Tag Archives: gun nuts

Gun Nuts, Militias, and American Extremism in a Globalized World

Alabama militia leader Mike Vanderboegh speaks incoherently while possibly sweating profusely.

Alabama militia leader Mike Vanderboegh speaks incoherently while possibly sweating profusely.

Do you ever get the feeling that the world is a vast, exceedingly complex entanglement of random chance occurrences, flawed human decision-making, and constant disruption brought about by the break-neck pace of technological change and ideological formulations that create a series of interconnected problems immune to any and all simplistic solutions? If so, then it’s likely that you’ve never been a militia member.

It seems that these days, America’s home-grown breed of Far Right, paranoid nutballs known variously as “patriots,” “gun nuts,” “sovereign citizens,” and “militia members” are occupying way too many headlines. And if anything unites this otherwise diverse and motley crowd of barrel-stroking bubbas, it’s their proclivity towards exceedingly simple responses to a very complex world. They tend to shoot first and ask the wrong questions, particularly when it comes to the issues of government power and how American society is organized in an globalized world where corporations, not states, are pulling the levers of power and the notion of national loyalty seems hopelessly antiquated.

Case in point: a California man by the name of Brent Douglas Cole has been recently accused of shooting a California highway patrol officer and a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ranger in Nevada County, California. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dug a bit into Cole’s background and found that he’s a full-bore, conspiracy theorist, gun-fondling, sovereign citizen looney toon. Wonkette notes that Cole thinks the U.S. is dousing the atmosphere with chemtrails, believes Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and, of course, seems to think that the Jews control the world (because when it comes to world domination, you gotta fit the Jews in somewhere). Talking Points Memo provides a snippet of Cole’s court documents in which he claims that “I am being persecuted for being a gun owner, and for exercising my inherent Right by unwitting or unknowing accomplices of a seditious conspiracy against rights instituted by foreign powers inimical to the United States of America.” Ho boy.

Cole’s attack follows in the wake of other recent militia/sovereign citizen actions such as the Las Vegas shooting of two off-duty police officers and a civilian by Tea Party/Gadsden Flag-waving militia sympathizers Jerad and Amanda Miller, and the high-profile stand-off between Nevada bumpkin Cliven Bundy (whom I wrote about here) and the BLM over Bundy’s refusal to pay his cattle-grazing fees. Jerad Miller expressed public sympathy for Cliven Bundy, but what unites the Cole, Miller, and Bundy cases is a common anti-government thread: these people think that the American government has become too big, too tyrannical, and that it has abandoned “traditional” American principles. They want to restore American back to a better time, which must have existed…sometime. It’s a simple, comforting goal that nevertheless seems so out of reach.

As Erin Kania writes, the modern militia and sovereign citizens movements are drive by a core belief “that the federal government of the United States can no longer be trusted” and they fear that “the government is not looking out for the safety and protection of its citizens, but is instead attempting to limit the rights and liberties that the Founding Fathers and Constitution intended all individuals to possess.” Moreover, these groups believe that the government is embracing global policies at Americans’ expense, and that an essential part of the globalist agenda involves taking away Americans’ guns.* Contained within these general, overarching beliefs are a sordid cornucopia of nutty ideas about the New World Order, the Zionist threat, white supremacy, and the existence of what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “secret treasury accounts” that supposedly enslave newborn Americans to a shadow government, or something.

Conpiracy-minded gun nut Brent Douglas Cole is accused of shooting to law enforcement officers. For freedom, of course.

Conspiracy minded gun nut Brent Douglas Cole is accused of shooting two law enforcement officers. For freedom, of course.

But you don’t need to get down into the movements’ paranoid weeds to see their common themes. As historian Darren Mulloy notes, “In the broadest terms, the emergence of the Militia movement in the late 1990s appears to be connected to a sense that the United States was a nation in decline: politically, economically, morally, spiritually.”* Implicit within these beliefs is a serious uneasiness with change and a sense that the American past has been dangerously altered for the worse and must be restored to its original, pristine form. This “restorationist” view of history unites all elements of the modern American Far Right; indeed, it’s the life force that crackles along the wingnut spectrum, animating gun nuts, militia members, sovereign citizens, and Tea Partiers alike.

