Another week and another appalling mass shooting in the US. And on the Fourth of July of all days. In this case, early reports indicate that at least six people were killed, and thirty people were injured, when a lone gunman opened fire on people taking part in an Independence Day parade, using a high-powered rifle from the rooftop of a nearby business. The killings occurred in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park.
An “American tradition”?
Monday’s shocking mass shooting was simply the latest in a long line of such events in the US. Recent mass shootings include the school attack in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two teachers were murdered; and the gunning down of 10 Black shoppers at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York.
Within 12 hours of the Highland Park deaths, two police officers were shot and wounded in Philadelphia. This occurred as large numbers celebrated a Fourth of July concert and fireworks display there. So far, there has been one mass shooting in every week of 2022 in the US. Following Monday’s deaths, the governor of Illinois, Jay Robert Pritzker, commented that mass shootings were becoming an “American tradition.” It is a chilling and accurate comment.
The latest data indicates that 1.5 million Americans died from gunshot wounds between 1968 and 2017. This number of fatalities is higher than the total number of US soldiers killed in every conflict since the American War of Independence in 1775. Given the latest atrocity on the Fourth of July, this statistic is particularly chilling.
In 2020, the number of those killed by guns rose so high that it represented a 25% increase from 2015, and a massive 43% increase compared with 2010. This surge in gun-related deaths during the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic may have been related to the stress and frictions of that extraordinary period, but was part of an overall upward trajectory that is certainly not explainable by that event alone.
Tackling the gun epidemic in the US is made massively complex by the number of guns in circulation. In 2018, a Swiss-based research project (the Small Arms Survey) estimated that there were 120.5 firearms per 100 residents in the US! After the US was Yemen, with 52.8, then Serbia with 39.1.
This reveals something of the scale of gun culture in the US. And the phenomenon is growing. A recent report by the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 7.5 million US adults became new gun owners between January 2019 and April 2021. This constituted just under 3% of the population.
The gun culture (as revealed in gun ownership and shootings) is both rooted in, and has amplified, the severely polarised nature of US culture and politics.
The killings at Highland Park occurred a week after President Biden signed the first significant federal bill on gun safety in almost 30 years. This legislation – based on rare bipartisan support – will impose tougher checks on young buyers of weapons. It also encourages states to remove guns from people considered a threat.
While hailed as a welcome step in the right direction, it was hardly a decisive or comprehensive response to the gun violence which has become ingrained in US society. That such limited reform could be so positively acclaimed is a testimony to the usual and dismal state of US politics in which gun control is so difficult to achieve.
As significant, but in the opposite direction, was the decision of the Supreme Court on 23 June to strike down a New York law which restricted gun-carrying rights. It was the court’s most important judgment regarding guns in over a decade. The highly influential National Rifle Association (NRA) celebrated the judgment. The NRA is closely aligned with Republicans, a feature of the highly politicised nature of the US gun debate.
Just one week later, on 30 June, the Supreme Court followed up on this earlier ruling by throwing out several lower court rulings which had upheld gun restrictions. These included bans on assault-style rifles in Maryland and the use of large-capacity ammunition magazines (an assistance to anyone carrying out a large mass shooting) in New Jersey and California.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the case of New York and guns came one day before its striking down of Roe v Wade on 24 June. Based on the same 6/3 split of ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ on the court, the juxtaposition of the two decisions caused one commentator to remark that in the US, “Life begins at fertilization and ends in a school mass shooting.”
The so-called ‘originalist’ legal position – that noted the lack of abortion rights in the constitution (1787) and lack of specific privacy rights in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) – does not consider that the Second Amendment’s assertion of “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” (1791) only applies to the carrying of muskets.
Clearly ‘originalism’ has a rather limited way of approaching the ‘original’ intention of the US Constitution when it comes to guns at least. In 1791, assault rifles that can turn one person into a small army were not on anyone’s mind. But now it seems like owning one is the constitutional right of modern Americans. And that is before one considers that the wording of the 1791 amendment arguably referred to the weaponry of a “well regulated Militia” rather than anyone having military grade hardware at home (or on the streets).
God and guns?
