In god and guns they trust

January 19, 2016 12:00 am | Updated September 23, 2016 01:24 am IST

“Let us say, this tough guy in the front has a gun… and then, that guy there with a lousy head of hair has another… Imagine those terrorists come in like in Paris… the first one… BOOM, the second one, BOOM,” Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump regaled a cheering audience at a recent rally, explaining a logic that has become commonplace among believers in the gun in America — the best way to stop terrorism is to have several good guys with guns all around.

Arms and the American

The right to arm oneself was written into the U.S. Constitution in 1791, through the second amendment. The gun industry, whose annual revenue is to the tune of $13.5 billion, has ensured that a vocal and combative segment of U.S. society today considers it to be the most fundamental of all American rights, akin to the concept of ‘basic structure’ that informs Indian constitutional debates.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), which is the face of the American gun lobby, has five million members and raises millions of dollars through small donations every year. The security threat that the current generation of Americans faces has no comparison with the situation more than two centuries ago. Some recent NRA advertisements compare the current situation characterised by deep fear and anxiety about terrorist attacks with the volatility of 18th century America in a bid to encourage people to keep firearms.

In the weeks following the terror strikes in Paris on November 13, 2015, and San Bernardino on December 2, Americans went on a gun-buying spree. In December 2015, an estimated 3,314,594 guns were sold in the country — the highest for a month in history. In 2015 more than 23 million firearms were added — the highest for a year in history — to the estimated 300 million firearms floating around. Free-floating guns lead to an average of 89 deaths every day in the U.S. — including 31 murders and 55 suicides; two are killed in accidents every day, mostly children playing with their parents’ firearms. Still, a large number of Americans are buying into the logic that when everyone has a gun, everyone will be safer.

Real-life encounters of the ‘good guys with guns’ are not as simple and straightforward as gun promoters are making it out to be. Captive , a September 2015 Hollywood film, is an evocative depiction of an incident in Atlanta in 2005, in which an ordinary woman was taken hostage in her own house by a gun-wielding criminal who escaped from custody after shooting four people dead. Ashley Smith, the captive, is trying to pick up the pieces of her drug-addled life with the help of a book that American evangelicals would swear by — The Purpose Driven Life , marketed as a “blueprint for Christian living in 21st century”, that has sold 30 million copies.

As the night passes, and they get talking, the captor, Brian Nichols, wants her to read out the book to him. She does and as the hours tick by, there comes a moment when the captor’s guns fall into her custody. She looks at the guns, but can’t get herself to shoot Mr. Nichols. Why? Ms. Smith explained that moment in a TV interview recently: “Well, for me, it was just a fear because I had never really used a gun before. I thought to myself, if I pick up these guns and try to use them, I’ll probably end up doing some damage to me.”

It is not easy for good guys to use guns, and if they do, there can be unintended consequences — they could shoot bystanders, they could get shot by the police mistaking them for terrorists.

Unveiling his modest gun control plans last week, which does nothing more than attempt to enforce existing laws regarding background checks before gun purchases, President Barack Obama made this point. National Gun Victims Action Council, a voluntary organisation, conducted simulation experiments that showed inexperienced gun users more often than not shoot innocent people or get shot by the criminal or even by the police.

But the NRA suggests a simple solution for this — mandatory gun training in schools, though it opposes training for purchasers! The NRA wants more guns in universities, churches and, yes, even schools. And there is political support for this. “My first day, it gets signed, OK?” Mr. Trump told a rally last week. “My first day. There’s no more gun-free zones.” The NRA also opposes development of technology that can prevent accidental use of a gun — this in a country, President Obama keeps pointing out, where aspirin bottles are designed such that children cannot open them.

The NRA can get away with such brazen arguments primarily because of the immense clout that it enjoys by virtue of the money it raises for campaigns that selectively support and target politicians. “The problem is that for Republicans and the people who support gun rights — who are a minority — it is their number one issue. People who support stricter gun laws, around 80 per cent Americans, they have ten issues on top of it,” says Neera Tanden, president, Center for American Progress, a Democratic-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. But the financial and political muscle that the gun lobby wielded has now been reinforced by another more emotive factor — Christian fanaticism in the face of Islamist threats.

Gun and god — the Right punch

The gun lobby has latched on to the threat of Islamist terrorism, portraying the U.S. as a Christian country under siege. In a chilling mirror image of the Islamist narrative that calls for violence in defence of a faith purportedly under attack, the call by leading Republicans is for the general public to be armed in defence of their faith and lives. The NRA is spearheading this campaign with ferocious, combative spots, but equally forceful in promoting this combination of gun and god is Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who is second only to Mr. Trump in the nomination race.

In fact, at the Republican presidential debate on January 14, all candidates except Jeb Bush and John Kasich claimed to be more pro-gun than the others and drilled in the argument that Islamist terrorism constituted an existential threat to America. Most of them claimed credit for blocking gun control efforts by Mr. Obama. Mr. Cruz has released a series of advertisements on guns and his Christian credentials. Constantly talking about “trampling”, “crushing” and “carpet-bombing” Islamic enemies, Mr. Cruz projects himself as the true and only defender of the Christian faith in the race.

In a particularly vituperative video by the NRA, ‘The Godless Left’, the protagonist says: “Only hours after an attack of radical jihadi terror on American soil… [when] the majority of Americans turned to earnest prayer for the dead, the wounded… political and media elites joined forces to insult and mock and disparage them… and laid bare the utter moral depravity of the Godless Left… This was a coordinated assault on the two freedoms they hate the most — our right to believe and our right to survive. In the minds of millions, it brought back memories of Barack Obama sneering at the majority of Americans who cherish their faith and their firearms… They openly demonise Christmas and Christianity, but say nothing of the only religion in the world that contains a segment which condones this terrorism.”

In another one, the woman protagonist says she wants a woman President “who can put her hand on the Bible and swear to protest and preserve the Constitution” but Hillary Clinton is not that person; yet another one, in which NRA head Wayne LaPierre himself is the protagonist, is titled ‘Demons at our Door’, about “those demons among us… who will come to where we worship, we educate…”

But “faith and firearms” do not always meet in the vicious ways that the gun lobby wants it. In South Carolina in June 2015, a white supremacist shot dead nine black worshippers at a church, but one after the other, the families of the victims said they sought forgiveness for the shooter. In a moving eulogy to the assassinated, President Obama touched upon race, faith and gun violence and sang ‘Amazing Grace’ at the end. At the January 14 Republican debate in South Carolina, Mr. Bush said: “Those families showed something that few of us can in similar circumstances — grace.” And in Captive , Mr. Nichols decides to let Ms. Smith free, gives up the guns and surrenders when the police arrive. Faith may not move mountains, but it certainly must not kill.

The NRA wants more guns in universities, churches and, yes, even schools. And there is political support for this. ‘My first day, it gets signed, OK?’ Mr. Trump told a rally last week. ‘My first day. There’s no more gun-free zones.’

Republican presidential front runners and the American gun lobby conflate gun rights with religious rights, echoing the Islamist narrative that calls for violence in defence of a faith purportedly under attack

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