Facebook Twitter Comments Slate Plus
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images via UltraONEs/iStock and apastron/iStock. Politics

America’s Gun Fantasy

Three percent of the nation owns half the firearms—to prepare for an ultraviolent showdown that exists only in their imagination.

Excerpt reprinted from Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History copyright © 2017 by Kurt Andersen. With permission from the publisher, Random House. All rights reserved.

One set of fantasies has had more current, awful, undeniable real-world consequences than any other: the one that recast owning guns as among the most important rights, as American liberty and individualism incarnate. During my lifetime, the love of guns has become a fetish.

As a little kid, I was perpetually armed with cap guns until I graduated to BB guns and then, at YMCA summer camp and a great-uncle’s farm, to .22 rifles. One of my fondest childhood memories is my dad and me turning an old 3-inch pipe into an improvised cherry bomb–powered mortar to fire tennis balls at grazing cows 50 yards away. One of my older brother’s fondest childhood memories is ordering me to run across the backyard so he could shoot me with a BB gun from 30 yards and watch me crumple in pain to the ground, which he excitedly said at the time “was just like a movie.” As an adult, I’ve enjoyed hunting turkey and shooting skeet, always feeling a little like Daniel Boone or Lord Grantham. And when my wife went to China and got to fire an Uzi at a shooting range, I was very jealous.

I get the fun of guns, and of the various fantasies that shooting makes possible.

But. Oh, but. I thought of my BB gun escapade not long ago, when I read an essay by the poet Gregory Orr. Just days before Orr’s piece was published, on a firing range outside Las Vegas, a 9-year-old had lost control of her fully automatic Uzi and shot her instructor dead. Orr is my brother’s age. When he was 12, the age my brother was when he shot me with a BB on purpose, Orr accidentally shot and killed his little brother while they were hunting. “To hunt,” Orr wrote, “to fire a gun is to have your imagination tangled up with fantasies of power. A fatal accident makes a mockery of these fantasies.”

Still, hunting isn’t pure fantasy: You shoot a pheasant or a deer, and you eat it. But over the past few decades, Americans have lost their taste for hunting. Only 15 percent of us now say we ever hunt, less than half as many as in the 1970s. In any given year, maybe a third of those hunters among us, 5 percent of Americans, actually slog through fields and forests with rifles and shotguns.

In fact, fewer of us now own any kind of gun for any reason—even as the number of guns has increased phenomenally. In the 1970s about half of Americans had a gun, and it was almost always just a gun, one on average. Today only about a quarter of Americans own guns—but the average owner has three or four. Fewer than 8 million people, only 3 percent of all American adults, own roughly half the guns. Members of that tiny minority of superenthusiasts own an average of 17 guns apiece. (These data come from NORC at the University of Chicago’s 2015 General Social Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2011 survey, the Congressional Research Service, the Federal Reserve, research by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, and a survey conducted in 2015 by Harvard and Northeastern University researchers.)

Let me put a finer point on what I’m saying. Very, very few of the guns in America are used for hunting. Americans who own guns today keep arsenals in a way people did not 40 years ago. It seems plain to me that that’s because they—not all, but many—have given themselves over to fantasies.

The way I did as a child and still do when I shoot, they imagine they’re militiamen, pioneers, Wild West cowboys, soldiers, characters they’ve watched all their lives in movies and on TV, heroes and antiheroes played by Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson and the Rock, like Davy Crockett or Butch or Sundance or Rambo or Neo (or Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor). They’re like children playing with lightsabers, except they believe they’re prepared to fight off real-life aliens (from the Middle East, from Mexico) and storm troopers, and their state-of-the-art weapons actually wound and kill. Why did gangsters and wannabe gangsters start holding and firing their handguns sideways, parallel to the ground, even though that compromises their aim and control? Because it looks cool, and it began looking cool after filmmakers started directing actors to do it, originally in the ’60s, constantly by the ’90s. (It also made it easier to frame the gun and the actor’s face in the same tight shot.) Why are Americans buying semi-automatic AR-15s and rifles like it more than any other style, 1.5 million each year? Because holding and shooting one makes them feel cooler, more like commandos. For the same reason, half the states now require no license for people to carry their guns openly in public places. It’s the same reason, really, that a third of the vehicles sold in America are pickups and four-wheel-drive Walter Mitty–mobiles, even though three-quarters of four-wheel-drive off-road vehicles never go off road. It’s even the reason blue jeans became the American uniform after the 1960s. We are actors in a 24/7 tableau vivant, schlubs playing the parts of heroic tough guys.