The “restorationist” view of history is a fundamentalist view, and, like all forms of fundamentalism, it proposes simple, clear-cut answers to very complicated problems by advocating a return to basic, “fundamental” principles. In the mind of the Far Right, America wasn’t a nation conceived by brilliant but flawed individuals who accepted the necessity of political compromise; rather, it was a nation blessed and conceived by the (white Protestant Christian) God who used the Founding Fathers as modern-era prophets.

In her essential study of the modern right-wing Tea Party movement, historian Jill Lepore explains that “historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past — ‘the Founding’ — is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts — ‘the founding documents’ —  are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments,” and that “the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired.” A belief in historical fundamentalism, Lepore notes, means that “political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.”* In other words, the Far Right, from the Tea Partiers to the militia and sovereign citizens all believe that the Founding past must be restored to reclaim the present from the tyrannical powers of big government and the globalized world order.

Militia and sovereign citizen types aren’t alone in their unease with globalization and America’s internal changes, of course, but what is unique is how they respond to these changes by adopting a straightforward “lock and load” mentality. If change poses a threat, then they plan to riddle change with bullets until it learns its place. This makes a strange amount of sense when you consider the very real and symbolic role that guns have played in forging American identity.

To understand what drives Far Right gun nuts, consider how America must have appeared to a white male who grew up absorbing all the myths of American exceptionalism. During the early twentieth century, and more conclusively after World War II, the United States emerged as the dominant world superpower — a position it largely still retains today. And the thing about being a citizen of the world’s superpower is that it bestows on you all the rights and privileges that such citizenship entails. Basically, you get to think that your country is where true freedom lies; that your country always operates on the noblest of motives; that your country knows what’s best for the rest of the world; that your country will always have the KFC Double Down® for only $6.00! Truly, these are the things that make America great.

The Tea Party: don't let these whack-a-loons teach you about history.

The Tea Party: don’t let these whack-a-loons teach you about history.

But here’s the problem: if you myopically view history from a fundamentalist stance that considers the American founding as a sacred event and American identity as sublimely virtuous, then you’re bound to have a rude-awakening when the myths that you take as gospel turn out to be just that — myths. If these myths were real, then Barack Obama wouldn’t have been elected president, the federal government wouldn’t try to take away your guns, and good-paying jobs wouldn’t be shipped overseas or handed to undeserving “minorities.” Thus, we have the rise of the militia and sovereign citizen types who, in many respects, are reacting to real changes in America and the world, albeit in spectacularly misguided and misinformed ways.

The modern world is now defined by permanent high unemployment, rapidly shifting American demographics, and a technologically interconnected global economic system that allows capital to move freely with little concern for international borders and pits American workers against far-cheaper international counterparts.

In this environment, the barriers that formerly separated the “domestic” from the “global” are rapidly thinning, and the urge to somehow restore America to a fundamentally pure past is enticing to those people who feel that change has left them in the dust. Sociologist Manuel Castells notes that with the acceleration of the modern globalized economy, American workers and small business entrepreneurs have witnessed a steady decline in their standards of living, thereby “reversing the historical trend of the improvement of each generation’s material well-being over that of previous generations.”* Couple these trends with the rise of gay rights, the gender equality movement, the growing non-white ethnic makeup of America, and gun control, and you’ve got a recipe for hot ‘n simmering reactionism-by-gunpoint.

Thus, as Castell observes, the militia, sovereign citizen, and patriot movements see themselves as “defenders of the traditions of the country against cosmopolitan values, and of self-rule of local people against the imposition of global order.” By adopting age-old American preferences for individualism and suspicion of government, the gun nuts have taken up armed resistance to “threats generated by the informationalization of society, the globalization of the economy, and the professionalization of politics.”*

America’s gun nuts, patriots, militia members, sovereign citizens, and Tea Partiers demonstrate how history can be misused to further a reactionary agenda based on weirdly fundamentalist views of the past. The degree to which any one of these groups are willing to use guns to restore America back to its sacred past varies with their level of extremism. But all of them believe that the federal government is the enemy, that all politics should be local (in the case of sovereign citizens, extremely local), and that globalization cannot be allowed to destroy America’s unique identity. Lacking other viable alternatives, they’ve turned to guns, because at least guns offer the most straightforward, literal way to stop something you fear dead in its tracks.

* See Erin Kania, “The American Militia Movement in the Age of Globalization,” Reason & Respect 2 (Spring, 2006): 16.

* See Darren Mully, American Extremism: History, Politics, and the Militia Movement (New York: Routledge, 2004), 12.

