Throughout the history of America, few things have been defended as ardently as the gun. Just like justice, tranquility, liberty, and the many other promises of the Constitution, it has enjoyed an almost mythological status from the nation’s outset, exuding the same power and influence as the unalienable rights that it’s meant to protect. Judging from this status and its lifetime of legislative protections, America is no more the Land of the Free than it is the Land of the Gun, and the gun’s most vocal guardians suggest that there can be no freedom without it.
Nothing yet has effectively challenged the power of the gun. Decades of tragedy, activism, and legislation have done little to divorce the concept of loosely regulated gun ownership from the American identity. For many gun owners, it’s not enough that they are able to keep their guns and legally purchase more, but it must remain just as easy—or become easier—for their compatriots to acquire them as well. For many American gun owners, gun control measures of any sort are a shameless assault on Second Amendment rights and a threat to the very fabric of the union. They feel oath-sworn as American citizens to be included in the “well-regulated Militia” mentioned in the amendment, believing themselves to be the last line of defense against a tyrannical government, domestic and foreign terrorism, and anything else threatening the homeland.
America’s love of the gun far exceeds any other country’s, and there’s no shortage of statistical testaments to this. It’s the only country in the world that has more civilian-owned guns than people, for one. It also couples the world’s most mass shootings with some of the world’s laxest gun laws. Only thirteen states and D.C. require some form of licensing to purchase a firearm. Since the 1990s, legislators have attempted to close the “gun show loophole,” a gap in federal and state gun regulations that allows private gun sellers, like those at gun shows, to sell guns without requiring background checks from purchasers, but they’ve failed every time.
As one would expect, an uptick in debate and proposed legislation concerning gun control invariably follows mass shootings, and as one would also expect, nothing really ever happens as a result. Ten months after the 1999 Columbine massacre in Colorado, in which two high schoolers killed twelve fellow students and a teacher, Colorado state legislators attempted to pass a slew of gun control laws, including one that would require background checks at gun shows. To keep this from happening, the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbied the legislators with more money than they’d given them in the last three years. After successfully thwarting the laws, Republican legislators opted to introduce a bill that would protect gun manufacturers instead of people. Then-Majority Leader of the Colorado House of Representatives, Republican Doug Dean, insisted that “gun control would not have stopped Columbine.”
After the Sandy Hook massacre, where a twenty-year-old killed twenty children and six adults, all attempts at federal gun control legislation failed to pass through the Senate, though New York and Connecticut went on to pass sweeping reform that included universal background checks. Following the shooting, NRA CEO and Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre denied the necessity of gun restrictions, suggesting instead that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” For LaPierre and those ideologically aligned with him, the gun is always the answer.
Historical evidence tells us that America’s love of guns transcends most anything else. They’re inextricably linked to the values that we hold most dear, to the values most of us naturally associate with being American, so to restrict access to them in any way is tantamount to restricting our access to those values. The failure to unlearn this facet of the American psyche will undoubtedly mean the continued failure to make any headway with safe and reasonable gun laws. Mass shootings, hate crimes and smaller-scale gun homicides are on the rise while the most recent attempt at gun control legislation, the Protecting Our Kids Act, already seems all but doomed to fail in the Senate. The message being sent by conservative lawmakers couldn’t be clearer: it’s better to sacrifice children than high-capacity magazines.
The poison of gun glorification, though its ills are overwhelmingly obvious to many, is an intoxicating, sense-depriving, absurdly addictive narcotic to many others. Americans have drunk of it from the dawn of their existence and display tragically little interest in rehabilitation. The sharpshooting cowboy, desperado, and G.I. live as vividly and pleasantly in the American imagination as the gods lived within the Athenians. And they are our gods; they’re the stuff of myth, legend, and enduring symbolism. Still, we’re dying, and these gods won’t save us. It’s up to us to save ourselves.