Spectacular mass killings happen in America far more often than anywhere else, and not just because we make massacre-perfect weapons so easy to buy. Such killers are also engaged in role play and are motivated by our besetting national dream of overnight fame. The experts say that most mass killers are not psychotics or paranoid schizophrenics entirely in the throes of clinical delusion; rather, they’re citizens of Fantasyland, unhappy people with flaws and failures they blame on others, the system, the elitists, the world. They worry those resentments into sensational fantasies of paramilitary vengeance, and they know that acting out those fantasies will make a big splash and force the rest of us to pay attention to them for the first time.

Beyond the free-floating American myths underlying law-abiding American gun love—the frontier, badass individualism, action movies—there are the specific frightened scenarios driving the die-hard ferocity concerning gun regulation.

The least fantastical is the idea that if a criminal threatens or attacks tomorrow, you want a gun handy to kill him. Being prepared for a showdown with a bad guy is the main reason gun owners give for owning one, and in the surveys that answer has doubled since the 1990s. During the same period, the chance of an American actually having such an encounter has decreased by half. In New York City, where restrictions on owning and carrying guns are among the strictest in the United States, the chance of being murdered is 81 percent less than it was in 1990.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History
Random House

Keeping a handgun for protection may be foolish, but it’s not irrational. Even though violent crime has dramatically declined, in a country where every fourth person owns a gun, the hankering to be armed is understandable. Each of us runs life-and-death cost-benefit calculations differently. Every year, according to the Justice Department’s massive Crime Victimization Surveys, about 1 in 6,000 Americans display or fire a gun in self-defense during an attempted robbery or assault. But the dozens of new state laws that practically itch for make-my-day citizen showdowns—concealed carry, “stand your ground”—have been driven much more by fantasy and hysteria than by reason and prudence.

But beyond the prospect of protecting oneself against random attacks—and by the way, among the million-plus Americans interviewed in 10 years of Crime Victimization Surveys, exactly one sexual assault victim used a gun in self-defense—several outlandish scenarios and pure fantasies drive the politics of gun control. One newer fantasy has it that in the face of an attack by jihadi terrorists, armed random civilians will save the day. Another 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 uprising scenario, when it appeared in the 1960s, stirred people only on the farthest fringes of American politics. It is now deep in the mainstream, thanks in large measure to the work of the National Rifle Association and its affiliated hysterics. How did that happen?

When the founders wrote the Constitution, they envisioned a very small permanent national military. If Americans needed to fight wars, the states would assemble their militias. And so the 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.” For more than two centuries, the Supreme Court avoided making any sweeping decision about what the Second Amendment meant. It just didn’t come up that much. Increasingly it seemed an artifact of another time.

The court OK’d prohibiting certain kinds of firearms, such as sawed-off shotguns. In 1980 a decision passingly noted that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to have a gun only if it bears “some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.” But thereafter the constitutional can got kicked farther down the road. States and cities that wanted to restrict gun ownership did, and occasionally Congress enacted modest regulations. Meanwhile people who loved owning guns could indulge their love in the United States more freely and fully than almost anywhere else on Earth.

But after the NRA’s apoplectic-fantasist faction took control in the late 1970s, it turned its dial up to 11 and kept it there, becoming the center of a powerful new political movement that opposed any and all regulation of firearms—the types and numbers of guns and accessories and ammo people could buy, who could buy them and how easily, registration, licensing, even a requirement to use safety locks. Nevertheless Congress in the 1990s managed to enact two laws—one requiring most gun buyers to pass an FBI background check to screen out criminals and another banning the manufacture of certain semi-automatic guns and of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

In response, the NRA sent a particularly hysterical, 2,600-word fundraising letter to its members. “President Clinton’s army of anti-gun government agents continues to intimidate and harass law-abiding citizens,” as in “Waco and the Branch Davidians.” Today they’re poking into a weapons cache; tomorrow they’ll be taking away everyone’s “right to free speech, free practice of religion, and every other freedom in the Bill of Rights.” The new assault weapons ban “gives jackbooted Government thugs more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property and even injure and kill us. … Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens.”

