make such a huge issue out of gun rights and the Second Amendment, which sometimes seems like the only part of the U.S. Constitution that they care about. Today, I want to share my own theories about this.
I think the root causes for conservatives' intense gun-love are (1) overwhelming fear of the changing world of increasing cultural and ethnic diversity that we live in, and in response to this fear, (2) a desire to cling to an idealized past version of America that they find more reassuring. That is to say, conservatives are both very very scared and very very nostalgic.
For quite some time now, beginning with the defeat of the pro-slavery Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, American conservatives have found society changing in ways they didn't like, and have had a keen sense of frustration that they were losing the battle of ideas in American culture. What exactly do they so object to about trends in modern American (and indeed world) society? I think the main issue is loss of white privilege in the movement toward a more open society that is more accepting of equality between various ethnic, racial and/or religious groups. Remember, it was fierce resistance to Reconstruction efforts to empower blacks that set off the ugly Jim Crow laws and the paramilitary terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan.
It was the mystical "power of the gun," as well as other forms of violence including bombs and lynchings, that made it possible for white southerners to terrorize blacks and keep African-Americans in a fearful, subordinate position in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was also the power of the gun that subdued the Native American "savages" so that the West could be won for white settlement, a display of race-based violence to be long celebrated in games of cowboys vs. Indians and Western films. The current "Cowboys and Aliens" film shows how our society has, to some extent, moved away from this viewpoint with a narrative that requires white cowboys and "red" Indians to work together for mutual survival.
Anyway, let's go back into the conservative dream-world of beautiful, blood-white-and-blue patriotic violence, a harmonious, segregated world intoxicatingly scented with freedom-loving gunpowder. Thanks to his trusty gun, the White Man was indeed king of the country in the late nineteenth century. King of violence and racism, I would say, though I am sure conservatives would say that this use of violence in defense of the (white) "American Way" was something entirely noble and necessary. In the twentieth century, the KKK would form chapters all across the country, even in supposedly liberal strongholds like New York State and Connecticut, demonstrating that the violent defense of white privilege was not limited to the Southern states alone.
When the Civil Right movement emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, it was countered by massive violence in the South, and the cry of "State's Rights!", reaching back to Confederate slogans of the Civil War period to justify the right of states like Alabama to refuse equal rights to blacks and other non-white Americans. It would seem that they preferred returning to the Civil War rather than risk the unspeakable horror of granting Civil Rights to non-white Americans, and one must wonder if some such sentiment is among the motivations that have made Civil War reenactment so popular in recent decades. It certainly factors into the love for the Confederate flag in the South.
When the Democratic Party became the champion of civil rights for minorities, many white Southern former members quit the party to become Republicans. In every Presidential election since the 1960s, the majority of white voters, especially in the South, have gone Republican. Where Democrats have scored a victory, as with Carter in 1976, Clinton in 1992, and Obama in 2008, the Democrats' margin of victory came from African-American voters. The same demographic dynamic applies to the Tea Party, which is an almost exclusively white movement. The Tea Party desire to limit and dismantle government obviously appeals to those who see the national government and the Democratic party as overly concerned with the civil rights of minorities and allowing the country to sink into a sewer of mixed-race multiculturalism. (Note the endless sneering and sniping in the conservative media about "political correctness;" so many are nostalgic for the day when they could feel free to make jokes about niggers and Jews and faggots and whoever else they enjoyed insulting "back in the good old days.")
The gun issue has developed into a great vote-winner for the Republican Party, which has positioned itself as the protector of the seemingly sacred "right to bear arms," in opposition to the Democratic Party, which used to advocate for gun control and careful restriction of gun rights, though it no longer seems to possess the moral or political courage to stand up for this anymore. Many Democrats lost their seats in Congress the last time there was gun-control legislation, back in 1994, largely thanks to the efforts of the NRA. If one asks gun-loving conservatives, why do people need or want so many guns, the two pat answers are "hunting" and "self-defense." When one points out that no gun control effort has ever attempted to abolish all hunting in the USA, but only to place certain reasonable restrictions to prevent potential harm or abuse, just as we do with driving or alcohol, gun-minded conservatives will commonly express disbelief that gun control is anything other than an evil plot to eliminate ALL gun use and gun ownership in the USA, or they will pivot to the second issue of self-defense. This is something that conservatives are often quite passionate about.
