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A nation captive to The Gun

Tony Backe knelt down to light a candle at a vigil for the victims of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Jim Young/Reuters

Another mass shooting. As usual. With the usual reaction: an outpouring of eloquent indignation, as people huff and puff and wheeze and clangor themselves all the way up to the throbbing edge of doing — nothing. We all know there is nothing to be done. Consider the action proposals that have been made.

1. Eliminate mental illness. This would perhaps be doable if we were all to enter observation wards stocked with way more doctors than we have or can create (and then who would screen the screeners, as Juvenal said).

2. Eliminate terrorists. Again, maybe doable. We would just have to pick up all grumpy persons with a grudge and put them in human warehouses that we do not have.

3. Eliminate humane treatment. We might deter future attacks by torturing terrorists and killing their relatives. But we would have to show the torture on worldwide TV, and parade the dead bodies of family members in a public display.


4. Eliminate Muslims. Round them up, keep them out, hunt them down. Rewrite the Constitution. Shut down (or burn down) every mosque. That’ll teach them.

5. Eliminate political correctness. Citizen Trump says that if we just had the courage to shout a name — “Radical Islamic Terrorists” — at the enemy, he would melt like the wicked witch in “The Wizard of Oz.’’ For Trump, the one thing that has exposed us to an onslaught of killers is the fact that a weak President Obama has not pronounced the magic words.

Such weird measures are proposed since we are forbidden to consider seriously the one thing that could work — to eliminate war guns. But if all the other schemes are impossible, this one is even more out of reach. It is inconceivable.

It is politically inconceivable because too many politicians have been bought in order to keep us buying bullets. The initial purchase of a gun is not enough for the lovers of guns. When I get a blood tester for my diabetes, or a printer for my computer, I do not pay much at first. But then I have to buy tester strips and printer ink cartridges continuously. In the same way, gun aficionados absolutely love assault weapons, not for any appropriate use (in war) but for that lovely steady stream of bullets they pour out — into targets, into air, into infant flesh, it does not matter, so long as you have to keep buying lots of them. Make the magazines reach almost to the ground, hung under the gun like a curving scythe or a crescent moon. The more bullets they hold, the more they pour out, and the more you have to buy in order to renew the joy of their emission.


Eliminating war guns is also sexually inconceivable. Guns have invisible little needles that inject testosterone into the manly handlers of them.

And it is historically inconceivable — everyone knows that guns are what made this country great, taming the West, keeping up our fighting spirit, shoving sissies aside as we make our tough progress.

It is also theologically inconceivable. God gave us guns to show us who we are. Giving up the gun would be a surrender to evil, taking us abruptly into eschatological time.

So this time let us skip all the sighing and promising and moments of silence. Why keep up the pretense that we are going to take any real and practical steps toward sanity? Everyone knows we are not going to do a single damn thing. We can’t. We are captives of The Gun.

The Gun is patriotic.

The Gun is America.


The Gun is God.

Garry Wills is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University. He is the author, most recently, of “The Future of the Catholic Church with Pope Francis.’’