The letter was signed by Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s CEO. Growing up, LaPierre wasn’t a young outdoorsman but a nerd, a politics nerd, and not even a conservative one. At 22, he volunteered for the George McGovern presidential campaign, then went to work for a Democrat in the Virginia state Legislature. From there, he happened to get a low-level lobbying job with the NRA in 1978, right after its extremist faction had taken over—and in 1991, he became CEO.

The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre speaks at a conference on April 28 in Atlanta.
The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre speaks at a conference on April 28 in Atlanta.
Evan Vucci/AP

The 1995 jackbooted-government-thugs letter was the moment the NRA inarguably settled in deepest Fantasyland. It seemed demented even to Republicans, dozens of whom had voted for the assault weapons ban in Congress. Former President George H.W. Bush resigned from the NRA in protest. Just days after the letter went out, the anti–gun-regulation activist Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building.

LaPierre and the gun rights zealots, however, did not rethink or walk it back. Although they dominated the political process concerning gun regulation, that wasn’t enough. They sought total victory, unequivocal and unambiguous. They needed to convince a majority of the Supreme Court to ratify their new everybody’s-a-freelance-militiaman interpretation of the Second Amendment once and for all. In the 1990s that still seemed improbable. No less a figure than Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative appointed by Nixon, complained after he retired that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud—I repeat the word fraud—on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

But the winds were with the gun lobbyists. When the ban on semi-automatic weapons expired in 2004, it was not renewed. Even more amazingly, what Chief Justice Burger had denounced as a fraud in the 1990s had become respectable jurisprudence by the 2000s. In cases in 2008 and 2010, the Supreme Court finally agreed to decide the fundamental meaning of the Second Amendment. Four of the justices still interpreted it the old way. In the 2010 case, for instance, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote an opinion noting that back in 1791, “the Framers did not write the Second Amendment in order to protect a private right of armed self defense. There has been, and is, no consensus that the right is, or was, ‘fundamental.’”

But in both cases, five justices went with the new reading. Now our Constitution does indeed guarantee each one of us the right to own firearms. We can argue all we want about how different guns were in the 1790s, when it took a minute to fire three shots, and about the correlation between the numbers of guns and gun deaths in the contemporary world, and how Australia’s 1996 roundup program worked. Those debates are academic, however. In this instance, the Constitution apparently is a suicide pact, and not just metaphorically.

So that’s how we got here. The NRA has won. Yet the group and its compatriots seem no less paranoid or angry, still convinced that tyranny is right around the corner and that federal agents are coming for their guns. The wholesale confiscation of guns was never seriously bruited in the United States. Through the 1980s, even most conservatives considered the fear of confiscation to be screwball paranoia, relegated to self-published tracts like Behold a Pale Horse, which imagined a “patriot data bank” kept by the government, “consist[ing] of information collected about American patriots, men and women who are most likely to resist the destruction of our Constitution and the formation of the totalitarian police state under the New World Order.” Now, however, thanks to the NRA, it’s the rare Republican leader who doesn’t encourage the confiscation fantasy.

LaPierre says that FBI background checks “are just the first step in their long march to destroying our Second Amendment–protected rights.” Thus the NRA made sure that current federal law requires that the record of every gun buyer who goes through a background check be destroyed. Nevertheless one of LaPierre’s lobbyists has noted that if the government did maintain “a database or a registration of Americans who are exercising a constitutional right”—that’d be “just like [if] they … maintain a database of all Methodists, all Baptists, all people of different religious or ethnic backgrounds.” Extreme American gun love really is a lot like American religious faith.

So one unlikely possibility—a federal registry—leads to a supremely implausible fantasy: confiscation of guns. And that leads to an even more fantastical narrative. After the full police-state erasure of liberty, in the final SHTF dream, well-armed Americans will be obliged to launch an uprising against the U.S. government.

This chain of fantasies and ones like it have become respectable. It was a milestone when, at the beginning of this century, the NRA’s president—a movie star famous for playing 19th-century American soldiers—ended a speech to his members by urging them “to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away,” then lifted a replica of a Revolutionary War rifle and snarled “fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed … ‘From my cold, dead hands!’” In other words, Charlton Heston was saying: You’ll have to kill me if you try to take away my guns.

