“People will go to seed on anything” was my grandfather Elmer Hickman’s favorite comment on humanity. If you have never raised a garden then the old fashioned metaphor might be lost, but the adage is an observation – and a caution – that people can turn anything positive, useful, rewarding, and/or healthy into its opposite. For the most part obsession is basically harmless or at worst annoying. However the tendency can be destructive. As guns tend to be for a certain demographic. To be sure, hunting can be an entertaining and healthy hobby. And firearms definitely offer individuals working in some high risk jobs a useful measure of physical safety. Yet for some, guns are clearly fetish objects.

Foodies can be indulged because they often know where the best restaurants are. Car buffs can be forgiven their love for particular makes, models and years because their obsessions remain aesthetic. Even UFO nuts are at least momentarily amusing. Gun fetishists are different because they invest dangerous objects with irrational philosophic and political meanings. In the most extreme cases guns are their personal and political identities.

Chances are that you have met them. Rather than a proper focus on family and work, gun fetishists build little arsenals. Instead of civic engagement with the range of real problems fellow Americans face, like the forever war in the Middle East, climate change, foreign interference in our elections and pharmaceutical price gouging, gun fetishists spin fantasies about ‘gun grabbing’ Federal government and liberal elected officials intent on imposing dictatorship.  In their minds, the millions of non-military firearms owned by civilians are invested with the magical ability to defeat, and therefore deter, totalitarian conspirators. That a U.S. Army infantry unit would slice through a mob of armed civilians playing soldier like a hot knife through butter simply has not occurred to them.  That few of those who bellow such beliefs about gun ownership would actually muster in such a mob goes without saying.

To be a gun fetishist is generally to be ignorant of recent popular revolutions against dictatorships. Where recent revolutions have succeeded in replacing dictatorship with democracy, the revolutionaries have been unarmed. Communist regimes collapsed across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989 and 1990 because governments because activists armed themselves with words rather than weapons. Non-violent revolutions have the best chance of producing democracies. Violent revolutions tend to result in new dictatorships, civil war or anarchy.  Compare today’s peaceful and democratic Czech Republic with today’s strife torn Libya. Anyone committed to liberty and democracy ought to be committed to defending First Amendment freedom of speech, press and assembly. Yet unless it involves de-platforming conservative speakers on university campuses, gun fetishists are more likely to condemning “fake news” or joking about running over protesters who dare to block traffic. They don’t care much about freedom unless it manifests in the shape of a gun.

Gun fetishists generally don’t compare the United States with other countries if they can avoid doing so. The America they have helped to saturate with guns presents embarrassingly high firearm murder rates compared with other wealthy democracies. That culturally similar Australia and New Zealand have reduced gun crime by reducing own ownership is tabooed truth.

Among the greatest conceits of gun rights absolutists is the idea that their beliefs are motivated by rational calculation of risk and/or reasoned defense of constitutional principle. The problem is they themselves have an unmistakable demographic profile. Gun ownership in the hands of a small fraction of the population, concentrated among older white men living in the South and Midwest. Some 50% of all guns in America, some 133 million firearms, are owned by just 3% of the population (theguardian.com). A majority of American individuals and American households are gun free. The reality is that gun fetishism is largely motivated by fear and resentment of racial and ethnic minorities and by unacknowledged perceptions of reduced social status.

Notably, gun fetishism tends to be a demographically Evangelical Protestant phenomenon. Unlike many religious traditions that offer scope for adherents to invest objects and places with special meaning, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Sufism and Theravada Buddhism are examples, Evangelical Protestantism is bereft of such focuses of attention.  So for the sort of Evangelical Protestant who attends services only at Easter and Christmas to please family members, guns may be metaphysical substitutes. Which points the way toward something helpful that families and friends worried about the individuals in their lives who have “gone to seed” about guns can do. If the unrecognized desire is for physical objects or places to invest with philosophic and political meaning, perhaps what they need is a spiritual vocation. Convincing them to spend a week mediating at an ashram in California seems out of the question for most of these troubled souls and spending a week locked into a tour of the ‘Holy Land’ would likely make the problem worse. However a week spent walking the pilgrim paths of Ireland might calm them and even restore the hope that has gone missing in their lives. Mission trips building schools in Central America are another possibility. Almost anything that shifts their attention away from the fetishes of their death cult for more than few days could help break the spell.  In absentia lucis, Tenebrae vincunt.

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Image Credit: the feature video "Identity Crisis by Michael Murphy at Truth To Power" was created by Cosmos Strauss and shared on YouTube.com.

John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.