* See Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 16.

* See Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity: The Information Age, Economy, Society, and Culture, Vol. 2 (West Sussex, U.K., Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 99-100.

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“Lone Survivor” and the Historical Legacy of Violence and American Militarism

Mark Wahlberg stars in "Lone Survivor:" a violent ode to 'Murica.

Mark Wahlberg stars in “Lone Survivor:” a violent depiction of the Afghanistan War. This conflict has surpassed the Vietnam War in terms of sheer length and ambiguity.

Americans are a violent people. Whether in a wartime or civilian context, we like to shoot guns, and we are good at killing people with those guns. This is an indisputable fact. The U.S. has by far the highest rates of gun ownership in the industrialized world, and, as the Washington Post reported shortly after the brutal Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, the U.S. is only outranked in terms of gun violence by developing nations in South Africa and South America.

Many Americans unfortunately view violence as the go-to solution for all kinds of vexing problems. Historically, this has always been the case, and this obsession with firearms shows no signs of letting up in the 21st century. Indeed, a good many Americans take gun worship to a bizarrely fetishistic level. You can almost picture any number of the country’s self-proclaimed gun nuts spending their Friday nights hung from ceiling chains while wrapped in shiny leather and stroking one of their 300 AR-15s with scented oils.

American gun-nuttery begets an entire culture of violence that affects both domestic and foreign affairs. By mixing a jingoistic belief in American cultural superiority with an already insane domestic devotion to the proliferation of firearms, the U.S. has created a Frankensteinian, militaristic cultural monster that has reaped much bloodshed over the decades.

The prime characteristics of American cultural militarism are its embracing of violence as a means to an end, its idolistic bowing before anything with a trigger and ammunition, and its belief that America can do no wrong. Over the last few decades, American culture has become increasingly militarized both on a foreign and domestic level. The militarization has become so strong that even sensible gun regulation fails to become law, and the American military is seen in some circles as an unassailable institution, rather than as a collection of individuals who are to be admired and respected, but not unconditionally worshipped.

Consider the recent snafu over the film “Lone Survivor,” a war epic starring Mark Wahlberg that’s based on a memoir by former Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell; the lone survivor of an Afghanistan mission that went bad. L.A. Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson lambasted “Lone Survivor” as “a jingoistic snuff film” that drains all nuance from the Afghanistan conflict in order to create a “Rambo”style war porn spectacle that espouses simplistic notions of American Exceptionalism and military superiority. “These four men were heroes,” Nicholson writes, “but these heroes were also men. As the film portrays them, their attitudes to the incredibly complex War on Terror…were simple: Brown people bad, American people good.”

Part of Nicholson’s critique centered on the fact that Luttrell’s memoir was heavily ghost written by British novelist Patrick Robinson, who may have added more Taliban fighters to the story than were present during the actual events. This created additional scenes of violence that helped to spice up the film (Hollywood has long called this tactic dramatic emphasis). Nicholson was criticizing the film rather than the real-life soldiers upon whom the movie was based. But in right-wing American circles, criticizing the military, in either a real or fictionalized context, is considered grounds for extreme chastisement. Hence, when radio slime-ball Glenn Beck got wind of Nicholson’s criticism of the film, he went on the air and called her “a “vile, repugnant, and ignorant liar.”

Beck is nothing less than a shameless sycophant who built a multi-million dollar media empire by feeding gullible conservatives a steady diet of paranoia mixed with simmering white person resentment. So when his listeners heard that Nicholson had criticized “Lone Survivor,” they responded in a manner befitting of today’s right-wing jerk menagerie. As Salon reports, Beck’s minions went on Twitter, the world’s preeminent outlet for conflict resolution, and called Nicholson, among other things, a “military hating bitch.” Over at Beck’s website, one of the many commenters claimed that Nicholson meant to “demean the service of our soldiers,” a move that said commenter found “beyond words for me.” This online brouhaha over a movie lays bare the danger inherent in American militarism: it sanctifies violence as the highest form of patriotic expression, and it demands, in true authoritarian style, that the military be above criticism.

Since the colonial era, gun violence has been intimately linked to American national identity, a connection that has costs hundreds of thousands of lives.

Since the colonial era, gun violence has been intimately linked to American national identity, a connection that has costs millions of lives.

