I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
For me, every day of school used to start with the ritual of saying these words, hand on heart.
Except today, I would replace the “one nation under God” part with “one nation under the gun.”
It never was “one nation under God” anyhow—but that’s another sermon.
This sermon is about our present moment in American history, how it got to be that way, and what do we do now.
The New York Times writer Thomas Fuller summarizes our present moment well:
Only [a couple weeks ago] there was Buffalo, with a man driven by racism gunning down 10 people at a supermarket. The next day another angry man walked into a Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods, Calif., and killed one person and wounded five others. And now, Uvalde, Texas — a repeat of what was once thought unfathomable: the killing of at least 19 elementary school in second, third and fourth grades, [together with two teachers].
Each event, says Thomas Fuller, evokes some atrocity from the past, the exact details of each shooting growing more indistinct by the year: The latest death toll of 21 at Robb Elementary School in Texas surpasses the shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, when 17 people were killed. It falls short of the deadliest school shooting — when 26 people were killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
The misery mounts, and yet nothing changes, leaving Americans with little more to do than keep lists, mental spreadsheets of death that treat events like Uvalde as just another morbid tally with superlatives like “second-deadliest shooting in an elementary school.”
This is, says Thomas Fuller, “the repetition of horror” which “numbs the mind.”
It does that literally. For some at a distance who witness this horrible repetition of news—maybe you and definitely me—the result is what some psychologists are describing as “headline stress disorder,” which prompts feelings of powerlessness, irritability with the ones you’re closest to, as well as compassion fatigue and guilt for feeling that fatigue. Perhaps especially if you are a father or mother or parent-figure of some kind, and every day you must release your kids to go to school, where the unimaginably horrible might happen….
Others at a distance will have a very different response to this horrible repetition of gun violence news. Elliott Ackerman of The Atlantic put his finger on this recently. He writes, “In a study on mass shootings and media contagion, Jennifer Johnston, a psychology professor at Western New Mexico University, found that ‘identification with prior mass shooters made famous by extensive media coverage … is a more powerful push toward violence than mental health status or even access to guns.’” Another study found that “an individual school shooting, on average, incited 0.22 more shootings; that is, for every five school shootings, a sixth would take place that would not otherwise have occurred.” Elliott Ackerman calls this a “contagion,” and it is driven by how social and traditional media tell the gun violence stories over and over again.
Then there is this reaction to the horrible repetition: a surge in new gun purchases. It’s a well-established dynamic, and it can be explained by understanding the psychology of many (not all, but many) gun owners. The title of scholar Joseph M. Pierre’s article is illuminating: “The Psychology of Guns: Risk, Fear, and Motivated Reasoning.” He says, “[G]eneral fear of crime, independent of actual or even perceived individual risk, may be a powerful motivator for gun ownership for some…” So, when a mass shooting happens, and the story of that runs endlessly in the media, it amps up people’s fear of crime. If your preferred media outlet is something like Fox News, that fear is amped up even further by their NRA-fueled disinformation campaign that the government is about to take away everyone’s guns, and so now law-abiding “good guys”—stripped of their guns—will be completely vulnerable to the “bad guys,” whose criminality will only be emboldened even further. Put all this together, and it explains the curious response of the surge in gun sales which is always seen in the wake of mass shootings.
Finally, there is this response to the horror. The response of Republican politicians. Most if not all of them ignore the central undeniable fact that things that don’t happen anywhere else in the world happen here in America. As writer Doug Muder puts it: “Other industrialized countries also have mental illness, video games, abortion, secularism, and all the other factors NRA-sponsored politicians and pundits raise to divert attention from guns. But other wealthy countries don’t have America’s mass-shooting problem, or its gun-violence problem in general, because they don’t have America’s guns.”
Things that don’t happen anywhere else in the world are happening here in America, and we need our elected leaders to face that fact. But what did we hear instead, after the Uvalde massacre?
Let’s see. Alabama senator Tommy Tuberville (with an N.R.A. grade of an “A”) said, “I’m willing to say that I’m very sorry it happened. But guns are not the problem, OK? People are the problem.”
As for Ohio’s senator, Rob Portman? He’s graded A too.
Senator Portman didn’t even respond. Said not one word in reply.
And then there’s Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine. What he did was sign into law HB99, a bill that dramatically reduces (from 600 hours to 24) the training required for teachers and other school personnel to carry firearms in school, to help “harden” things. That’s right. Teachers are already expected to do it all with not nearly enough resources, and now here is yet another expectation: to instantaneously switch from classroom educator to expert marksman in the chaos of an active shooter situation.
Mike DeWine did this, and he also asked all Ohioans to keep the victims and their families in their thoughts and prayers.
I propose that we at West Shore engage in a little public witness activity. Each and every one of us pulls out a check. Takes out a pen. Writes out the date (June 19th). Writes “Thoughts & Prayers” in tiny letters in the amount box. Writes “Thoughts & Prayers” out again in large scale on the dollar line. And then on the “Pay to the order of” line? Write the check out to Gov. Mike DeWine, with this short post-it note attached: “I hope this donation of thoughts and prayers is as effective in your re-election campaign as it is in stopping mass shootings.”
