Has the gun become a sacred object in America?

Gun Rights


For 10 years after 9/11, James Strickland fought for the United States Army, slogging, rifle on shoulder, from battlefield to battlefield.

He took and returned fire, he says, for not just a country, but an idea – that America had God’s special blessing. “I used a gun for a living to enforce that idea,” he says.

As the U.S. endures a wave of gun violence, it sometimes seems to him as if the war has come home. In 2021, active shooter incidents increased 52% over 2020, according to the FBI. This weekend, mass shootings in Pennsylvania and South Carolina added to casualties in Buffalo, New York; Uvalde, Texas; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

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Why We Wrote This

Gun rights supporters see a righteous cause in defending liberty through the object of a firearm. Gun control advocates see an “idolatry of the gun” that elevates a weapon over human life. Both frame the debate in almost religious terms.

To Mr. Strickland, the gun is not the problem. Firearms, he says, only enforce ideas. “I don’t see it as a totem,” he says. But he thinks it may be salvation for a society that, at least to him, seems determined to drum Christian faith out of the public square.

In the decade since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, that perspective has helped drive the guns debate toward an almost religious tone – that of a battle between good and evil that goes well beyond good or bad policy. For a small group of Americans and religious leaders, the more access to firearms has become a moral question, the more defending them has become a righteous cause in defense of the freedom to protect America’s virtues.

For gun control advocates, also including religious leaders, meanwhile, the more guns have become an almost consecrated object, the more complicated it’s become to pass legislation that an overwhelming majority of Americans support in the form of red flag laws and universal background checks.

“People don’t actually think that the rifle is sacred, but what the rifle stands for is sacred,” says Wake Forest University sociologist David Yamane, author of “Concealed Carry Revolution.” “When they look at their gun they see freedom, independence, and the righteousness of God in allowing America to be what it is.”

Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP/File

Mark Pritchard of Gatesville, Texas, and his son, Devin, bow their heads in prayer at the beginning of the “Protect the Second Amendment” rally at City Hall in Austin, Texas, on June 2, 2018. About 150 people, many of them carrying handguns or rifles, gathered outside City Hall to listen to speakers and voice their support of Second Amendment rights.

In less than a decade, researchers have noted a new depth to the “God and guns” archetype. More and more gun owners are imbuing their rifles with symbolic strength tied to a narrow but powerful strain of Christian and conservative identity. They are displayed reverentially on social media. They are hefted proudly at protests. They are marketed to children. 

“Guns have become more than just a tool,” says Eastern Kentucky University philosopher Michael Austin, author of “God and Guns in America.” 

For example, since January, more than 100 political ads have shown Republican candidates posing with firearms as shorthand for their conservative – and in some cases Christian – credentials. Those two are becoming harder to separate. In the past 20 years, the NRA’s magazine “American Rifleman” has increased its religious appeals, using phrases like “God-given” and “God bless” almost twice as often since the turn of the century. 

For many gun owners, firearms ownership goes beyond self-protection, sport, and discouraging government tyranny, all of which are tied into America’s constitutional covenant of independence and personal liberty. As Florida gun owner Miguel Gonzalez writes in an email: “Guns were part of the DNA of [the] future Nation before the concept existed.” 

The number of single-issue gun voters is relatively small – about 16 million Americans, says Robert Spitzer, professor emeritus of political science at the State University of New York College at Cortland. But almost all of those are ardent supporters of gun rights, he says, and almost all would oppose any gun control laws. 

Objects as political symbols

In the U.S., growing distrust in institutions, including church, is creating personal iterations of faith, belief, and societal order, often attached to symbols like flags, masks, and weapons – often with a particularly political goal.

That situation is highlighting what Professor Yamane calls an “odd unevenness … a country that is at once very violent and extraordinarily peaceful.”

The rise of the gun as a symbol of Christian identity and conservative identity comes at the intersection of tectonic secular and religious trends. 

2020 marked the first year where a majority of Americans said they no longer belonged to a church, according to Gallup. That 47% was down from about 70% in the decades prior. Meanwhile, an estimated 81.4 million Americans own guns, according to the 2021 National Firearms Survey, with a record 22.8 million guns sold in 2020. 

While hunting has been on a long decline, sport shooting, collecting, and self-defense – boosted by Supreme Court decisions since 2008’s D.C. v. Heller established a constitutional right to private gun ownership – has grown exponentially. 

The arsenal is making the country bristle. In recent years, armed people have shown up to large protests, changing the dynamics of free speech. For the first time in U.S. history, more children die from gun injuries a year than any other cause. 

Meanwhile, many gun owners see rising crime as an effect of liberalized policies around bail and imprisonment, embodied this week in the recall movement of San Francisco’s progressive district attorney.

Michael Arellano/AP/File

The “Oregon for Trump 2020 Labor Day Cruise Rally” at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, Oregon, Sept. 7, 2020. Gun ownership is a question that has dogged Christians for years, but conservative Christians are increasingly answering “yes.”

Is “gun idolatry” a threat?

On the other hand, Bishop Daniel Flores of the Brownsville Diocese in Texas recently wrote on Twitter that Americans “sacralize death’s instruments, and then are surprised that death uses them.” 

The good of the whole community gets left out of the discussion, Bishop Flores told the Catholic website The Pillar, “when we’ve … elevated the individual right beyond proportion. … To say something is sacralized is to say it’s almost taken out of any possibility for conversation.”

Some observers on the right also see a threat – not from gun control advocates, but the gun community itself. “The threat is gun idolatry, a form of gun fetish that’s fundamentally aggressive, grotesquely irresponsible, and potentially destabilizing to American democracy,” writes David French, a veteran, lawyer, and evangelical Christian, in The Dispatch.

