The Religion of Guns

Americans worship guns. We stockpile nuclear weapons, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on conventional weapons, and we keep handguns under our pillows. Not me, you might say: never touched a gun, never will. But you can still be part of the religion without visiting the church. Consider all the video games that involve shooting. And all the movies that center around gunfights in the same way that medieval paintings focus on the life of Jesus. And all the plastic guns our kids have. Then there's our $2,000 annual per-capita share of the Pentagon budget - that's a hefty contribution to the collection plate.

We use all manner of spurious rationales to justify our gun theology. It's a dangerous world out there, we say, and even though we spend as much on weaponry as the rest of the world combined, we need still more. At home, gun advocates hold up the Constitution's Second Amendment: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" - even though the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the amendment protects only the rights of state militias, not individuals, to bear arms.

It's bad enough that we're awash in guns in the United States. But we also evangelize. We sell guns as aggressively overseas as a preacher hands out leaflets on a street corner. At Foreign Policy In Focus (, we've published many articles on rising U.S. arms exports. But this week, FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan reports on an equally insidious problem: our exports of handguns. Consider the case of Mexico, where guns are fueling an epidemic of violence and death. "According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, more than 90% of guns seized after shootings or police raids in Mexico or at the border can be traced back to the United States," Berrigan writes. "Last year alone, 2,455 weapons traces concluded that the guns had been purchased in the United States."

I'm writing this from South Korea, where the citizens frankly think that we are all militant fundamentalists when it comes to guns. In South Korea, gun control laws are about as strict as they get. "When a gun is found on the street here," my friend here tells me, "it becomes the focus of national attention." That might change, of course. It wasn't long ago that bread was an unusual food here - that is, until the United States flooded the market with wheat beginning in the 1950s as a food assistance program that also just happened to help out U.S. agribusiness. If American suppliers and the unregulated market have their way, South Koreans will someday enjoy all the privileges of gun ownership - including the privilege of getting shot by accident on the street, by lunatics in crowded suburban malls, or by suicidal loners on school campuses.

Berrigan's column generated a load of anti-gun control responses, several of which suggested that a disarmed population would lead directly to tyranny and even genocide. South Koreans would be surprised to learn of this correlation, since they overthrew tyranny and today live in a democracy, all without guns. I, too, was surprised to learn that bullets, not ballots, are the cornerstone of U.S. democracy. The Aztecs believed that human sacrifice was necessary for the stability of their society. Today, we scoff at this "primitive" belief though we cling to our guns as surely as the Aztecs clung to their obsidian knives. Michael Moore chronicled this obsession in his film Bowling for Columbine. Lars von Trier lampooned it in the brilliant film, Dear Wendy.

Documentaries and satire are fine and dandy. But who will have the courage to stand up to bullies with guns - whether it's the National Rifle Association or the Pentagon - and get them to, in the words of Andy Partridge and the band XTC, "melt the guns, never more to fire them; melt the guns, never more desire them"?

Who will finally be able to convince Americans that the god of guns is the god that failed?

by JOHN FEFFER | October 28, 2008
Vol. 3, No. 43
World Beat


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