Confessions of a Former Gun-Worshipper

First confession: I used to have a thing for guns.

Because guns meant men, power, danger, and love. 

Guns meant legendary rifle-carrying Revolutionary War-fighting ancestors, posses of Okie great-grandfathers riding the line between outlaw and volunteer lawman, and Johnny Cash look-alike uncles. They meant chuckling tales of misspent shotgun cartridges traded by friends of Johnny Cash look-alike uncles at family funerals. Grandfathers who special-ordered assault rifles to keep in their homes in the Los Angeles suburbs—just because they could, and just because someone might think that they shouldn’t. And, once in a long while, guns meant a drive into the manzanita-thicketed Southern California foothills with Dad to aim into the dusty hillsides.

Guns were what boys got to do. More precisely: guns were what sons got to do.

How could I not have a thing for guns?

Second confession: I no longer have a thing for guns.

Yes, Newtown had something to do with it. But I have more private reasons as well. Suffice it to say, I sat up one morning last month and said, yes, I’m all done with guns now. Not interested. In any way, shape, or form.

And my conversion—or is it a deconversion?—has made me think more seriously about the reverence in which guns are held in this country.

It’s something I’ve known intellectually, of course. I’ve read my Richard Slotkin. I know, as he writes in Gunfighter Nation (1992) that one of our greatest national myths holds that “violence is an essential and necessary part of the process through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are defended and enforced.”

What I’ve only realized lately is the extent to which the sacralization of guns by the gun lobby has made it nearly impossible to have a sober, data-based public conversation about gun policy—blocking even the collection of data on gun violence, as Tom Diaz of the Violence Policy Center explained here last month.

We’re all waiting, of course, to hear what Vice President Joe Biden will say next Tuesday as he presents the findings of his gun task force. You can bet there will be something about closing the now infamous “gun show” loophole that allows for nearly 40% of gun purchases to proceed without a background check, as well something about reinstating bans on assault weapons—like the weapon used at Sandy Hook elementary. Maybe Vice President Biden will also underscore an obvious national need for better mental health screening and treatment.

But also needed is a broader conversation about the sacred halo many Americans—including me—have bestowed on guns and gun ownership.

Like all religions, gun worship deserves a healthy dose of critical thinking.

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.