The idea that the American military should not be critiqued, lest critics face alarming accusations of treason and even death threats, is the byproduct of American militarism. On the domestic side, this trend manifests itself in a truly irrational cultural bias that favors the right to own and operate nearly any type of firearms without restriction. You don’t have to be a hippie pinko peacenik to support some gun limits: even most gun owners support background checks. But such has been the militarization of American society on all fronts that even basic gun regulations are viewed by the Gestapo/NRA as assaults on American freedom itself. The idea that guns and the military are above critique is a belief rooted in the regenerative power of violence — that violence can create rights out of wrongs. Hence, gun nuts think that a only “good” person with a gun can prevent a “bad” person with a gun from committing violence, and neo-conservatives think that American military force can “fix” foreign countries.

Unfortunately, the regenerative power of violence, and the type of gun-worshipping militarism that it produces, is as idea with deep historical roots. On the domestic side, blame the frontier. In a previous post I discussed how the frontier nurtured American gun culture, but its influence can’t be overstated.

In his book Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, historian Richard Slotkin identifies frontier violence as a key component of American national mythology. Early American culture was shaped by the notion that the New World, populated as it was by “savage” native peoples who didn’t know how to utilize its bounty, had to be “liberated from the dead hand of the past and become the scene of a new departure in human affairs.”* Guns were the preferred tools of this “liberation,” as the American frontier became a killing ground in which white Americans nearly obliterated the nation’s native past to bring about that “new departure” that became the United States. Slotkin reminds us that violence was integral to this transformation. The idea that Americans “tore violently a nation from the implacable and opulent wilderness” by killing the Indians who were “the special demonic personifications” of that wilderness are “the foundation stones” of American historical mythology.*

When the regenerating power of violence transformed the frontier from “savage” outpost to “civilized” America, it also shaped an American notion that frontiers of various kinds must constantly be subdued with violence in order for the U.S. to retain its supposed moral and cultural superiority. Way back in 1970, the late American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that “there is far more violence in our national heritage than our proud, sometimes smug, national self-image admits of.” Hofstadter argued that recognizing the American propensity for violence was crucial: “In our singular position,” he observed, “uncontrolled domestic violence coincides with unparalleled power, and thus takes on a special significance for the world.”* This statement is nothing if not prescient today. The modern militarized culture creates new frontiers out of urban crime areas, sites of mass shootings, and pesky foreign countries where gun-carrying Americans must regenerate the U.S. through violence, both at home and abroad.

Consider our current cultural unwillingness to view American overseas military endeavors with a more critical eye. As historian Susan Brewer writes in Why American Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq, U.S. government leaders have consistently sold their war aims to the general public by packaging them as “official narratives” of propaganda. “The official narratives,” Brewer notes, “have presented conflict as a mighty clash between civilization and barbarism in the Philippines and Word War I, democracy and dictatorship in World War II, freedom and communism in Korea in Vietnam, and…civilization and terrorism in Iraq.” These “official narratives” draw on a long tradition in which Americans have used violence to assert their alleged cultural superiority via “the message that what is good for America is good for the world,” and it is this type of militaristic thinking that has, over time, created America’s distinct culture of violence.*

The result has been the seeping of cultural militarism into all aspects of American life to the point where it even influences reviews of war movies like “Lone Survivor.” U.S. soldiers, nay, the military itself must not be criticised, because to criticize the military is to criticize America, which is above criticism. Taken to its logical extreme, this type of thinking threatens to ideologically reshape the U.S. along the lines of a military junta; a type of government that has committed some of the worst atrocities in human history, from Argentina, to Chile, to MyanmarPolitical scientist (and Vietnam veteran) Andrew Bacevich calls this development the “New American Militarism,” in which “misleading and dangerous conceptions of war, soldiers, and military institutions…have come to pervade the American conciousness.”* 

U.S. soldiers do their best with the near impossible tasks they've been given in Iraq and Afghanistsan. But while sometimes violence is the answer, more often than not it begats more violence in a never-ending cycle.

U.S. soldiers do their best with the near impossible tasks they’ve been given in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while sometimes violence is the answer, more often than not it begets more violence in a never-ending cycle.