What do you think about that?
Here we are.
One nation under the gun.
Fathers and mothers and all of us under the gun.
But why? How did we get here?
Start with our distant American past, pre-20th century. Were the seeds for today’s horror show planted long ago?
Probably the single best book on the tangled history of gun ownership and gun regulation in the United States is by Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA law school, who specializes in American constitutional law. It’s entitled Gun Fight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, and from it we learn that, first of all, there has been a long tradition of gun ownership in America. There just has. Our Founding Fathers borrowed heavily from the English Bill of Rights of the 1600s which clearly recognized “the right of having and using guns for self-preservation and defense” which was seen as “necessary to preserve the basic rights of personal security, personal liberty, and private property.”
Perhaps this is most clearly echoed in that phrase of the Second Amendment which speaks of “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” Adam Winkler quotes his colleague Don Kates, who, writing in the Michigan Law Review, shows that that phrase “the right of people,” when you look at its use throughout all the Amendments, is consistent with “individual rights.” The right of the people to bear arms means, therefore, the right of individuals. And not just for the protection of the state, but also for self-preservation.
The real kicker, though, is how state constitutions reflect the long tradition of gun ownership in America. As Adam Winkler states, “Forty-three of the fifty state constitutions contain language that clearly and unambiguously protects the rights of individuals to own guns. Several of these provisions date back to the founding.” “This right is one of the oldest and most firmly established rights in America—regardless of the Second Amendment.” That last part really pops. “Regardless of the Second Amendment.” People can’t stop talking fast enough about the Second Amendment, but even if it didn’t exist, gun rights would!
So, the long tradition of gun ownership in America is indeed real. But, side-by-side, there has also been a long tradition of gun regulation. The Second Amendment was never about the right “to keep and carry any weapon in any way whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” as Justice Antonin Scalia, in the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling on District of Columbia vs. Heller, states plainly.
So, for example, in Revolutionary times, guns could lawfully be seized by the army, whenever necessary, to mount a defense against the British. And people back then got it. No one was shouting “from my cold dead hands” with Charles Heston.
Even more interesting is the example of gun control coming from the West in the 1870s and 1880s. I’m talking about the so-called “Wild West.” Oh yes. When people think of the Wild West, Hollywood images probably pop up, of gunslingers coming into town with John Wayne swagger or Clint Eastwood intensity: guns in holsters, shootouts breaking out anytime. But that’s fantasy. Reality is how manslaughter rates in the frontier days were kept ridiculously low because of stringent controls. “In 1887, Montana banned the concealed carry of any ‘deadly weapon’ within city limits, including pistols, daggers, slingshots, and brass knuckles.” It’s a similar story for the rest of the frontier states. What this meant for your John Wayne or Clint Eastwood-style cowboy is that in the city limits, all they were packing in their holsters was air. The only time they could legally carry weapons was out there among the cows and the mountains.
That’s our history! Gun control is an American tradition too! The NRA spirit within congressmen, media pundits, and so many people in America which rages whenever the issue of gun control comes up is completely out of whack with American history. The so-called “Wild” West, because of gun control, was actually a lot safer than our world today.
So, back to the question: were the seeds of today’s horror planted in our remote past? The answer, I believe, is no. In fact, when we survey the remote past, I think what we find are seeds for hopefulness for everyone, whether they value guns or not.
To find the causes for today’s gun violence horror show, we must look closer to our present time, which historian Heather Cox Richardson outlined in the reading that Vicky gave a moment ago [see the reading, below]. As she suggests, the main cause is the federal government’s anti-racism and anti-oppression activism since the Civil War and into the 20th and 21st centuries, together with the bad reaction that a distinct minority (“Movement Conservatives”) had to all of that.
Let me say this in a way that anticipates the congregational vote on the proposed 8th Principle taking place after the service today. What I am saying is that the U. S. Government was operating from an 8th Principle place long before Unitarian Universalists came up with that language. The result was the 13th Amendment in 1865 which abolished slavery; the 15th Amendment in 1870 that expressly banned the states and U.S. government from denying citizens the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”; the 19th Amendment in 1920 that gave women the right to vote; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal plan from 1933-1939 that provided relief for the unemployed and for the poor, recovery of the economy back to normal levels, and reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and also Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society plan from the mid-1960s which had the goals of ending poverty, reducing crime, abolishing inequality and improving the environment.
All of these initiatives, and many more—all 8th Principle in spirit—felt like an assault to “Movement Conservative” Americans who insisted on the supremacy of whiteness and maleness and opposed social justice, equality, and diversity. So, they crafted a story, a story meant to outrage and to appall, to agitate and cause alarm: this story: how the “bad guys” are coming to take away what you’ve worked hard to earn, and your only line of defense as one of the “good guys” is the handgun/shotgun/AK-47 in your hands. “Bad” means whoever threatens the supremacy of white and male. “Good” means whoever upholds the supremacy of white and male no matter what your skin color or gender orientation might happen to be.
And life? Life is like a shootout in Hollywood’s Wild West, as in any John Wayne western.
