It took a while for all of the threads to begin coming together for me in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings in December. I spent a lot of time watching the news, reading reports, responding to friends online and engaging in at times quite heated debates on the subject of guns, but over the weekend the various pieces began to gel and I realized that yes, there truely is a cult of guns in the United States. The unique confluence in the U.S. of ideology, tradition, and a quasi-religious belief in the absolute character of one's right to wield a weapon the only purpose of which is to kill things has produced a sub-culture for whom the very idea of regulating guns in any way, shape, or form is as anathema as denying a Roman Catholic access to the Body and Blood of Christ.
It really gelled for me on Saturday, as I was reading Gary Wills' article in the New York Review of Books entitled "Our Moloch." Wills writes:
The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?
Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.
Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.
When I first read this, I thougt to myself: "Well, that's a clever bit of rhetoric, and I certainly find the demenor of many gun enthusiasts off-putting, but I'm not buying the 'guns-as-gods' angle."
Then I got an email from Sojourners magazine to an article entitled "9mm Golden Calves," by James Atwood. Atwood makes a similar point to Wills:
An idol's followers boldly claim divine status for it. Former NRA executive Warren Cassidy was clear when he boasted, "You would get a far better understanding [of the NRA] if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world." Not to be outdone, Charlton Heston, during a speech as NRA president, intoned, "Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blued steel—something that gives the most common man [sic] the most uncommon of freedoms, when ordinary hands can possess such an extraordinary instrument that symbolizes the full measure of human dignity and liberty."
And again I thought to myself that the rhetoric, while sharp, was a bit much. But I started to think about it a bit more.
At the very time I was reading these articles, I was engaged in a heated online debate on the subject of gun control with someone who was arguing strenuously with me that, as a matter of fact, requiring registration and background checks on guns was akin to asking individuals to register their religion. Because firearm ownership was a Constitutional right, there was no regulation of any kind that could be justified, just as there was no regulation of any kind regarding religion that was justified.
That's when it struck me: For this guy, it really was a religious principle. He wasn't making a 2nd Amendment argument; he was making a 1st Amendment argument. For him, guns, and the ideology that had built up around them, were as much a religion to him as anything else. True, he may have some other religion as well, but that doesn't change the fact that guns are an object of worship for him. It just means that he's, at heart, a polytheist.
The ideology of guns in the United States is a cult: a set of practices and traditions that have built up around a set of narratives that its adherents tell themselves about who they are, where they've come from and what it is that grounds and gives meaning to their existence. "Guns" in the collective sense, become gods, because they are the source of security and the primary obsession of gun cultists.
To be perfectly clear about this: Not every gun owner is a gun cultist. Not even every ideologically committed gun owner is a gun cultist. But for alarmingly many of those who own and keep firearms in this country, thier commitment to their guns seems to outweigh any other commitment that they may have, even to the larger society itself.
I've been struck with the number of times it's been pointed out in the last few months that there is a "gun culture" in the United States, and the number of times my gun-supporting friends have pointed out to me that I'm not part of that culture, and therefore don't understand the worldview that motivates them. And it's true, I'm not part of that culture. But a culture produces a cultus, as set of practices that give definition to one's life. When that set of practices is threatened, it produces massive resistance, and this is exactly what we have seen in the past month and a half in the debate surrounding guns. No regulations are acceptable, because, at best, they will make things unacceptably inconvient for gun owners. But in its most extreme form, the ideology of gun ownership converges on a form of paranoid apocalypticism, and the end result is the seizure of all guns and the imposition of Tyranny.
Behind this worldview is the unspoken truth that the members of the gun cult far too often want to keep their guns so that one day they can fire them at U.S. soldiers and police.
Eric Bohlert comments on this rhetoric, and demonstrates the damage that this apocalypticism can do:
We already knew from 2009 that far-right voices were fretting about the need for a citizen's militia to stop Obama's destructive ways. Now four years later, with gun control initiatives pending, the frantic rants have escalated and Obama's fiercest critics are rationalizing their insurrectionist chants by comparing the president actions to those of Hitler. The comparison isn't just offensive, it's also inaccurate: the Nazis actually loosened restrictions on private gun ownership (except for Jews and other persecuted groups).
That kind of ugliness not only pollutes our public dialogue, it also gives comfort to gun radicals who embrace the rhetoric. In early 2009, fearing what a friend described as "the Obama gun ban that's on the way," conspiracy nut (and Alex Jones fan) Richard Poplawski lured three Pittsburgh policemen to his apartment, then shot and killed them at his front door.
All the right-wing chatter today about how Obama's following Hitler's lead by allegedly voiding the Second Amendment only adds fuel to an unwanted fire.
Martin Luther once said, said "Show me that which thou lovest most, and I will show you thy god." Paul Tillich, in a similar vein, used to argue that religion was a universal fact of life, since to be religious was simply to be "ultimately concerned." Our object of worship is that which concerns us ultimately. We all surround ourselves with idols of one kind or another, but few of the idols that we worship are as destructive as the idolotry of guns. They are, I am now convinced, truly our Moloch, the devourer of our children, and the seed of violence in our society.