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One Nation Under Guns

How Gun Culture Distorts Our History and Threatens Our Democracy

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Hardcover
$28.00 US
On sale Jan 30, 2024 | 288 Pages | 978-0-593-59431-5
This “brilliant and gut-wrenching” (The New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice) takedown of American gun culture argues that the nation’s founders did not intend the Second Amendment to guarantee an individual right to bear arms—and that this distortion of the record is an urgent threat to democracy.

“At once eye-opening and enraging, One Nation Under Guns is that rare book that can help change the way we live in this country.”—Eddie S. Glaude Jr., bestselling author of Begin Again

More than a hundred lives are lost to firearms every day in America. The cost is more than the numbers—it is the fear, the anxiety, the dread of public spaces that an armed society has created under the tortured rubric of freedom. But the norms of today are not the norms of American history or the values of its founders. They are the product of a gun culture that has imposed its vision on a sleeping nation.

Historian Dominic Erdozain argues that we have wrongly ceded the big-picture argument on guns: As we parse legislation on background checks and automatic-weapons bans, we fail to ask what place guns should have in a functioning democracy. Taking readers on a brilliant historical journey, Erdozain shows how the founders feared the tyranny of individuals as much as the tyranny of kings—the idea that any person had a right to walk around armed was anathema to their notion of freedom and the peaceful republic they hoped to build. They wrote these ideas into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, ideas that were subsequently affirmed by two centuries of jurisprudence.

And yet the twin scourges of racism and nationalism would combine to create a darker American vision—a rogue and reckless freedom based on birth and blood. It was this freedom, not the liberty promised by the Constitution, that generated our modern gun culture, with its mystic conceptions of good guys and bad guys, innocence and guilt. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court reinvented the Second Amendment in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, an opinion that Erdozain convincingly eviscerates, many Americans had already acceded to the fiction: the unfreedom of an armed society. To save our democracy, he argues, we must fight for the founders’ true idea of what it means to be free.
Chapter 1

The Myth of the Law-­Abiding Citizen

I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.

—­Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Richard Venola was a pillar of the gun culture—­a retired U.S. Marine who wrote a fiery column for Guns & Ammo magazine, having previously served as editor. Venola was a vivid and engaging writer, expert at drawing the reader into the zip and terror of a shoot. He loved to dispel stereotypes about the “bitter, clinging types” of the gun community, tirelessly asserting the claims of the gun owner as “a person of substance and responsibility.”

Venola was not merely a defender of gun rights: he was an evangelist—­a restless advocate of firearms-­as-­citizenship, and the importance of supporting organizations such as the NRA. In an absorbing piece on “Empowering the Euros,” Venola described the pleasure of teaching European travelers how to shoot, and the confidence that the experience generated in the tourists. Coaching a Dutchman into the “John Wayne position,” Venola described the transformation “evident in the eyes” of the visitor as he began to master a semiautomatic rifle. “It was almost as if an aroma of personal independence was drifting over him instead of oil smoke coming off the barrel,” he wrote.

“So much power,” marveled the Dutchman. “And anyone can own one of these?”

“Yes,” Venola responded, “and they should if they have not committed a felony and are not crazy. This,” he added, “is what keeps our politicians from getting rid of the Bill of Rights.”

Such was the theory. On a warm night in 2012, Venola shot and killed a neighbor after an evening of high spirits. James O’Neill was unarmed and facing away from Venola’s house when Venola shot him in the shoulder, killing him as the bullet passed through the heart. The men were friends and had spent the evening drinking before the amity dissolved in a haze of liquor. Venola claimed that O’Neill had turned to grab a weapon from his house, and that his life was in danger. He had killed in self-­defense.

State prosecutor Rod Albright disagreed. “An extremely drunk man shot a friend in the heart,” said Albright. “That’s murder.” “He had so many possible options,” Albright advised the jury when the case came to trial. “Did he need to use deadly force?”

Perhaps not. But the law was on Venola’s side. The state of Arizona allows a resident to use deadly force if they believe their life is being threatened—­“believe” being the operative word. Venola’s state of intoxication did not impair his credentials under that heading. The prosecution needed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he had not acted in self-­defense, which was impossible when the only eyewitness was dead. When successive juries failed to reach a verdict, Venola walked. Exhausted and relieved, he said the process had restored his faith in American justice. How would the saga feed into the national debate on firearms? wondered a reporter. “That’s a little over my head,” demurred Venola. “People on both sides are going to infer what they want. All I know is that I’m alive.”

