On May 20, 2000, at the NRA’s 129th convention, Charlton Heston held a Revolutionary War-era flintlock rifle above his head. Serving at the time as its president, the famous actor famously proclaimed that if the government wanted to confiscate his gun, they’d have to take it from his “cold, dead hands.”
The moment was obviously choreographed to exploit the iconic moment in the movie “The Ten Commandments” when Heston, as Moses, elevated his staff and parted the Red Sea, lending to gun rights a mystical, even divine, aura.
Gun ownership has been part of American life since the pilgrims arrived. It was an essential tool of survival. It’s not that anymore, but for many gun owners it has taken on the status of a totem. Organizations like the NRA have made this physical object an emblem of their clan or tribe. Or their political party.
But it is not this primal attachment to the gun that threatens society. It is the unrestricted proselyting, the unrestricted commercialization of guns that puts deadly weapons in the hands of people with diseased minds and bad intentions, especially guns that have the capacity for rapid fire, mass killing.
Guns and gun-related crimes touch our everyday lives through personal experience, the news and entertainment. Forbes Magazine reported that more than 40 million guns were sold in America between 2020 and 2021. The 16.6 million guns sold in 2022 represent only a minor downturn.
Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting a decade ago, Americans have purchased at least 150 million guns.
Today, 46 percent of American households own a gun. One-third of all the guns in the world are in the hands of Americans. In 2017, there were nearly 400 million guns in the United States between police, the military and American civilians. Of that, 98 percent of those guns were in civilian hands, the equivalent of 120 firearms per 100 citizens. This figure is 10 times the average rate of gun ownership among countries with more than 1 million residents, and it’s more than double the rate of the next-highest country, Yemen.
Americans purchase guns for a variety of reasons, such as hunting. The image of the robust American outdoorsman stalking wild animals, killing for sport and/or food and clothing is embedded in our history and folklore. As such, it has been ritualized over time, especially in rural communities.
Interestingly, however, “the number of hunters in the U.S. has declined both in actual numbers and as a percentage of the total U.S. population,” according to information from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records of annual hunting and fishing license sales from all states and U.S. Census Bureau data and as reported by the website Wildlife for All.
Many people purchase guns for recreation. They enjoy honing shooting skills in indoor and outdoor ranges with pistols, rifles or shotguns. They also participate in shooting competitions. These clubs provide people with shared gun interests the opportunity to socialize and enjoy guns as sport.
But the largest segment of the population today is purchasing guns for defensive reasons. These are violent and turbulent times, and many people believe a gun — or guns — will make them safe and secure, less vulnerable and more powerful.
These defensive purchases are flourishing despite ample research showing that guns in the home actually make people less safe, naïve gun owners being more likely to become victims of domestic violence, accidents or suicide.
Other individuals purchase guns to intimidate, and not just those who join gangs. A growing segment of conservatives favor open-carry laws so they can strut their political anger in the streets, especially outside government buildings, brazenly advertising their First — and Second — Amendment rights. Their behavior signals the not-so-subtle subtext that they can and will dominate and hurt people if they deem it necessary, especially if they suspect antagonists are “socialists,” women seeking abortions, people of color, Black Lives Matter protesters, or individuals identifying as LGBTQ.
A deadly stew is boiling in the American cauldron. The easy availability of guns mixed with people who are terrified, people who are emotionally disturbed or mentally ill, and people who are willing to destroy the very government and rights they claim to be defending, guarantees a poisonous concoction. Is it any wonder that an alarming number of people no longer feel safe in their homes, in their schools, churches, malls or grocery stores? Is it any wonder that many Americans have retreated into a physical or emotional lockdown mode?
This we know: Guns are responsible for the largest share of U.S. homicides. Guns, in fact, are now the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the United States, surpassing deaths by car crashes, drug overdoses and cancer. Sadly, there is no end in sight.
I wrote an article five years ago after the massacre of 58 people in Las Vegas in which I stated:
“Without some concessions or conversions from gun advocates, the same painful rituals will follow every massacre: tears, anguish, spontaneous floral memorials, candlelight vigils, flags at half mast, passionate liberals calling for strict gun controls, passionate conservatives arguing that only people, not guns kill people, the NRA pronouncing that only more armed citizens can stop bad guys, Pat Robertson blaming the massacre on God’s anger at gay marriage. Then, after a few days, some other flashy headline will siphon the passion and energy for debate and with it any prospect for meaningful change. Attention diverted, we become absorbed in some other kind of crisis. Until the next massacre.”
Nothing has changed. The situation has only gotten worse. Massacres now are tumbling into one another. And for this reason: The ravenous wolves who now run the MAGA Republican party not only reject strict gun laws, they promote easy access to guns while promoting violent political action.
In this world, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “strength has become the lord of imbecility.” In this world “right and wrong and even justice have lost their names.” In this world, “everything includes itself in power,/Power into will, will into appetite;/And appetite, an universal wolf,/So doubly seconded with will and power,/Must make perforce an universal prey/And last eat up himself.”
Power rules now, not reason. And the wolves are just licking their chops.
William Shaw, of Pinehurst, can be followed at williampshaw.substack.com.
Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. I’m visit family in Germany while writing this. Murders are up, despite the lack of a right to gun ownership here. Criminals can always get guns. Or they use knives. Should Germans now ban knives? The cause of violent crime is not the availability of guns or knives but the decay of families and lack of morality, which comes only from God.
You may be right Kent but that's not a solution to our societal misuse of guns. Guns do kill people and the people who use them don't have any training to do so. There are too many loopholes for people to buy guns. If you can't buy a gun legally then you shouldn't be able to buy one at a gun show.
This is a wonderful column which is very well researched and written. Thank you. I hope many others will read it and join the huge majority of Americans that believe it's far past time to implement more controls on firearms and stricter background checks.
I only wish people were as concerned about fentanyl poisoning deaths. It is killing twice as many people as guns in many cities.
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