Why (Some) Americans Love Guns


Charles Bronson, “Death Wish 2”

Today I rerun a post that originally came out following the Tucson, Arizona shooting almost two years ago, and it’s depressing that it feels as though it could have been written yesterday. I’ve deliberately chosen not to update it to make that point.

Will we once again return to business as usual after the shock over Sandy Hook has subsided? We can hope this time will be different–people talk about a threshold being crossed–but that remains to be seen. The post features a poem by my father that attempts to understand the psychology of America’s gun fanatics. He has a front row seat for his observations, living as he does in gun-mad Tennessee.

Polls show that while most Americans favor stricter gun laws, there is fervent opposition among a significant number of white men and non-college whites. Often in these cases we appear to be witnessing atavistic fears that are beyond reasoning. Combined with the shock of a black president, these may arise from historical memories of prospective slave uprisings or Indian attacks. Complicating some of the imagery in the poem below, where the gun becomes equated with the phallus, is the fact that it was apparently the mother (and first victim) of the Sandy Hook killer who was the source of his weapons. Apparently she was an enthusiastic automatic weapon owner who would take her disturbed son to the firing range.

Reposted from February 2, 2011

Following the Columbine High School shootings, outrage against permissive gun laws led, not to tougher gun laws, but to pushback by the National Rifle Association.  The NRA went on to help George W. Bush squeak by Albert Gore in the 2000 elections and has since become so bold that the 2006 Congress was afraid to extend the 1986 ban on machine guns and large ammunition clips.  When Barack Obama was elected president, gun sales in America went through the roof. Ready accessibility and an inadequate system of security checks meant that a mentally unstable Jared Loughner could buy the glock he used to gun down his victims at the Tucson shopping center.

The following poem by my father looks at some of the psychological reasons for America’s love affair with guns. It is as angry a poem as I have seen him write, which is noteworthy since we in the United States seem to have become as fatalistic about mass shootings are we are about, say, auto accidents.  The President didn’t even mention gun control in his State of the Union address.

“Ballad of the National Rifle Association” was “triggered” by an ad in Gun World that appeals to a sexualized urge to power.  In the poem we are treated to multiple fantasies and fears: macho displays of supremacy, erotic dreams of manly sexual performance, imagined Hollywood scenarios of protecting our virginal daughters as we cleanse the world of the urban “putrefaction,” revenge fantasies against chaotic nature and against our parents (the Pentheus mentioned in the poem is Euripides’ uptight control freak who is torn apart by his Dionysus-crazed mother), utopian visions of a new Jerusalem established by a militarized America that is very good at “winging rockets,” whether at enemies or at the moon. (“It’s natural the boys should whoop it up for so huge a phallic triumph,” W. H. Auden has written about the moon landing.) The poem was written in the 1990’s but is impressively prescient given how commonplace apocalyptic language has become among many gun-toting enthusiasts.

The poem appears in the my father’s collection The ZYX of Political Sex (Highlander Research and Education Center, 1999)so expect the language to be explicit.  Incidentally, Lucille Thornburgh, to whom the poem is dedicated, was a longtime union activist.

Here’s the poem:

Ballad of the National Rifle Association

By Scott Bates

In memory of Lucille Thornburgh, dedicated worker for social justice, who liked this poem.

“For your shooting satisfaction . . .”
–from an ad in Gun World

Pistol small arm handgun gun
Trooper Trailsman Frontier Scout
Smith & Wesson Remington
Combat Cobra Knockabout
Browning Sheridan Colt Snap-Out
Single-six and Double-action
Give you shooting satisfaction.

Pistol short arm peter prick
Rod avenger redmeat dong
Johnnie joystick reamer dick
Dummy fixer hicky prong
Swinging sirloin two feet long
Have a similar attraction
Every boy can be King Kong
With a shooting satisfaction.

Pistol-heist her hunt her down
Line her up and ream her right
Ride her home get off your gun
Shag her shoot her up tonight
Jump her hump her out of sight
Whang her bang her get your action
Fill her full of dynamite
For your shooting satisfaction.

Pistol Po-lice save your pity
For the dirty rotten hood
Gun him down in Inner City
Like they do in Hollywood
Save your daughter’s maidenhood
And pulverize the putrefaction
Trash him baby trash him good
For your shooting satisfaction.

Pistol Pentheus git yer maw
Afore she tears you limb from limb
Beat yer pappy to the draw
And incidentally get him
The sonavabitch who wants yer skin
To add it to his rug collection
Blast yer pappy Jungle Jim
Fer yer shootin’ satisfaction.

Pistol Patriot shoot your wad
The world the moon your mouth your brother
Build Jerusalem by God
Winging rockets at each other
Love your country like a mother
Love your enemy dog-fashion
Love your neighbor till he smother
In your shooting satisfaction.


Pistol pirate cool tycoon
Do us all a benefaction
Go take a flying fuck at the moon
For our shooting satisfaction!

The poem gets me thinking about Obama’s observation during the 2008 campaign about Pennsylvania lower and lower-middle class voters who have become disillusioned and bitter and who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” He was attacked, with some reason, for being elitist and patronizing: after all, instead of identifying with voters he was analyzing them–and, to make matters worse, doing so before a liberal San Francisco audience. (In his defense, he was a young intelligent black man bewildered by the fury that was being directed against him and was attempting to come up with an explanation.)

At the risk of being just as patronizing, I think he was right about the guns and the xenophobia if not necessarily about the religion: I too see many people’s love of guns as an expression of powerlessness against stagnating incomes and broken government promises. Like Obama I think we should blame those who cynically exploit the fears and frustrations rather than the people themselves.  The poem helps us better understand why gun symbolism is so potent that gun companies, politicians, demagogues and talk show hosts can take full advantage of it.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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