The killing of James O’Neill was the classic American homicide: starting with an argument and ending with a bullet. O’Neill was just one of the hundred lives lost to firearms every day in America. The cost is more than the numbers. It is the fear, the anxiety, the dread of public spaces that an armed society has created under the tortured rubric of freedom.

It does not have to be this way.

The norms of today are not the norms of American history or the values of the founders. They are the product of a gun culture that has, for now, won its battle with the Constitution and imposed its vision on a sleeping nation. How did this new freedom, this godlike entitlement to deadly force, talk its way into American law? How did citizens become kings?

The first answer, and the foundation of all others, is a myth of innocence—­what I call the myth of the law-­abiding citizen. It is the belief that mass shootings and domestic violence are exceptions to the rule of responsible gun ownership, and that any attempt to go after “the criminal element” must be studiously mindful of this silent and saintly majority. It is a theory that attaches guilt and risk to one portion of the community, and perfect innocence to another, so that any attempt to curb the flow of weapons meets the same protest: We are not the problem! You cannot make “peaceable and innocent gun owners” suffer for the crimes of “the guilty,” as NRA chief Wayne LaPierre protested in the pages of American Rifleman. The law-­abiding citizen is not only safe and responsible in the use of firearms: he is brave and courageous against the bad guy.

This is the belief that has stood in the way of gun control from the days of Franklin D. Roo­se­velt to the present, the difference being the degree to which liberals now accept a version of the glib dichotomy. Screen for troublemakers, and all will be well! Not only is the theory flawed on the practical level, but this doctrine of innocence is one of the engines of violence in America: an inducement to kill based on an illusion of purity. The good guy, it seems, is not the solution: he’s the problem. The first truth of the gun culture is a raging myth.
© Adam Davila
Dominic Erdozain is a writer and historian with a passion for bringing the past into dialogue with the present. Erdozain has written widely on the intellectual origins of democracy and has published opinion pieces for CNN, placing America’s gun problem in a broader philosophical context. A graduate of Oxford and Cambridge, he is currently a visiting professor at Emory University. View titles by Dominic Erdozain

About

This “brilliant and gut-wrenching” (The New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice) takedown of American gun culture argues that the nation’s founders did not intend the Second Amendment to guarantee an individual right to bear arms—and that this distortion of the record is an urgent threat to democracy.

“At once eye-opening and enraging, One Nation Under Guns is that rare book that can help change the way we live in this country.”—Eddie S. Glaude Jr., bestselling author of Begin Again

More than a hundred lives are lost to firearms every day in America. The cost is more than the numbers—it is the fear, the anxiety, the dread of public spaces that an armed society has created under the tortured rubric of freedom. But the norms of today are not the norms of American history or the values of its founders. They are the product of a gun culture that has imposed its vision on a sleeping nation.

Historian Dominic Erdozain argues that we have wrongly ceded the big-picture argument on guns: As we parse legislation on background checks and automatic-weapons bans, we fail to ask what place guns should have in a functioning democracy. Taking readers on a brilliant historical journey, Erdozain shows how the founders feared the tyranny of individuals as much as the tyranny of kings—the idea that any person had a right to walk around armed was anathema to their notion of freedom and the peaceful republic they hoped to build. They wrote these ideas into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, ideas that were subsequently affirmed by two centuries of jurisprudence.

And yet the twin scourges of racism and nationalism would combine to create a darker American vision—a rogue and reckless freedom based on birth and blood. It was this freedom, not the liberty promised by the Constitution, that generated our modern gun culture, with its mystic conceptions of good guys and bad guys, innocence and guilt. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court reinvented the Second Amendment in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, an opinion that Erdozain convincingly eviscerates, many Americans had already acceded to the fiction: the unfreedom of an armed society. To save our democracy, he argues, we must fight for the founders’ true idea of what it means to be free.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Myth of the Law-­Abiding Citizen

I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.

—­Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Richard Venola was a pillar of the gun culture—­a retired U.S. Marine who wrote a fiery column for Guns & Ammo magazine, having previously served as editor. Venola was a vivid and engaging writer, expert at drawing the reader into the zip and terror of a shoot. He loved to dispel stereotypes about the “bitter, clinging types” of the gun community, tirelessly asserting the claims of the gun owner as “a person of substance and responsibility.”

