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25 May 2022

The toxic emotional symbolism of guns in America

Those who feel most empowered by guns are isolated white men, afraid they will lose their place in society.

By Charlotte Kilpatrick

On Wednesday morning (25 May) the world woke up to news of yet another US mass shooting. This time 19 primary school children were killed in Uvalde, Texas. This is the deadliest school shooting since the Sandy Hook massacre ten years ago, where another lone teenage boy murdered 20 children in their classrooms.

The evidence so far indicates that this was a random act of violence by a teenager directing his anger and self-hatred outwards. Details are still being established, but it feels like America is stuck on a loop, a surrealist nightmare of grief, outrage and powerlessness in which nothing will ever change.

The reason nothing will change is that, to many Americans, guns are not simply guns. Like the pipe in René Magritte’s surrealist painting, The Treachery of Images, guns are not simple objects of contorted metal used to propel bullets into a victim’s body. They are objects with a quasi-religious symbolism that many pockets of the right believe are all that is protecting them from victimisation at the hands of a liberal elite determined that white men should lose their dominant place in society.

A 2017 study from Baylor University explored the symbolic meaning of guns and their role in American culture. The researchers, F Carson Mencken and Paul Froese, broke respondents down into three categories. The group reporting the highest level of emotional empowerment from gun ownership was made up mostly of white men who reported high levels of economic precarity and feelings of social isolation. The men in this group were the most likely to harbour insurrectionist sentiments against the federal government and to own semi-automatic rifles. A 2016 study from Harvard and Northeastern University found that half of all guns in America were owned by just 3 per cent of the population. In the survey 76 per cent of respondents cited protection as their primary reason for owning a gun, up from 46 per cent in 1994. Clearly paranoia about something is increasing. 

[See also: The cost of the US gun obsession]

The gun lobby has not always been as powerful as it is today. The National Rifle Association began to gain momentum in the 1970s, at just the same time that American men were losing battles in Vietnam and then coming home to find fewer jobs that guaranteed the quality of life that their fathers and grandfathers enjoyed. What has emerged in the following decades is a paranoid narrative of “us versus them”, where the “us” is gun enthusiasts who feel they represent the “real America”, fighting to preserve their own brand of toxic, white masculinity.

Charlton Heston, the Moses of gun rights, famously proclaimed his guns would only be peeled away from “his cold, dead hands”. This week there are 19 pairs of small, cold, dead hands that parents, siblings and friends will never hold again. These deaths are not tragedies. They are the needless sacrifices made by cowardly politicians too afraid to stand up to a lobby of man-babies that believes the lives of children are less sacred than the right to clutch a metallic, semi-automatic teddy bear.

[See also: How the US leads the world in school shootings]

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