Why Americans won’t give up their guns

Around 3.30am on 23 November 2013 a stray bullet shattered the window of an apartment in Indianapolis where a couple watched television while their two-month-old baby slept. The man called 911, with panic in his voice. “I need to get out of here,” he told the dispatcher. “Can you get a car so I can get out of here?”

“I think there’s several officers already over there,” the dispatcher replied, calmly. The 911 recordings reveal the man breathing heavily as he talks to his partner. “Put the stuff in the baby bag. Find it tomorrow. We’ll carry it to a hotel.” He urges the dispatcher to hurry up and rescue them until she loses her patience. “They’ll be there as soon as they can, all right?” she says. “As. Soon. As. They. Can. OK? Just stay inside your apartment. Do not go out. We’ll get an officer to you.”

Four months later, in the same city, the country’s main gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, held its annual convention with the slogan “Stand and Fight”. In a speech in equal measure demagogic and apocalyptic, the CEO, Wayne LaPierre, evoked a nation in peril and demise. “There are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and carjackers and knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers … I ask you: do you trust the government to protect you? We are on our own … The things we care about most are changing … It’s why more and more Americans are buying firearms and ammunition.”

Sunday’s horrific incident in Las Vegas was the 273rd mass shooting in America this year. There’s been another since then, in Miami, where four people were shot while attending a vigil to mourn a 30-year-old woman who was shot dead in her car last week.

The enduring question of why America continues to maintain such lax gun laws when such atrocities are so commonplace can in no small part be answered by this frightened man’s call and LaPierre’s dystopian response. The man’s fear and LaPierre’s fearmongering are intimately connected. That connection goes beyond the weapon itself, and the piecemeal laws that might control it, to some of the country’s most cherished myths and pervasive pathologies. When the national narrative is a story of conquering, dominating, force and power, an atavistic attachment to the gun can have more pull than a rational case against it.

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In a society that fetishises self-reliance, the gun speaks to rugged individualism – each person should be responsible for saving themselves. In a political culture that favours small government, the gun stands as a counterpoint to a lumbering and inefficient state – defend yourself, because by the time the police get there you’ll be dead. It underpins a certain sense of masculinity and homestead – a real man should be able to protect his family and home. The dispatcher told him to sit and wait; the NRA told him to stand and fight.

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