Venola was not merely a defender of gun rights: he was an evangelist—­a restless advocate of firearms-­as-­citizenship, and the importance of supporting organizations such as the NRA. In an absorbing piece on “Empowering the Euros,” Venola described the pleasure of teaching European travelers how to shoot, and the confidence that the experience generated in the tourists. Coaching a Dutchman into the “John Wayne position,” Venola described the transformation “evident in the eyes” of the visitor as he began to master a semiautomatic rifle. “It was almost as if an aroma of personal independence was drifting over him instead of oil smoke coming off the barrel,” he wrote.

“So much power,” marveled the Dutchman. “And anyone can own one of these?”

“Yes,” Venola responded, “and they should if they have not committed a felony and are not crazy. This,” he added, “is what keeps our politicians from getting rid of the Bill of Rights.”

Such was the theory. On a warm night in 2012, Venola shot and killed a neighbor after an evening of high spirits. James O’Neill was unarmed and facing away from Venola’s house when Venola shot him in the shoulder, killing him as the bullet passed through the heart. The men were friends and had spent the evening drinking before the amity dissolved in a haze of liquor. Venola claimed that O’Neill had turned to grab a weapon from his house, and that his life was in danger. He had killed in self-­defense.

State prosecutor Rod Albright disagreed. “An extremely drunk man shot a friend in the heart,” said Albright. “That’s murder.” “He had so many possible options,” Albright advised the jury when the case came to trial. “Did he need to use deadly force?”

Perhaps not. But the law was on Venola’s side. The state of Arizona allows a resident to use deadly force if they believe their life is being threatened—­“believe” being the operative word. Venola’s state of intoxication did not impair his credentials under that heading. The prosecution needed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he had not acted in self-­defense, which was impossible when the only eyewitness was dead. When successive juries failed to reach a verdict, Venola walked. Exhausted and relieved, he said the process had restored his faith in American justice. How would the saga feed into the national debate on firearms? wondered a reporter. “That’s a little over my head,” demurred Venola. “People on both sides are going to infer what they want. All I know is that I’m alive.”

The killing of James O’Neill was the classic American homicide: starting with an argument and ending with a bullet. O’Neill was just one of the hundred lives lost to firearms every day in America. The cost is more than the numbers. It is the fear, the anxiety, the dread of public spaces that an armed society has created under the tortured rubric of freedom.

It does not have to be this way.

The norms of today are not the norms of American history or the values of the founders. They are the product of a gun culture that has, for now, won its battle with the Constitution and imposed its vision on a sleeping nation. How did this new freedom, this godlike entitlement to deadly force, talk its way into American law? How did citizens become kings?

The first answer, and the foundation of all others, is a myth of innocence—­what I call the myth of the law-­abiding citizen. It is the belief that mass shootings and domestic violence are exceptions to the rule of responsible gun ownership, and that any attempt to go after “the criminal element” must be studiously mindful of this silent and saintly majority. It is a theory that attaches guilt and risk to one portion of the community, and perfect innocence to another, so that any attempt to curb the flow of weapons meets the same protest: We are not the problem! You cannot make “peaceable and innocent gun owners” suffer for the crimes of “the guilty,” as NRA chief Wayne LaPierre protested in the pages of American Rifleman. The law-­abiding citizen is not only safe and responsible in the use of firearms: he is brave and courageous against the bad guy.

This is the belief that has stood in the way of gun control from the days of Franklin D. Roo­se­velt to the present, the difference being the degree to which liberals now accept a version of the glib dichotomy. Screen for troublemakers, and all will be well! Not only is the theory flawed on the practical level, but this doctrine of innocence is one of the engines of violence in America: an inducement to kill based on an illusion of purity. The good guy, it seems, is not the solution: he’s the problem. The first truth of the gun culture is a raging myth.

Author

© Adam Davila
Dominic Erdozain is a writer and historian with a passion for bringing the past into dialogue with the present. Erdozain has written widely on the intellectual origins of democracy and has published opinion pieces for CNN, placing America’s gun problem in a broader philosophical context. A graduate of Oxford and Cambridge, he is currently a visiting professor at Emory University. View titles by Dominic Erdozain