God, Country, Guns

mass shooting

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I saw a sticker on a pickup truck that read “God, Country, Guns.”  To me, that sticker made as much sense as “God, Country, Hammers” or “God, Country, Bicycles.”  A gun is just that: a tool, an object, like a hammer or a bicycle, only much more dangerous in the wrong hands.

But many Americans don’t look at guns as tools, as objects, as a deadly technology that requires great care and also strict regulations.  They identify it with God and Country.  They see it as representing certain values, such as freedom and liberty and individuality.  For some men, guns are synonymous with masculinity.  They are symbols of potency.  Of agency.  They are worthy of protection, indeed of a lifelong vow, ’til death do us part.  Hence the catchphrase, “you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”


This sacralization of the gun, its elevation as a totem of strength and virility, its hugely symbolic presence in American life, is an important reason why gun control efforts largely fail, even in the aftermath of horrendous mass shootings.  Reasoned and reasonable efforts to limit mass shootings, e.g. by banning military-style assault weapons, high-capacity clips, and bump stocks, are no match for people’s emotional — I daresay religious or spiritual — attachment to guns.

I’ve owned guns myself and have enjoyed firing everything from a pellet rifle to a .45-70 and from a .22 pistol to a .44 magnum.  As a historian of technology, I appreciate the history of guns as well as their aesthetic beauty.  (If you go to a gun show or hang around gun owners, you’ll often hear guns described as “beautiful.”)  But my appreciation for guns doesn’t translate to an affection for them.  And in the cause of greater public safety and a reduction in mass shootings, I’d like to see stricter regulations for certain guns and related accessories.

Again, here are three reasonable changes I’d like to see:

  1. No military-style assault or high-caliber sniper rifles.
  2. No high-capacity clips.
  3. No bump stocks or other devices to increase rate of fire.

Yet, no matter how reasonable these changes seem to most, organizations like the National Rifle Association will oppose them,* as will those who associate guns with God and Country and freedom and similar values.

Growing up in the 1970s, I remember reading “Field and Stream” and “Outdoor Life” (and an occasional “American Rifleman” too).  In the early ’80s, I wrote a paper on the history of hunting in America prior to the U.S. Civil War.  Until fairly recently, gun owners focused mainly on hunting and personal protection, using weapons like bolt-action or lever-action rifles, shotguns, and revolvers.  Rifles that I recall friends talking about or owning were .30-06 or .30-30.  Nobody talked about owning an AR-15 or AK-47 or similar military-style assault rifles with “banana” (high-capacity) clips and bump stocks.

America, of course, is a land of extremes, and one example is today’s gun-rights crowd, which attacks all regulations or restrictions as an assault on their “rights” or “way of life” as articulated in the Second Amendment.  But it didn’t use to be this way.  Indeed, it wasn’t this way when I was a teenager.  How did guns become so venerated, so cherished, so worshiped, in American culture?  So much so that people ride around today with stickers equating gun ownership with God and Country?

As long as our society continues to worship the gun, the more likely it is that we’ll suffer more mass shootings — and indeed shootings in general.

*Yes, in the aftermath of the Vegas Massacre, it’s true the NRA said it wouldn’t oppose “additional regulations” on bump stocks.  Note, however, that no ban is forthcoming from Congress.  The NRA are a savvy bunch…

10 thoughts on “God, Country, Guns

  1. Trump was in Japan when our latest mass murder happened. 13,286 people were shot and killed in the United States in 2015. (That’s not counting suicide, which would more than double that number.) In Japan there was one. Japan does not allow ordinary citizens to own handguns or rifles of any kind. Sports shooters can own shotguns for hunting and skeet shooting but must qualify for licensing with a four-month class in gun safety.

    Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries, a new study finds. Murder is the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 15 to 24, the study found. The research also showed that murder was the third leading cause of death among those aged 25-34. Compared to those in the same age groups in other wealthy countries, Americans aged 15-24 are 49 times more likely to be the victim of a gun-related murder. For those aged 25-34, that number is 32 times more likely, the research revealed. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-u-s-gun-deaths-compare-to-other-countries/
    My dad was hunter as were his friends: Rabbits, pheasants and quail with shot guns. I lost any desire for hunting and firearms after spending time as a combat infantryman in Vietnam.

    I agree with your three points. I would add mandatory registration of all firearms at a federal level. Any and all sales would have to be cleared via background check. A tax on firearms and ammunition could provide the funding. A legal liability could be established, that is if you sell or gift a firearm to someone without a background check – you would be liable for civil and criminal prosecution.


  2. Wednesday my wife and I lobbied in Springfield, Illinois for a state law that would improve the licensing of gun dealers. Though the bill was not voted on in the Illinois House as we had hoped, it had previously passed the Illinois Senate, the first time this has happened in 15 years of trying to get it through. I’m writing about this because it was encouraging to be there as part of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (funded by Everytown for Gun Safety, Gabby Giffords’ organization). A number of members had come by bus or carpool. All of us wore red shirts that showed up quite nicely as we stood outside the House meeting room buttonholing representatives as they came and went. This kind of activity must be engaged in by people if there is to be any chance of opposing the effort of NRA members and supporters who are a minority but a very dedicated and determined one. I wish photos could be attached to comments here as I have a nice one showing us in action.


