Sean Moncrieff: ‘The US is unique in how it has fetishised the gun’
Concentrating on the gun helps distract from who the bullets are hitting
America seems to need guns to continue to feel American.
In September of last year, a child in Detroit shot two other children. One was hit in the shoulder; one was hit in the face. Luckily, both survived. But that’s not the shocking bit. The shooting took place in a day care centre. The child who pulled the trigger was three years of age.
But that’s not the shocking bit. Those two kids were the 42nd and 43rd Americans to be shot by a toddler in 2017. On average, a toddler shoots someone on a weekly basis in the US. They happen upon a gun and shoot other kids, or a parent, or they shoot themselves. In 2015, more people in the US were killed by toddlers than terrorists.
Or perhaps none of this is shocking. Perhaps we have become inured to the regular shootings in America and the predictably grim pageant that comes afterwards: anguish, statistics, anger, spin and, finally, inaction. Nothing changes.
Change, it seems, is too frightening: it’s too freighted with dark questions about being American. This isn’t just about money and political lobbying. It’s about identity and culture. A section of the American population links gun ownership to a murky notion of “freedom” that they seem unable to properly explain, yet seems so fundamental to them that they are ready to embrace any sort of deranged logic just to hang on to their weapons.
Freedom and guns come pre-packaged with that exhausted cliche, rugged individualism. America is about (male) toughness, about might. According to this vision, it is not a country brought about by collective effort, but by individuals grabbing what they want. It is the Land of pure Id, where to be American means to be on your own, chasing your desires.
What’s curious is how the other part of America reacts to this myth making. It may argue for strict background checks or bans on assault weapons, but rarely, almost never, does this part of the US argue in favour of getting rid of guns altogether: to make America like most other countries. Even the most liberal politicians tiptoe around the issue, coo reassurances that no, we don’t want to take your guns away.
Part of this, of course, is legal, due to a bizarre interpretation of a 220-year old amendment to the US constitution. Yet it seems completely unacceptable – it seems un-American – to suggest that a civilised country might want to re-consider such a statute, given all the carnage it has enabled. It seems un-American to suggest that defining individualism as little more than a Darwinian struggle for primacy over others may be dysfunctional and damaging.
Many countries have been borne in violence, Ireland included. But the US is unique in how it has fetishised, even eroticised, the gun as part of its founding story: a myth welded into place by, among many others, liberal Hollywood.
The fact that a gun was used often seems as important, and in many cases more important, than what it was used for: a logical flip that helps America dodge historic shame. Because while American guns were once used to defy tyranny, American guns have since been used to enforce it, many times: against Native Americans, against slaves, against countless countries across the world. Concentrating on the gun helps distract from who the bullets are hitting.
Despite America’s enormous achievements, despite the numerous positive contributions it has made to the world, despite the fact that (in my experience), most Americans are really nice people, America seems to need guns to continue to feel American: even if that means inventing new enemies or depicting their own country as a infernal dystopia. Perhaps, deep in its troubled heart, the Greatest Country on earth doesn’t really feel that way.