After that, the threat of armed insurrection became more explicit. Instead of ignoring or wishing away the first half of the Second Amendment, as it had always done, the gun rights movement embraced the idea that civilians needed guns for paramilitary purposes. And finally the Supreme Court agreed. One of the decisive opinions, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, says that the Second Amendment allows everybody to have guns so that they can spontaneously form militias when necessary—that is, to make “the able-bodied men of a nation … better able to resist tyranny,” to join an armed “resistance to … the depredations of a tyrannical government,” to shoot and kill members of a U.S. “standing army” they don’t like. Scalia acknowledged that such a contingency is absurd, given that in this day and age “a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms” and “that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks.” But so be it: The Constitution gives every American the right to amass an arsenal to prepare to enact that doomed fantasy.

(The relentless propagation of the confiscation fantasy paved the way both for the revised new understanding of the Second Amendment and for our 300 million–gun stockpile. Both in turn make really meaningful gun control in the United States impossible: At this point, short of amending the Constitution and buying up guns—that is, fairly confiscating them, as Australia did—what else would do the trick? But doing any such thing, of course, is now a total political fantasy.)

Are the gun zealots like dogs who catch the car but don’t want to stop barking and snarling? Or the child who threatens to hold his breath until he dies? Despite their essentially total victory, they demand more: the freedom to fire dozens of rounds without reloading; to carry guns anywhere they please, like cops or soldiers; a still greener green light to shoot people if they feel threatened. They have to look hard for things that still outrage them, such as the bureaucratic protocol that prevented military veterans of “marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness” from passing FBI background checks to buy guns. Or the Arms Trade Treaty adopted by the U.N. in 2013 to monitor the international weapons business and reduce the flow to bad actors, such as terrorists. “The tyrants and dictators at the United Nations will stop at nothing,” LaPierre said, “to register, ban and, eventually, confiscate firearms owned by law-abiding Americans.” The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty.

Reasonable people hoped that after the massacre in 2012 of the 20 first-graders and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the delirium might begin to break. The killer’s mother, who home-schooled him, “had a survivalist philosophy, which is why she was stockpiling guns,” according to her sister-in-law. The stockpile consisted of seven firearms, including the rifle with which her son murdered her. To murder the children and teachers, he used her semi-automatic “modern sporting rifle”—that’s the term preferred by the national gun industry trade association, which happens to be headquartered right there in Newtown. The killer brought 22 high-capacity 30-round magazines with him to the school.

All the guns had been legally purchased by his mom. According to a Connecticut state report, she “seemed unaware of any potential detrimental impact of providing unfettered access to firearms to their son,” even near the end, “when [she] noted that he would not leave the house and seemed despondent.” Yet the sister-in-law defended her on this count—she “wasn’t one to deny reality. She would have sought psychiatric help for her son had she felt he needed it.”

She wasn’t one to deny reality. Right after the massacre and ever since, conspiracists have fantasized alternate realities about what happened. Maybe it involved an international banking scandal, and maybe Israeli intelligence was involved, but in any case the killings and cover-up were obviously undertaken by the government and media to gin up support for gun regulation. Some (such as Alex Jones) decided it hadn’t actually happened at all, that it was all … a staged fantasy, with actors playing grieving parents on TV. Or else the shooter was a hireling, a pawn, a Manchurian Candidate or a Lee Harvey Oswald. The father of one of the murdered children devotes himself to debunking the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories; in 2016 one of the pro-gun fantasists was indicted in Florida for threatening to kill him.

Two months later, the same day President Trump addressed the right wing’s big annual Conservative Political Action Conference, so did Wayne LaPierre. They had completely won. So how could he keep the madness going? By presenting an even crazier new fantasy of armed patriots’ self-defense. “Right now,” LaPierre told them, “we face a gathering of forces that are willing to use violence against us … some of the most radical political elements there are. Anarchists, Marxists, communists, and the whole rest of the left-wing socialist brigade.” Does he know this is madness? After 39 years with the NRA, is he really itching for an actual civil war, or are his horrific movie-trailer visions just good for business? “Make no mistake, if the violent left brings their terror … into our homes, they will be met with … full force of American freedom in the hands of the American people, and we will win.”

Top image: Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images via UltraONEs/iStock and apastron/iStock.

Tweet Share Comments

We Need to Talk About Your Ad Blocker

Slate relies on advertising to support our journalism. If you value our work, please disable your ad blocker.

Enable Ads on Slate

Want to Block Ads But Still Support Slate?

By joining Slate Plus you support our work and get exclusive content. And you'll never see this message again.

Join Slate Plus
Illustration depicting a colorful group of people using an array of mobile devices