The recent debate in America about possible new restrictions and regulations on gun use and ownership has demonstrated that there is a great deal of emotion and personal identity invested in guns in this country. It is indeed very difficult to have any kind of rational discussion on the gun topic because some of the people who are deeply involved in gun use react so extremely strongly whenever there is ANY discussion of putting ANY kind of restriction on gun access, ownership and use. They really, really, really feel an intense emotional bond with their firearms, and get really, really, really scared and angry, very very very fast, if ANYONE dares suggest possible limitations or restrictions on their ability to posses and make use of their guns. Many ask why such people have so much passion and intensity wrapped up in gunpowder and bullets.
As a religious studies scholar, it seems clear to me that what we are dealing with here is something more than a simple desire to enjoy the use of guns for target practice or hunting, or a wish to possess guns for self-defense in the case of a home invasion or some other encounter with a dangerous person. What we are dealing with is a valuing of guns to the point of conferring absolute sacredness upon them, that is to say, A GUN RELIGION. For those who follow this faith, a gun is not a simple weapon or mechanical device. A gun is SACRED. For those baptized in gunpowder (blessed be its name), any attempt by anyone to interfere with access to their holy of holies is a most horrible profanity and an unacceptable violation of their freedom of religion. Only by realizing that guns are sacred to gun-worshippers in the same way that a Torah is holy to Jews or a Qur'an to Muslims or the Virgin Mary to a Catholic can we begin to understand why guns are such an extremely emotional and, pardon the unintentional pun, explosive issue in American politics and in the American psyche.
We can even see something of a creation myth manifesting itself in the discourse of gun zealots in America. For the gun believer, the central moment in world history, a time of unparalleled sacredness, is the addition to the American Constitution of the Second Amendment, which speaks of the "right to bear arms and maintain a well-regulated militia." This is the moment when God revealed the key to salvation and the most important duty of any American citizen, which is to bear arms and love and honor guns above all else in existence, more than life, more than the government, more than patriotism. The Second Amendment itself, typically the only part of the U.S. Constitution or political tradition that gun advocates seem to find worthy of attention, could be seen as a kind of sacred scripture, to be enshrined in every heart and every home.
How and why the gun attained this sacred status is something I will leave aside at this time. All I know is that it certainly seems to be sacred to a substantial class of Americans, and approaching the controversy this way helps us to realize that this is an issue that must be dealt with with the greatest sensitivity, as what we are talking about here is not merely a lifestyle or hobby, but something deadly serious for those whose hearts have been touched and whose understanding of life has been formed or transformed by contact with this Sacred. This is why we find some individuals expressing their willingness, even eagerness, to die in defense of their most sacred of sacreds, most holy of holies. They see the gun as so existentially central and significant that they are ready to offer themselves up for martyrdom and to die holding onto --and firing-- their sacred objects.
How then can American society approach the issue of guns, how to balance the rights of gun-worshippers to have ritual contact with their sacred objects against the rights of non-gun-believers to be protected against the proliferation of something that they see as a menace to public well-being? I am not sure, but I would speculate that part of the solution might be for both sides to make more effort to acknowledge the other's perspective and values. Gun-believers need to realize that non-believers do not share their sense of the sacredness of guns, and have other concerns. Non-gun-believers need to understand that for the gun-faithful, the gun is much more than a mere weapon; it is absolutely central to the gun-believer's world-view and sense of self. I do believe that we need more restrictions and regulations on gun use and gun ownership in America, but to do this, the various congregations of gun-believers need to be reassured that they will retain their right to practice their religion and worship what is sacred to them. Since American society does function more or less successfully with a sense of respecting religious rights while also restricting the time and place of religious activity, I am hopeful that we will eventually be able to work this out.
Applying this line of thinking to Paganism, I see that I may have been unfair in my past judgments and criticisms of Asatru members and other Pagans who seemed to me overly involved with their swords, axes,guns and other weapons. Such things are not sacred to me, as my main association with such objects is violence, carnage and suffering, but I realize that to be fair, there is a need to understand that for some, these are truly holy things. For myself, I still wish to find fellowship with people who do not feel the need to bring weapons into sacred space and activities. I also still tend to think that the historical reasons for guns and other weapons coming to possess sacredness in America are not that pleasant to contemplate, but I will hold off from elaborating on that point today. The main thing is, weapons really are sacred to some people, and this does not mean that those people are deranged or malicious, only that this is the style of sacredness that they have arrived at, for whatever reasons. Provided that their worship of weapons causes no harm, I respect their right to practice such worship, though for myself, I take solace in the immortal words of Herman Melville's short story about Bartleby the Scrivener: "I would prefer not to."