by David Safier
Guns are a part of U.S. history and culture, and always will be. That’s simply a fact not worth fighting about. People own guns and rifles because they feel the need for protection and because they like to use them for recreation. Some people love collecting and firing guns the way other people collect cars or old records. They’re devoted hobbyists.
But for too many people, guns have turned into sacred talismans. They have become the focus of a fanatical, borderline-religious cult. These believers carry their weapons like devout Christians carry their Bibles, and anyone who dares question their faith is considered a dangerous heretic. You either believe in the sanctity of guns fanatically and absolutely, or you’re a heathen. There is no middle ground. There is no room for discussion.
The NRA slogan, “I’ll give you my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hands!” is a call to religious martyrdom. It harkens back to the stories of Christian martyrs who, rather than denouncing their faith, died clutching their Bibles. I heard the equivalent Jewish stories told in solemn whispers by religious school teachers who talked about Jews who, when ordered to convert, died instead with the prayer, “Shema Yisrael,” on their lips.
But if we truly want to capture the essence of the call to martyrdom in the “cold, dead hands” slogan, we have to compare its adherents to fanatics who pledge themselves to a violent form of religious martyrdom. History is strewn with examples of armed religious fanatics who glory in killing “the infidels” and fully expect to die in the process. The most prevalent examples these days, of course, are the violent Islamic jihadists who martyr themselves in the name of God, vowing to kill people who are enemies of the true faith.
When Charlton Heston gave his famous “cold dead hands” speech as NRA President at the organization’s 2000 convention, he invoked the image of guns as sacred objects. (You can see a clip from the speech below.) Heston delivered his sermon in the same deep, resonant tones he used when he played Moses in The Ten Commandments. Speaking about farmers carrying rifles in times when liberty is in peril, Heston said they know “sacred stuff resides” in that gun in their hands.
Here is the “sacred stuff” passage:
“When freedom shivers in the cold shadow of true peril, it’s always the patriots who first hear the call. When loss of liberty is looming, as it is now, the siren sounds first in the heart of freedom’s vanguard. The smoke in the air of our Concord bridges and our Pearl Harbors is always smelled first by the farmers who come from their simple homes to find the fire and fight, because they know that sacred stuff resides in wooden stock and blued steel.” [boldface added]
There was a time when the NRA was basically the National Rifle Association, an organization with right wing tendencies which exerted whatever political clout it could, but had limited power and was mainly a gathering place for gun owners of varied political stripes. By 1995, though, the NRA had become so consumed with its extremist language and agenda, then-former President George H.W. Bush quit the group because it called government officials “jackbooted government thugs.” Then-President Clinton praised Bush for resigning from the organization.
Today, most politicians know that speaking ill of the NRA would be as damaging to their election chances as if they spoke out against Christmas.