  3. For more than a decade, American Public Health Association has declared “Gun Violence” as Public Health issue. In any public health related issue, there is govt funding to do research to find an answer to solving the problem. There is no research ALLOWED and there is no funding for “gun violence”.
    People in power who refuse to impose specific conditions before an individual can buy any kind of firearm, SHOULD/MUST visit a city hospital Trauma Center where a pulse-less gunshot victim is brought and see what happens to save his life. And if THAT victim happens to be one of his loved ones, it will certainly change his mind about gun control.


  4. Thanks to the NRA’s fearmongering of American gun owners as well as it’s lobbying in Congress, I highly doubt any reasonable regulations will be passed any time soon. Both the NRA and many of its supporters seem to have the “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” attitude, and therefore believe that restrictions of any kind are a slippery slope to the U.S. becoming like Japan or worse, Mexico (last I looked, civilians were not allowed to own guns there either, yet look at how violent the country is).

    I have exactly one modern gun to my name. I say that because, aside from my .45-70 hunting rifle, all I own are antique black powder weapons. My personal attitude is “one shot, one kill,” and I am happy to use a rifle that can hold no more than four rounds. Then again, I prefer to hunt with a bow, anyway. When Pennsylvania announced that semi-automatic rifles would soon become legal for hunting in the state, I was livid. My reaction went something like this: “you let people hunt with semi-automatic rifles, but you won’t let us hunt on Sunday?!” Maybe this is the limey in me rearing his crooked teeth, but I believe that assault rifles are weapons of war, and have no business being used to hunt.

    I take no issue with assault rifles themselves. I’ve shot AK-47s and M-16s, and they are a lot of fun. I take no issue with people who collect guns either, even those who collect modern guns, though I find the antiques far more interesting. However, I object to the conversation ALWAYS being directed toward guns themselves whenever a mass shooting occurs. As far as I’m concerned, sick individuals will always find a way to inflict harm on others. Guns are objects, and any object can be misused. People who misuse their cars can lose their driving privileges. Last I checked, the same applied to guns, and yet the law isn’t properly enforced. The anti-gun lobby wants to ban all guns as a long-term goal. The pro-gun lobby wants every citizen to carry in public (supposedly to prevent criminals for doing too much damage, but it’s really just to make money). Making guns the FIRST talking point is a surefire way to keep them in focus, and thus a sacred item in American culture, both to those who collect them, and to those who wish to ban them. To the gun nuts, I say this: it’s just another tool. To the anti-gun nuts, I say this: stop trying to take them away from people, and eventually they may get bored of them and relinquish them of their own accord.

    Americans are rebels, and always have been. Telling them that they can’t have guns will just get them to buy more. Seriously, if you want to disarm them… ban bullets. I won’t care, I’m a chemist. I know how to make black powder. Are you seeing the problem here?


    1. We need to reduce gun deaths in America. This doesn’t mean we need to eliminate guns (impossible). Nor does it mean that everyone needs a gun (to shoot back — what mayhem!). We just need sane, reasonable, gun control laws, combined with proper training.

      But the lobbying power of the NRA, combined with the fanaticism of some of its members, work against reasonable efforts to control guns in the cause of saving lives.

      It’s true, as the saying goes, that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” But guns sure make it a lot easier to kill, thus they need to be controlled in the larger cause of public safety.


  5. A “tool” is an object designed to make work more efficient. Even Jane Goodall’s discovery of Chimps using twigs to acquire ants from ant mounds confirms this. The recent pop culture idea that a gun is a “tool,” (implanted by the NRA, ) only makes sense if you consider killing something with a gun, “work”. I can think of no scenario where killing something with a weapon designed for that purpose specifically, (rather than for ‘work”) is actually true in a modern culture — especially a culture where eating is no longer dependent upon what one must hunt for his basic survival. If gun were actual “tools” I think we’d see them on the shelves at the hardware stores, where actual tools are sold. Instead we see them advertised as “sporting” equipment, assuring us that killing a thing is actually a “sport”. The problem with that image, just as the problem with the “tool” image is the false analogy upon which it depends since actual sports are athletic competitions between equally-matched opponents. How is an unarmed deer (or other animal) an equally-matched opponent of a human predator armed with an assault rifle or gun? If we continue to perpetuate the tool/ sport myths, no amount of regulation, moralistic hand-wringing, or appeals to good gun etiquette and safety will overcome it.


    1. A valid criticism. But I consider hunting and fishing to be sports. I’ve done a lot more fishing than hunting, and it’s not easy. Hunting can be very difficult. I’ve talked to hunters after bighorn sheep at treeline in the Colorado Rockies — a taxing endeavor, and an often fruitless one. I know many people are opposed to “blood” sports, but in many places we’d be overrun by deer (and many deer would starve to death) if hunting was outlawed.

      Again, I remember when owning a gun was either about hunting or protection or the sport of target shooting. And these guns were specialized for these tasks. It’s only in the last thirty years or so that assault rifles with high-capacity magazines have been marketed for “protection” and “sport.” But these guns are military weapons designed to kill people. There is no “sport” in this — and no legitimate reason why people need them.

      It’s all about profiteering — so much money has been made by marketing AR-15s and similar assault weapons, mainly to men, who buy them for all sorts of reasons, e.g. for bragging rights, because they’re “fun,” because of fear, as investments, etc.


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