It is particularly in the self-defense argument that you can see the latent, even unconscious racism, blended with FEAR, like an emotional accelerant: fear that the minute they let down their guard someone is going to break into their home, rob all their possessions, kill everyone in the family, fuck their dog, cook it on the backyard grill, and then eat it. Who exactly is it that they are thinking of in these fearful fantasies? The history of Republican political advertising,such as the Willie Horton advertisement from 1988, shows that the typical fear is of blacks, particularly black men. More recently, Hispanic men, increasingly mythologized as super-violent Mexican drug-runners, have been added into the paranoid mind-mix.
Here is how I see the race-fear/gun-love matrix speaking: "See, if you got your gun, and those black or brown-skinned devils, those niggers, Mexicans, Muslims, whatever, come to your house, you can blow them all away and defend your sweet wife and angel-faced children against the inevitable evils that come from all this modern multi-culturalism and civil rights bullshit: the savage, violent blacks, browns, and others who don't know their place and need to be reminded of the one primary fact of life in these United States, that the White Man's got the gun."
In the nineteenth century so idealized by conservatives, the blessed age before horrible transgressions of the American spirit like Social Security and civil rights, the violence-enforced "proper" place for non-whites like African-Americans and Native Americans was either on plantations or reservations. Our twenty-first century equivalent is prison for the blacks, with an absolutely skyrocketing rate of incarceration for African American men, deportation for Latinos,which has actually increased under the not-really-so-liberal Obama, and the various wars against Muslim populations, another brown-hued people to be put in their place.
In recent decades, the conservatives have succeeded marvelously in their "law and order" agenda, with gun rights always available as a sure-fire way to fire up the conservative masses and distract them from thinking about anything else. Fear is now ruling the national soul, and guns and threats of violence are everywhere. Funding priorities have shifted from schools to prisons, education replaced by incarceration. National security has replaced human rights and civil rights and, it would seem, almost any kind of rights other than gun rights as the top national priority. Criminal justice is a booming major on college campuses, replacing the fading idea of social justice that was once a common phrase on the campuses of the past. Real law is CRIMINAL law, you see; real justice is PUNISHMENT and nothing else. Invading other countries and brutalizing other peoples has become commonplace, and with new technology evolving rapidly, we will soon be able to do this without risking harm to any human American soldiers. The twenty-first century Sinatra will just have to sing, "Send in the drones..." The drone is the ultimate wet-dream of irresponsible violence, sanctified by the cult of technology: the gun acting alone, as it were.
Make no mistake: The gun, and with it the conservatives, are winning the national debate, for now, anyway. Fear rules the country, and the gun is our national sweetheart; the big, hot, red-white-and-blue penis that everyone wants to stroke and suck. Why do you think there are so many cop shows on television, so many variations of CSI, Law and Order, on and on? What picture of society and human nature is reinforced by this repetition?
Public figures of all sorts from politicians to newscasters to comedians know they cannot advance any criticism of our gun-wielding enforcers, from police to soldiers. Watch for how such supposed liberal icons like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert slobber and coo when they have military guests on their shows. Discussion of what these wars are doing to the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever else we are invading this week? Maybe raise a question about the killer drones in Pakistan? Question whether the wars are morally defensible? Ask your guest how many people he has killed? Forget it; that kind of discussion doesn't happen in today's militaristic America. All must bow before The Gun and He Who Wields the Gun (or the missile, or the drone, or any other new form of the gun.)
Contrast this to critiques of police brutality and protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. Why was there no sustained outcry or movement for more restrictions on guns after the near-assassination of Gabrielle Giffords earlier in the year, or the Virginia Tech massacre a few years back, or any other such events in our sad history of national violence? Because the right has won; guns have become sacred.
This has its effect on American Paganism too. In some forms of Asatru or Heathenry, there is a great devotion to weapons. Where is that coming from, and where does it lead? These are two questions that have so disturbed me that I have taken my leave of American Asatru. Whatever spirituality is to be found through the barrel of a gun or the swing of an axe is not something that makes any sense to me.
Resist the gun.
Speak up for peace.
Fight the fear.
I believe that in the long run, the future belongs to diversity and pluralism. There really is no going back. Conservatives may want to retreat to some kind of racially, socially, and ethnically cleansed past, and may be dreaming, as Anders Behring Breivik did, of using violence to achieve or enforce that, but they will never succeed. Yes, the law-and-order, gun-obsessed, anti-diversity crowd is riding high right now, but I don't think the majority of Americans are really with them. Once the intentions of the most extreme conservatives become clear, America will reject this and return to the path it was traveling in the past that led us from the Constitution to Emancipation to Civil Rights.
And praise be to the people of Norway for not becoming fear-and-punishment obsessed in the light of their national tragedy, and for striving to maintain their very open, very supportive society. They are showing an emotional maturity and social wisdom that seems sadly lacking in the United States.