It’s a Big Lie–and Ronald Reagan was very successful with his version of it, which equated the federal government with the “bad guys.” Remember how he would say, “The nine most terrifying words of the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help”? It was sheer gaslighting though: I mean, that list of 8thPrinciple developments in American history I just went through—all the Amendments to the Constitution, all the plans that have made America a kinder and more just nation—these are all examples of how the government has been working—working stupendously well. But against the direct evidence of their senses, Reagan got millions of people to believe that the government is something to resent and fear—and they voted against their own best interests then and they still are.
Fear and grievance are at the core. The “bad guys” are elitist bullies. The NRA has been a central player in continuing to spin out the story of the “bad guys coming to get the good guys.” The gun industry too, in the way they stoke fear, machismo, and defiance. Then there’s right-wing pundits like Tucker Carlson and media outlets like Fox News that keep on hyping up so-called Replacement Theory which feeds the economic and existential fears of the “good guys.”
And then there is Trumpism, which is part of the puzzle too, culminating in the astonishing and terrible events of January 6, 2021 at the Capitol.
Fear at the core, and grievance. Fear and grievance that seem to have taken on a life of their own. Millions feeling this but only a very few understanding that the origin story was a Big Lie, invented at a specific time in our history by a small number of powerful and wealthy people with the purpose of dividing and conquering our American nation. They are looting this country while the rest of us—gun haters and gun lovers who are all coming from some place of fear combined with resentment—fight amongst ourselves.
One nation under the gun is a nation that is deluded in thinking that guns are the disease, rather than a key symptom of the disease.
Don’t get me wrong: there are of course things that must be done regarding guns.
1. We must reclaim an awareness of real American history and its simultaneous long traditions of gun ownership and gun regulations. We need to reclaim both, knowing that the two really can co-exist well together—which is at the same time a rejection of the NRA’s fearmongering and its fake version of American history.
2. We must protect ourselves from “headline stress disorder” and the helplessness and compassion fatigue it creates in us. We need to take breaks from the news now and again. We must take care of our souls. We are in this for the long haul.
3. We must acknowledge the contagion effect that results when traditional and social media endlessly tell gun violence stories, make mass murderers famous, and thereby inspire future mass murders. The news needs to stop glorifying the violence!
4. When we can, we must vote the politicians out whose commitments run contrary to what is best for America.
All of this and more.
But above all, we must put our finger on the real, underlying issue that today’s horror story of gun violence is but the symptom of: a Big Lie, invented in the 1960s and 70s and 80s, about bad guys vs. good guys, inspiring outrage and fear in the masses, which has taken on a life of its own–so completely that millions of people can’t even see what’s right before their eyes anymore, and they vote against their own interests and they would help destroy the very democracy that has gifted them with so many precious things.
There is a law called Brandolini’s Law–do you know it? It says, “The amount of energy needed to refute bull**** is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”
As we look to the future, that’s where a truly significant part of the work lies. To set free minds and hearts that are captive to the fear and grievance-based “good guys vs. bad guys” lie. It is pure bull. But the amount of energy needed to refute bull**** is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”
This will not be easy. I don’t know how long this will take. But we must figure out a way to expose the Big Lie and tell a better story—one that serves all of America and not just a small group of insiders animated by racism and greed.
We must figure out a way.
We, citizens of this one nation who aspire to be free from the burden of gun violence.
May all that is holy be with us in this venture.
THE READING BEFORE THE SERMON
Our reading today comes from historian Heather Cox Richardson, who shares some historical perspective on guns in America:
In 1931, amid fears of bootlegger gangs, the [National Rifle Association] backed federal legislation to limit concealed weapons; prevent possession by criminals, the mentally ill and children; to require all dealers to be licensed; and to require background checks before delivery. It backed the 1934 National Firearms Act, and parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act, designed to stop what seemed to be America’s hurtle toward violence in that turbulent decade.
But in the mid-1970s, a faction in the NRA forced the organization away [from what had been its main focus–on sports–] and toward opposing “gun control.” It formed a political action committee … in 1975, and two years later it elected an organization president who abandoned sporting culture and focused instead on “gun rights.”
This was the … thing that led us to where we are today: leaders of the NRA embraced the politics of Movement Conservatism, the political movement that rose to combat the business regulations and social welfare programs that both Democrats and Republicans embraced after World War II. Movement Conservatives embraced the myth of the American cowboy as a white man standing against the “socialism” of the federal government as it sought to level the economic playing field between Black Americans and their white neighbors. Leaders like Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater personified the American cowboy, with his cowboy hat and opposition to government regulation, while television Westerns showed good guys putting down bad guys without the interference of the government.
In 1972, the Republican platform had called for gun control to restrict the sale of “cheap handguns,” but in 1975, as he geared up to challenge President Gerald R. Ford for the 1976 presidential nomination, Movement Conservative hero Ronald Reagan took a stand against gun control. In 1980, the Republican platform opposed the federal registration of firearms, and the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate—Reagan—for the first time.
When President Reagan took office, a new American era, dominated by Movement Conservatives, began. And the power of the NRA over American politics grew.