Guns, once again, have come to the front of American political consciousness following another unbearable massacre of innocents, this time in Las Vegas. Since the motivation of the shooter remains an irritating mystery, we are spared the distraction of foreign-inspired terrorism as the focus of the narrative, and instead find ourselves back in our annual misery of blame and counterblame, accusation and evasion, unable to move the discussion forward despite the clear and present danger not just to individual citizens but to the entire construct of a functioning democracy. Money, electoral threats, political self-preservation, and the perception of entitled rights so overlay the conversation that ordinary language has become a minefield of trigger words.
All this is the froth on a deeper political convection: an uber-patriotic, nationalist, and intolerant strain of Americanism that conflates gun ownership with individual freedom to such a degree that the concept of regulating gun possession in even the slightest fashion is perceived as evidence of authoritarianism. It's a darker manifestation of the same worldview that demands uncritical devotion to the flag, the police, the military, and (under Mr. Trump) the person of the president. This new American patriotism allows no disagreement or skepticism. It's the modern variant of a "my country, right or wrong," "America, love it or leave it" mentality, so long pervasive in our nation. Of course, the grand irony is that the same bombastic ideology that the flag never touch the ground or be sullied by someone "taking a knee" also believes that armed citizens are essential to stand against their own government: somehow, loving America is consistent with preparing to overthrow it.
Kurt Andersen recently published in Slate a cutting excerpt from his book "Fantasyland" describing the "gun fantasy" that is so essential to this rabid Americanism. Listing the varied justifications that zealous gun owners express, he concludes that the most delusional is "the fantasy that patriots will be obliged to become terrorist rebels, like Americans did in 1776 and 1861, this time to defend liberty against the U.S. government before it fully reveals itself as a tyrannical fascist-socialist-globalist regime and tries to confiscate every private gun."
This dreamy vision of the hardy American citizen-patriot standing at the crossroads of history defending liberty against savages, soldiers, and the forces of nature is anchored deeply in our culture. From Mayflower passengers to pioneer settlers to Minutemen to cowboys, American mythology is full of larger-than-life ordinary men and women who draw deep from reservoirs of inner courage to stand for eternal principles at great personal cost. We idolize these named and nameless heroes, and our culture relentlessly encourages us in unconscious ways to follow their lead: follow our dreams, stand our ground, be true to our hearts — however it is expressed, the expression is the same: we as individuals have a sacred duty to stand against the world to protect our rights and beliefs, even to the death. No compromise is acceptable.
Is it any wonder then that the NRA — once simply an advocate of good marksmanship and safe gun use — has become transformed into an almost hysterical proponent of gun possession as a patriotic obligation? Its web videos on a self-glamorizing site named "NRATV" portray an almost frightening image of the nation, under assault from all sides by immigrants, Muslims, and — most of concern — fellow citizens who happen to be liberally minded. The constant subliminal suggestion is that patriots must arm themselves to prepare for an inevitable apocalyptic battle against forces that would destroy America. Unfortunately, many of the forces they imply will need destruction are exactly what America largely has become: non-white, non-Christian, and non-European.
How is it that those who support such overt and hostile threats to the fabric of our society find support at any level of national politics? It is precisely because they craft their paranoid ideology in terms of the Second Amendment, rooting their dark worldview in that most patriotic of American stories, the Revolution. The Second Amendment has become an immoveable object preventing the majority of citizens and elected officials who want to have a reasonable discussion about the proper place for guns in a modern civilized society from being heard, blocked from entry into the halls of government and left defenseless against those who might use the vast arsenal of guns now found throughout the countryside against them. In effect, the Second Amendment is now less a protection of individual freedom against abusive government than it is a license for its advocates to undermine the individual freedom of their fellow citizens by demonizing and threatening their lives and liberty.
It should be evident from all this that the Second Amendment itself needs amending — if not outright repeal. We have modified our Constitution many times, often to protect the rights of minorities. What greater reason than to protect the right to life and safety of the majority of Americans? How can we justify allowing an obsolete and impractical paragraph in our founding document to cow the entire population, afraid of triggering each other, intimidated into silence on their highways or sidewalks lest someone summarily shoot them? If individual freedom is the touchstone of our society, then surely freedom from fear of each other is a sufficient reason to restrict that most frightening of personal possessions: a loaded gun in an angry hand.