Social researchers show some causal effect. As Americans segregate along political, racial, and religious lines, more and more faith is being put in the gun. Since the sunsetting of an assault rifle ban in 2004, the number of AR-15 type rifles in American citizens’ hands has soared to 20 million. Marketers have paid heed.

Daniel Defense, the Black Creek, Georgia, company that sold the rifle used on May 24 to kill 19 grade schoolers and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, earlier in May posted a photo of a toddler with an AR-15 on his lap, with the biblical caption, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” 

The National Rifle Association has long understood the power of religious messaging. Indeed, “you would get a far better understanding if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world,” the NRA’s executive vice president, Warren Cassidy, once said.

“They’ve kind of created this monster, as it were, organized around the gun as a political totem,” says Professor Spitzer.

Such attitudes have taken an increasingly deeper hold, especially since 2015, sociologists who study the intersection of the Second Amendment and U.S. society have noted. To be sure, active churchgoers tend to have fewer guns, suggesting that strong communities create a sense of safety and security for members. 

But when they ask about “gun empowerment,” researchers found that the relationship with weapons is rooted in gender, race, religiosity, political views, gun use, and economic distress. And the attachment cannot be explained entirely by regional, religious, or political cultures. It’s a way to reestablish a sense of individual power and moral certitude, which in turn affects opinions about gun action and policy.

“What our data shows is there … are groups of people who feel extremely attached to their guns,” says Texas sociologist Paul Froese, director of the Baylor Religion Surveys. “Having a gun made them feel more a part of their community – and a more important person in their community. So the gun becomes … a symbol of manhood, being a good person. In that way, it takes on kind of a mystical, almost sacred quality to it.” 

Around 2015, those attitudes began to meld with what researchers call Christian nationalism, fueled by the candidacy and then presidency of President Donald Trump, who wielded biblical symbols even though he only occasionally attended church.

“[President] Trump … made it blatantly obvious that this had little to do with being personally religious,” says Indiana University sociologist Andrew Whitehead, co-author of “Taking America Back For God.” Instead, so-called Christian nationalism is “a cultural expression of Christianity fused with American civic identity, [signaling] a comfort with a society that is hierarchical along gender, sexuality, and ethno-racial boundaries.

Ted S. Warren/AP/File

An attendee at a gun rights rally open carries his gun in a holster that reads “We the People” from the Preamble to the United States Constitution, Jan. 18, 2019, at the Capitol in Olympia, Washington.

Many gun owners detect in the “idolatry of the gun” narrative a false note intended to delegitimize the Second Amendment and demonize gun owners ahead of attempts to regulate guns.

Mr. Gonzalez, the Florida gun owner, traces his attachment to firearms to his family’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War, the Cuban Revolution, and gun restrictions in his native Venezuela. 

“We do not pray or light candles to any type of weapon just like a biker does not kneel in front of a Harley or a car aficionado genuflects at the sight of an original Shelby Cobra,” writes Mr. Gonzalez, the founder of the tongue-in-cheek-named Gun Free Zone blog. “The ‘article of faith is written’ in the Second Amendment of the Constitution and the ‘gospel’ is the historic precedents here and abroad where unarmed people were massacred by either the government or civilians who had the privilege to be armed.” 

As such, many gun owners say the fear around sacralized weaponry is overblown. The vast majority of people who own guns, who have a concealed carry permit or live in one of 25 states with “constitutional carry” protection, don’t walk around armed. As gun restrictions have lifted over the last two decades, a much-feared everyone-for-themselves Wild West society has not emerged, they say.

“Most people don’t walk into a gun store thinking, ‘This is how I’m going to express myself, how I’m going to demonstrate my freedom, how I’m going to support certain candidates I like,’” says Dan Zimmerman, a Texas gun owner and managing editor of The Truth About Guns blog. “That doesn’t diminish the original intent of the Second Amendment, which was a protection against tyranny … and plenty of people still view [guns] that way.” 

That viewpoint suggests that the brand of Second Amendment absolutism detected by social scientists isn’t an automatic fait accompli for gun rights.

“We’re looking at really a very complex relationship between different dimensions of religiosity and gun ownership, and it’s not all in one direction,” says Mr. Yamane, at Wake Forest.

Even Mr. Gonzalez acknowledges that religious understanding does have a role to play in that debate. Does America really have a problem with guns? Or is the problem a lack of faith and communal care that leaves vulnerable people isolated, resentful, and prone to violence?

By blaming the sacralizing of weapons, he says, critics “fail to see the irony [created] by assigning an almost evil intent to the inanimate object rather than seeking and healing what ails the soul of those who use the object to commit evil …,” says Mr. Gonzalez. “It is the equivalent of blaming the cross for the Crucifixion of our Lord.”

Rick Bowmer/AP/File

Marius Annandale kneels while praying during a Second Amendment gun rights rally at the Utah State Capitol, March 27, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

In Congress, a bipartisan working group is crafting a gun control package centered on red flag laws. Those use emergency orders attached to strong due process to let authorities focus on individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others, rather than trying to control larger groups of people. Thousands of guns have been surrendered and often returned under such laws, including in gun-friendly Florida. 

The Supreme Court is expected to release a sweeping ruling on a gun-permitting case out of New York by the end of this month. But that is unlikely to leave gun ownership and gun carry without regulation.

“I would say that [absolutist] view is either nonexistent or extremely uncommon among anyone who has thought about these matters in a serious way,” says Nelson Lund, a professor of constitutional law at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School. 

Yes, rights “to keep [and bear] … arms are indisputably in the Constitution, [leaving] an awful lot of questions about how far the government can go in putting limits on that right.” 

Still, he says, what observers may call absolutism isn’t really absolute. “When there are these serious political disputes, people are naturally going to come to different conclusions about how to fill in the blanks left by the vagueness of the Second Amendment.” 

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