The Murderous Difference Between Gun Rights and Gun Culture

Americans like to believe that they’re a special people. Every waking hour in the U.S. of A., we try to spin new yarns into the gargantuan American mythology quilt, trying to add new patches that somehow reiterate the idea that America is a better place than anywhere else in the world. We’re the Land of the Free;™ the Home of The Brave.™ But the reality is that the United States of America is prone to many of the same vices that have characterized humanity for centuries, especially violence. If you want evidence of this, you need look no further than the blood-consecrated national death cult that is American gun culture.

Once again, America has experienced another mass shooting, this time at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. And once again, another narcissistic psychopath (whose name it SHOULD be noted, was Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer) decided to take advantage of America’s easy gun access and murder innocent people in cold blood before blowing his own head off. And once again, the U.S. will go through the by-now mind-numbing process of fake soul-searching, asking “how we could let this happen again?” without a hint of authentic remorse. And once again, America’s most powerful domestic terrorist organization, the National Rifle Association (NRA), will stand its blood-drenched ground in defense of the hallowed rights of the firearms industry to reap obscene profits off the thousands of innocent dead and off the paranoid delusions of the ignorant who go to sleep every night with their phallus stuck in a rifle barrel.

But none of our fake soul-searching matters, because nothing will ever change. EVER. At this point in its national history, the United States of America is no longer the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Instead, it’s a nation that’s devolved into a craven, paranoid state gripped by a highly combustible combination of fear, ignorance, and false bravado. The thousands of bullet-riddled dead attest to our sickness.

We’re not the Home of the Brave, we’re the Home of the Paranoid. We’re not the Land of the Free, we’re the Land of the Imprisoned, and our warden is Fear.

We’re a quivering mass of gelatinous nerves. We’re the equivalent of an injured chipmunk who skitters nervously across the forest floor in constant, gut-wrenching fear of the hawks and foxes threatening to attack from every conceivable direction. Americans are afraid of everything. We’re afraid of terrorists. We’re afraid of the government. We’re afraid of black people. We’re afraid of Muslims. We’re afraid of Barack Obama. We’re afraid of Hillary Clinton. We’re afraid of gay people. We’re afraid that Christianity, a religion to which 83 percent of Americans adhere, is under attack. And most of all, we’re afraid that someone is gonna’ take away our guns. Because they only thing that gives us any semblance of safety in a world in which EVERYTHING is out to get us are our own personal arsenals, which we cling to with a level of irrational paranoia that would seem downright comical were the consequence not so deathly serious. Our national gun fetish has bestowed upon us a level of firearms deaths that makes America wholly unique in the developed world. Truly, Americans ARE exceptional.

The victims of Chris Harper-Mercer's rampage at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

The victims of Chris Harper-Mercer’s rampage at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.

America’s sick gun culture is a death cult. It is a fundamentalist adherence to a form of idol-worship that makes human happiness, human flourishing, and human life dependent on instruments whose sole purpose is to take life away. Millions of Americans genuflect daily in front of the altar of the firearm, and in the process they sign the death certificates of the next rash of shooting victims who will inevitably fall prey to the next tragic incident of bullet-riddled freedom.

Yet even in the midst of endless and predictable mass shootings, we ought to remember that, in the United States, the right to bear arms is a fundamental right. It is a cornerstone of a small “r” republican society. But we also need to admit that gun rights are not the same thing as gun culture.

In the wake of every American mass shooting, we inevitably bring up the Second Amendment of the Constitution. But at this point, the Second Amendment is besides the point. As historian Robert Shalhope observes, the Constitution guarantees the right for individuals to arm themselves, and the Second Amendment is rooted in the philosophy of the 16th century Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli, who promoted the importance of the citizen-warrior as an essential bulwark against both public and private tyranny. The presence of arms in a society was central to Machiavelli’s sociology of liberty. As Shalhope writes, Machiavelli believed that truly republican political conditions “must allow every citizen to have arms,” and that “moral conditions must encourage all citizens to defend their republic with enthusiasm.” Thus, Machiavelli’s view of republicanism rested on “the interrelation of arms and civic virtue.”* But the key word there is “virtue.”

Without virtue, the relationship between bearing arms and republican freedom becomes a tragic farce. Shalhope notes that, “the philosophers of republicanism [Machiavelli included] were not blind to the desirability of disarming certain elements within their society,” because “the right to bear arms was to be limited to virtuous citizens only.”* Indeed, the founders of the American republic understood that while the right bear arms was essential to republican freedom, they also heeded the words of the 18th century English commonwealth writer John Trenchard, who warned that, in a virtuous republic, “their arms were never lodged in the Hands of any who had not an Interest in Preserving the Public Peace.”

Modern American gun culture is not virtuous, and it is not interested in preserving the public peace. America’s gun culture has sapped the idea of virtue out of the commonwealth and replaced it with an impenetrable firearms cult that’s fueled in equal measure by paranoia, ignorance, and, above all else, deep-rooted insecurity. American gun culture is impervious to empirical evidence about the danger of unrestricted firearms, and it scoffs at the notion that violence begets violence.

Even Niccolò Machiavelli would call bullsh*t on America’s twisted firearms cult.

Instead, America’s gun culture shouts its collective bulging neck-vein to the heavens, unable to fathom how a culture that promotes the easy proliferation of military-grade weaponry in the name of freedom and personal crotch compensation could also infringe on the freedom of others to pursue their life, liberty, and happiness. After all, it’s hard to find life, liberty, and happiness when you’ve been murdered by yet another gun-stroking maniac, the type that could only thrive in a culture that utterly worships instruments of death.

The NRA, and its million-strong standing army of gun-humping American Cletuses who manage to remove their johnsons from their rifle barrels just long enough to shoot down any sensible discussion of America’s deeply problematic gun culture, make a mockery of gun rights. They also make a mockery of republicanism itself, and they make a mockery of the country they claim to love and defend. They’re little more than witless, ignorant, stuttering cowards. They shoot first and never ask questions. They represent the death of a virtuous America.

* See Robert E. Shalhope, “The Armed Citizen in the Early Republic,” in Saul Cornell, ed. Whose Right to Bear Arms Did the Second Amendment Protect? (New York: Bedford.St. Amrtin’s, 2000), 30-33.

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  1. There are two things that could be done that would fundamentally improve the situation over the long term. Both are reasonable, common-sense measures, and neither involve licensing, background checks or restrictions on ownership.

    First, repeal the legislation that prohibits federal funding of epidemiological research on firearms injuries and gun use. Let the researchers track this the same way they do diseases, automobile accidents and workplace injuries.

    Second, repeal the blanket immunity given to gun manufacturers from civil litigation. Car manufacturers and the tavern down on the corner can be sued if their actions harm others; the same rules should apply to gun makers, as well.

  2. Andy Hall – This Your two-prong strategy sounds like one that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign should embrace and extol. It has the virtue, as you point up, of the needlessly provocative issues of “licensing, background checks [and] restrictions on ownership. Of course, the presidential candidate would have to back off his vote relieving gun manufacturers of liability, but he can always point to the legion of other businesses/enterprises which don’t share that unearned status.

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