The American gun mania makes less sense up close than it does from afar. To foreign eyes, the American romance with lethal weapons must seem like a native madness, easily explained by us being terrible people who live in a country founded on exploitation and violence. Yet we Americans tend to like our country, and therefore must grapple with guns as one especially difficult element of a complex national reality that is nonetheless ours, and which we have no intention of giving up.
Explaining guns to ourselves would be hard work even if we weren’t treated to the occasional massacre at an elementary school, the kind of horror that happens with mind-numbing regularity in virtually no other country on earth but ours. Reason alone can’t explain why guns are so widespread, permanent, and tolerated here. True, this is a huge nation where the police in more sparsely populated regions—which is to say, the vast majority of U.S. territory—probably aren't coming for a while if your farm, cabin, cattle ranch, mine, or actual family are under threat. True, the non-state militants who founded America turned out to be open-minded experimental types, strangely willing to afford the citizenry the same rights against its new government that the revolutionaries had themselves claimed. True, America is plentifully stocked with every variety of shootable wild animal, many of them delicious.
Safety, freedom, deer filets—and, I would add, the intensifying regional identity of rural America and the national periphery in general—are all reasons this country has done little to change its gun laws even as our schools, Walmarts, houses of worship, and inner cities get turned into charnel houses. But these explanations only get you part of the way there.
To get the rest of the way, you must experience for yourself the striking reality that seemingly all Americans, regardless of where in the world they were born, and whatever they consciously think their political beliefs are, consider getting a gun as soon as the jurisdictions where they live allow them the legal right to get one. I have seen Middle Eastern immigrants proudly display their concealed carry licenses and socialists begin speculating about their future shotgun purchases after spending half a summer at their new houses in upstate New York. I have heard a local restauranteur—a reliable liberal and Democratic party donor—tell me about what guns he keeps in his Florida condo, and which ones he plans on getting once New York reforms its firearms regime in light of a recent Supreme Court decision. The social grouping with the biggest rise in gun ownership is single women, especially African American women—who overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
In a classic episode of The Simpsons, Homer tosses his beloved handgun in a motel waste bin, the price of reconciling with an enraged and gun-hating Marge. With her husband safely out of view, the Simpson matriarch retrieves the weapon, poses with it in full badass stance, and admires her reflection in the trashcan’s lid. The joke is one every American can recognize, almost at the level of instinct: The people who say they hate guns are as hypnotized by them as everyone else. There’s something about black steel that instantly charms or corrupts even the most vigorous American scolds.
So, what is it? Americans are generally exhilarated by being able to wield mindboggling amounts of individual power, whether in car, money, or gun-form. More fundamentally, for the past 400-odd years we’ve believed in taking advantage of whatever rights we have, whether we think “other people” should have those rights or not.
Gun culture is the starkest ongoing example of how the American people, in our collective wisdom, fill any vacuum the government (or really anyone else) leaves us. The expansion of unchecked freedom even beyond all logical or socially healthy stopping points, a force against which the usual stopgaps of family and traditional morality and religion have proven oddly powerless, is our most important and enduring social contract, the reason the U.S. is so endlessly creative and chaotic, so full of opportunity and menace.
At times, the “fill in every inch of potential freedom” idea has the paradoxical effect of making us less free. In much of this country people had the freedom to own slaves up until the 1860s, at which point this right was revoked by military force. To take one recent and more ambiguous example, social media companies ruthlessly censor their users at the implicit and even explicit request of the state, on the basis of these platforms’ freedom as supposedly independent, self-governing corporate entities.
A common argument against America’s gun culture, one that shows a certain awareness of what life is actually like here, is that true freedom, the pursuit of happiness and all that, is allegedly impossible in an environment of excessive disorder and fear. The validity of this claim has revealingly little bearing on the national gun debate. For better and worse, Americans of all stripes will continue pursuing happiness until somebody stops us by force from doing whatever it is we’re doing—right up until our supposed birthright is taken from our cold, dead hands.