The militarization of American society, both in the military and civilian spheres, is a dangerous development that threatens the fundamental identity of the U.S. a small “r” republican nation. Militaries are, by their very nature, authoritarian, deeply hierarchical institutions. This is why they are good at protecting nations but bad at ruling them: authoritarianism and democracy don’t mix, which is why the U.S. (for now) has civilian control over its armed forces. But the problem runs deeper than mere soldier worship. A highly militarized society is also a paranoid society that will inevitably degenerate into an irrational orgy of circular violence in the name of regenerating its supposed previous greatness. Such societies are also intolerant of dissent, incapable of rational argument, and paralyzed by the limited options presented by itchy trigger fingers.

The U.S. today finds itself at this particular crossroads. After fostering a culture of gun violence born in the frontier and nurtured in countless wars, both domestic and foreign, official and unofficial, America in 2014 cannot seem to wrest itself from the idea that violence solves all problems. Thus, no matter how many school kids are blown away with assault weapons; no matter how many brown people are ripped to shreds overseas; and no matter how many American soldiers are killed or maimed in the name of the American empire, a militarized society ensures that there will always be those willing to defend to the death their right to own a bazooka and watch movies like “Lone Survivor” without criticism. So strap on your concealed carry holsters folks, ’cause its gonna be a bumpy ride.

* See Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973), 3-4.

* See Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace, eds., American Violence: A Documentary History (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 4.

* See Susan A. Brewer, Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philipines to Iraq (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 4.

* See Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), xi.

American Guns, American Tradition

The Battle of Little Big Horn, also known as Custer's last stand, epitomizes the role of guns in shaping an expantionist American identity.

The Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, epitomizes the role of guns in shaping an expansionist American identity.

Amidst news of yet another mass shooting on American soil, this time at a naval yard in Washington D.C., the calls for more examinations of the prevalence of gun violence in American culture are being made once again. These calls will float around the cultural atmosphere long enough to gain a few approving nods, mostly from the suffering victims of gun violence, before they are quietly plugged back into the mysterious black hole of moral ambiguity dug by the NRA and its supporters in government. Indeed, following a stunningly successful recall in Colorado of Democratic state senators who supported additional gun control, and only a few days after the Atlantic announced the sad Death of Gun Control, the idea that we could have any rational debate about guns in American culture seems ludicrous on its face.

So why is this the case? History offers some not-so-subtle clues as to why Americans are so obsessed with firearms. Simply put, the United States was born and bred in gun violence, so much so that guns have historically played an essential role in the long construction of an American national identity based on the intertwined ideals of expansionism and self-definition. These ideals are interrelated because in U.S. history, various types of expansion have helped forge a particular American identity in contrast to a host of perceived non-American “others,” and guns have served as the pivotal tool in the construction of this identity.

A couple of years back, historian Glenn LaFantasie wrote an essay for Salon in which he outlined the essential connection between guns and American national identity:

It’s my belief, though, that American political violence is a direct legacy of the American Revolution, for the patriots’ victory in that conflict proved to the American people that violence could achieve a positive end: independence and the creation of a new nation. It is a troubling, but inescapable, bequest that stems from the fact that our nation was born in violence, and it derives from the reality that violence has ever since become not only the device of criminals, but also of government and those who disagree with the government.

An American nation born in gun violence was also raised in gun violence, and LaFantasie notes that this intimate historical relationship with guns has hampered any rational discussions of gun violence in America:

Over and over again we deny the American heritage of political violence, for though we understand that much of our past has been filled with violence, or at least marked in prominent ways by violent acts, we find it very difficult to admit that we are, in the end, a very violent people and that aggression may be found at the very core of our culture. As Americans, there is much violence that we justify and even legitimize, particularly when it comes to looking at our past. We have been ready — proud, even — to justify the violence of the American Revolution that won our independence from Great Britain as a necessary means toward a positive end. Likewise, our participation in wars always seems to have been for the best of reasons — or for what at least looked like the best of reasons at the time. Violence in many forms, then, is often seen as a legitimate means to accomplish a positive purpose.

LaFantasie is hitting on the major issue at hand — legitimacy — that defines the historical culture of gun violence in the United States. There’s another ideal essential to American gun culture, however, that is integral to understanding just why guns have, for two centuries, shaped American national identity long after the Revolutionary War that won independence through bloodshed. That aspect is expansionism. The most notable, and notorious  manifestation (pun intended) of American expansionism was Manifest Destiny, a term coined in 1845 by journalist John O’Sullivan to describe the long-existing notion that Americans were sanctioned by the Christian God to expand their national empire all the way to the Pacific. Manifest Destiny was the ideological fuel that drove American westward expansionism in the 19th century, and guns were the engines that ran on that fuel.

