“God, Guts and Guns...” Sang Virgil Beckham in the 1983 film: Handgun, “Have made our country strong “Now they're trying to take 'em all away “Yes, God, Guts and Guns, gonna keep our country strong “I hope I never live to see the day ...”
(God, Guts and Guns written and performed by Virgil Beckham. Copyright 1982 Screen Gems Music Inc. Used under fair dealing.)
The British are coming!
On 19 April 1775, British forces moved against Lexington, Massachusetts, in what was then British America, with orders to disarm the Patriot militias and seize their weapons. Tensions had been rising for some time in the American Colonies, largely over taxation, and the British feared – correctly as it turned out – that armed insurrection was imminent.
The militiamen, however, had been forewarned and resisted by using their guns in what became known as the ‘shot heard around the world’. The ensuing battles of Lexington and Concorde became the spark that ignited the American Revolutionary War. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Almost 250 years after the insurgency in Massachusetts, on the day after his 18th birthday on 16 May 2022, a young man in Uvalde, Texas walked into his local gun shop and purchased an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle capable of discharging 45 rounds a minute.
The following day he bought 375 rounds of ammunition, and two days after that, he bought a second semi-automatic rifle from the same shop. No questions were asked, and no background checks were carried out.
The Uvalde incident – and others
It was perfectly legal for this young man to make such purchases in a country where the “right of the people to keep and bear Arms” has been enshrined in her constitution by the Second Amendment since 1791, and which today holds an almost sacrosanct place in the history and life of America.
The following week, on 24 May, the young man entered the school he attended as a child: the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. He then proceeded to shoot and kill two teachers and 19 young children before US law enforcement finally shot him dead.
The Uvalde incident was only the third worst school shooting in US history. There have been at least 160 mass shootings in the country so far this year. In recent weeks a bank employee in Louisville, Kentucky, shot and killed four people, whilst injuring several others with a rifle, and four young people died in Dadeville, Alabama, where shooters opened fire at a 16th birthday party. A further 28 people were injured.
Enough is enough?
Whenever these terrible events occur, ordinary Americans ask whether the moment has finally come when their country will recognise that the problem they have is … guns.
But it wasn’t the moment in 2012, when a school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, took the lives of 20 six and seven-year-olds. It wasn’t the moment in 2016, when a man shot and killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Or in 2017 when a shooter killed 59 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada.
And sadly, we may probably conclude, that it won’t be the moment now.
Thoughts and prayers
Instead, Republican politicians and right-wing commentators will likely do what they always do in the wake of a mass shooting. They will send their ‘thoughts and prayers’ to the victims and their families. They will discuss mental health issues, religious zealots and bad parenting.
They will argue that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”, omitting the fact that guns make it much easier to kill people, and in a country with more guns than humans, that is very easy indeed. Above all they will argue that the solution to every mass murder with a gun is: more guns.
To the foreign observer, the apparent impuissance of Americans to face this problem is incomprehensible, but to simply dismiss our ‘friends across the pond’ as a nation of lunatics living in denial is a reaction born of failure to understand the foundations upon which their Republic was built.
A well-regulated militia
Ever since that fateful day in April 1775, when the Redcoats advanced on Lexington, the idea that the nation’s enemies, foreign and domestic, can only be kept at bay by an armed populace has been pervasive in America.
The mere suggestion of gun control evokes talk of how tyrannical regimes always begin by seeking to disarm their citizens, and any attempt at firearms control is furiously resisted by the gun lobby.
Gun advocates in the US almost mythologise the Second Amendment which says: “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.”
However, they neglect the fact that there is nothing in the US Constitution about assault rifles, or that letting any 18-year-old buy such a weapon, with no questions asked, is antithetical to “well regulated”. So why then do Americans continue to live in this apparent and tragic denial? The answer to that question lies not in Congress, the White House or the gun store, but in the soul of the nation herself.
God, Guts and Guns
There is a superstition in England that should the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the Crown, the Kingdom, and the Tower itself will fall. For this reason some of the birds are kept within the fortress always. In the US, it seems that a similar myth prevails over the subject of guns and the right of citizens to own them.
America won her independence with guns, defended herself with guns, put down the Confederate rebellion with guns, expanded westward with guns, broke up strikes with guns, and maintains law and order with guns. The very heart and soul of the world’s greatest country is inextricably entwined with a history built on guns.
Guns are not just what Americans do, they are a fundamental part of American culture, and the belief that any attempt to restrict gun ownership would imperil the nation herself is ubiquitous, and exploited fully by the gun manufacturers whose bottom line depends on this fantasy.
The National Rifle Association
Leading the fight for the gun lobby is the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA). Until the 1970s, it was largely non-partisan. It had backed the National Firearms Act 1934, which taxed the making and transfer of arms, and the Gun Control Act of 1968, which regulated gun sales internationally and across state lines.
In the decades since however, the debate over gun control has been transformed into a deadly battle in America’s culture war, and the NRA is openly active in lobbying and sponsoring Republican politicians who make it their business to prioritise the interests of the gun manufacturers, often over the safety of American citizens.
For their part, the Republican Party has become fully entwined with the NRA’s agenda, refusing to support even light-touch legislation such as requiring universal background checks. In a Presidential debate in 2016, Donald Trump said:
“I have the endorsement of the NRA which I’m very proud of, these are very, very good people and they’re protecting the Second Amendment.”
Protecting The Second Amendment
Protecting the Second Amendment may be a matter of almost religious fervour for some Americans, but their arguments seem increasingly hollow when every available statistic disproves the lie that American society is safer because of the right to bear arms. It clearly isn’t. And surely the first duty of any government or legislative body is to ensure the safety of their citizens. It will take a fundamental shift in the national psyche for America to begin to address this issue, but the slogan of those calling for gun control is becoming louder: “Protect children, not guns”.
Increasingly, ordinary Americans are also questioning whether a constitutional amendment passed in 1791 is still appropriate in 2023. They may be some way off seeing the Second Amendment repealed, but increasing calls for controls on the ownership and use of these deadly weapons cannot be ignored forever.
Off to school
In the wake of the Uvalde incident, I read among the many reports the words of an American woman who was in her kitchen preparing her son’s packed lunch for school. She told how, as she cut his sandwiches into triangles, and put his favourite cheese string and an apple into the little tupperware box, she couldn’t hold back her tears as she wondered: “Will I see my little boy again?”
As a father of three, and grandfather of six, I remember the little tupperware boxes, and the satchels, and my wife and I seeing the next generation off to school. But I never once thought that my children might not come home due to guns. As I read the words of a parent in another land, I cried too.
My thoughts and prayers are with her and with every American family. I hope their little boys and girls always come home safely.