Only last weekend, as a commentator on US culture and politics, I was doing a ‘Twitter-trawl’ of US-related comments when I was suddenly struck by a person’s Twitter descriptor. It read “God, family and guns”. For a moment, I thought I was reading a piece of dark irony and comment on the state of US culture. But, of course, I wasn’t. This is the US in 2022. The description was for real.
Anyone who has explored the nature of modern US politics will be aware of the way that support for gun ownership (and opposition to gun control) is part of the cocktail of political issues which is supported by the religious right within the evangelical community there. One study of the growth of its influence in Republican politics in the early 21st century, noted that, beyond the core of politically active conservative evangelicals, there existed a further 35 million voters who might be mobilized over a specific issue such as abortion or opposition to gun control. Once again, the two issues (totally separate for any evangelical in the UK) are deeply connected in a peculiarly American way.
What this illustrates is the combination of factors that have come to define the opposing sides in the current ‘culture wars’ that divide the US. This gives the evangelical position there a highly peculiar character, since it combines issues (like abortion) which cause concern for many Christians globally (even if they do not adopt as extreme a political and legislative position as the evangelical community in the US) with ones (such as opposition to climate change action and gun control) which certainly don’t command widespread support among evangelicals elsewhere. And on which many other evangelicals would adopt a diametrically opposite position. It is this that makes ‘reading’ the US so hard for many evangelicals in the UK and elsewhere.
President Trump was very aware of this, knowing that his inaction on gun control (by no means unique to his presidency) was approved of by those possessing a deep individualistic antipathy towards the ‘liberal’ federal state, as well as the more extreme of the evangelical right who are ready to oppose worldly government in an end-times conflict. While campaigning in Ohio, in August 2020, Trump denounced Biden as being against God and guns! Many evangelicals in the audience would have approved of the casual and instinctive inclusion of guns. Most of the rest of us are appalled.
It is a characteristic that has become one of the defining features of what can only be described as ‘armed Christian nationalists’, who now make up a significant section of the evangelical community in the US. Data from the 2020 Cooperative Election Study revealed that 33% of white evangelicals owned a gun. This compared with about 25% of mainline Protestants, 17% of atheists, 17% of non-white evangelicals, 11% of Jews and 9% of Muslims.
The white evangelicals clearly stand out, although there is some comfort provided by the thought that two thirds don’t own a gun. Nevertheless, those that do occupy a significant position within the group. Other studies show that, overall, white evangelicals are some of the strongest supporters of gun rights.
This is rooted in some distinctive American cultural characteristics. These include an attitude towards the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution (and its Amendments) which seem to elevate them to something approaching ‘holy writ’ – a position that, to many outsiders, sits uncomfortably with a community that also venerates the only ‘holy writ’ common to Christians (ie the Bible).
This sacralisation of US cultural documents is at the root of much which separates US evangelicals from evangelicals elsewhere. Alongside this is a veneration of the individual over the collective, which often presents guns as the ultimate defender of that ‘liberty’ – even when the same guns are contributing to a death toll which sets the US apart from all other comparable nations.
At the same time, this has been combined with a sense of beleaguerment that regards federal interference as instinctively hostile. Such an outlook of being besieged no doubt also explains a propensity to accept conspiracy theories about the ‘stolen 2020 election’ among many within this same demographic; and even support for armed insurrection promulgated by a minority. Ownership of guns plays a key role within such an outlook. It should also be noted that this involves white evangelicals to a greater extent than any other group, since Black Protestant churches have been at the forefront of gun control movements.
To most outside the US it seems clear that the relationship between white evangelicals and guns constitutes a virtual ‘cult of guns’. Arguably, it accompanies a ‘cult of the US Constitution and its Second Amendment’. Such elevations of human creations are an alarming feature of aspects of the modern and highly polarised US. It is time to break the appalling connection between faith in God and the ‘cult of guns’.
Martyn Whittock is an evangelical historian and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As the author, or co-author, of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for several print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio news exploring the interaction of faith and politics; appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA; and recently has been interviewed regarding the war in Ukraine, including its religious dimensions. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia’s Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021) and The Story of the Cross (2021). He has just completed Apocalyptic Politics (2022 forthcoming), which examines apocalyptic beliefs driving political radicalisation across global cultures.