The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. At this and other killing sites, guns shaped the identity of modern America.

The Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. At this and other killing sites, guns shaped the identity of modern America.

As historians Jan Dizard, Robert Merrill Muth, and Stephen Andrews Jr. observe in Guns in America:  A Historical Reader:

Even without the French and Indian War, the War of Independence, and the War of 1812, the ideology of expansionism that fueled a steady push westward would have been reason enough to accept, with whatever reservations, the practical necessity of an armed citizenry.*

There’s an interesting background behind that armed citizenry. In a massive historical irony, in light of modern-day gun advocates claims that private ownership of firearms guarantees self defence against a tyrannical government, the American government actually created the American arms industry in the late 1700s.

It was American inventor Eli Whitney, of cotton gin fame, who came up with the idea of manufacturing guns by making interchangeable parts based on a single pattern. Making guns via mass production, rather than by hand, would make guns cheaper and more numerous. But private capital was leery of Whitney’s too-good-to-be true risky idea, so in 1798 he approached the U.S. government, who, with the blessing of Vice-President Thomas Jefferson, contracted him to deliver a large order of guns to help arm and field a badly needed standing army. Whitney’s production of guns stumbled and delayed for years, but government sanctioning of Whitney’s idea legitimized the mass production of guns for private investors, effectively giving birth to the American arms industry. By the 1840s, machine shops along the eastern seaboard were producing guns in accordance with Whitney’s basic ideas.*

In the mid-19th century, all of those mass-produced guns flooded the U.S. market just in time to pave the way for American westward expansion. The founders planted the idea of American national identity in 1776, of course, but the harvesting of that identity really happened in the 19th century, and it happened via Americans contrasting themselves with various “others,” using guns as their preferred tools of enforcement. Guns played a major role in the various Indian conflicts that swept the American southeast from the 1820s through the 1860s, resulting in the notorious Trail of Tears that forced multiple native tribes out of the South to make way for white plantation society. Armed slave patrols policed that slave South, ensuring that armed defence was a privilege of white supremacy.

Guns also helped the U.S. gain control over former Mexican territories during the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. Further, during the Indian Wars that lasted roughly from the 1860s until the early 20th century, the U.S. army used firearms to forcibly subjugate tribes on the Great Plains. The surrender of those tribes to white American expansion revealed the essential role of guns in closing the American frontier. Finally, guns solidified modern American national identity during the Civil War, when they maimed and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, North and South, in the name of national reunification.

Each of these 19th century conflicts involved Americans using guns to expand their territory and influence while simultaneously subjugating “others,” whether they were non white, “savage” native peoples, enslaved African-Americans, or indeed, Union or Confederate soldiers. In each of these cases, guns helped their users define themselves as Americans: in the 19th century, Americans weren’t Indians, they weren’t black, they weren’t Mexicans, and, after the Civil War, they weren’t Confederates. By contrasting themselves with, and then destroying, the “other,” Americans defined who they were not, and, in the process, affirmed who they were: white, expansionist, capitalist citizens of a democratic and powerful nation-state. They couldn’t have done this without guns.

Pro-gun supporters rally outside the Idaho Statehouse in Boise. In case it was unclear that they liked guns, they brought guns. (Photo: AP)

Pro-gun supporters rally outside the Idaho Statehouse in Boise. In case it was unclear that they liked guns, they brought guns. (Photo: AP)

Well into the 21st century, as the nation has undergone dramatic shifts in what it means to be American, polls nonetheless show a general antipathy towards gun control, despite occasional pro-gun control spikes in the wake of seemingly endless mass shootings. Not surprisingly, the most entrenched pro-gun support can be found in America’s former frontier regions, where Manifest Destiny was forged: the rural South, Midwest, and Plains. Among many divisions, the gun debate now wages along urban/rural geographical lines.

The long-entrenched culture of the gun has stubbornly maintained a hold on the national psyche because it defined American national identity in the country’s most formative period. The conflicts of the 19th century, waged with the gun around issues of economic and geographical expansion, race, political representation, and secession continue to profoundly shape American cultural identity to this day. This type of long history is not something you easily overcome, and it goes a long way towards explaining why the United States will continue to be the abode of loud, proud, and insufferably annoying gun nuts.

* Jan E. Dizard, Robert Muth, and Stephen P. Andrews, eds. Guns in America: A Historical Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 4, 5.