“God Guns & Guts Made America Free”

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The gun controllers compose a diverse constituency themselves. They include tough big-city chiefs of police, Eastern liberals and assorted do-gooders with college degrees, most respondents to Harris surveys and Gallup polls, some psychiatrists, widows of slain cops, and the anonymous authors of august reports by the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, and the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals. They also include U.S. Representative John Conyers, Jr., the Detroit Democrat who, as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Crime in the Ninety-fourth Congress, held extensive hearings across the country in hopes of gathering support for a law that would have prohibited the manufacture and sale of “substandard” handguns, the so-called Saturday Night Specials.

In opening the first of those hearings in February, 1975, Chairman Conyers reflected on past frustrated efforts to enact effective legislation. The greatest obstacles, he dourly observed, were the “politically devastating lobbying activities of hunters and sportsmen, spearheaded by the National Rifle Association. … Today, there are more than 200 million Americans, 139 million of whom are of voting age. On the issue of gun control, the one million or so members of the National Rifle Association have had a staggeringly disproportionate amount of influence over the course of our federal policy.” And that influence prevailed right down to the bitter end of the Ninety-fourth Congress, at which time John Conyers’ firearms bill of 1976 was quietly buried without a floor vote in the yellow duff of election-year politics.

Meanwhile, internal rumblings were heard within the corporate body of the NRA. Despite its recent tactical victory in the Congress, there were curious rumors that certain NRA executives were “going soft” on the gut issue of gun control. It was said that the NRA brass was preparing to sell out to bird watchers and bleeding hearts. And finally there was talk of a palace revolt, if need be, to oust the offenders from office at the next annual meeting.

A singular image looms large within the national subconscious—a lone man with a rifle snugged in the crook of his arm, or a pistol in his fist. It is the Minuteman at Concord Bridge, Daniel Boone at Cumberland Gap, Jeremiah Johnson in the Shining Mountains, G’fcster at the Little BigHorn, Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill, Alvin York in the Argonne Forest, and GI Joe on the beachhead at Anzio. The weapons change, but not the nature of the man—alone, fearless, confident, doing what has to be done in a world in which ambiguity is not allowed. And out of the past he whispers a rifleman’s verity: “God, guns, and guts made America free.”

But there are other voices, darker images: Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray, young Charles Whitman perched in his tower at the University of Texas with three rifles, two pistols, one shotgun, seven hundred rounds of ammunition, and fourteen perforated human bodies on the campus lawns below him. For many Americans, the enchanted vision of the solitary gunner is shrinking fast. Yet scratch the subconscious of an NRA member and the chances are you will find yourself not in Dallas or Los Angeles or Memphis but in some place more absolute between the bridge at Concord and the bulkheads at Anzio Beach.

There was a time not long ago when I believed we had pretty much had it with guns. I mean, as a nation. Guns were getting a bad press in the sixties. And so were hunters. A friend who edited a hunting-and-fishing magazine said he was thinking of changing the magazine’s tone by eschewing traditional bag-limit lore, the literature of vicarious slaughter. Hunters are “going out less,” he explained, quoting the title of a piece by novelist Vance Bourjaily which my friend had commissioned but declined to publish for fear of antagonizing his advertisers. He needn’t have worried. For despite all the adverse publicity, the antigun sentiment, the legislative efforts to make owning a gun as difficult as possible—and however less often Bourjaily himself may be going out to hunt—the fact of the matter is that Americans are going out as often as they ever did in postwar times. Each year there are more of them, and more of their guns.