Chris Hedges: America’s Gun Fetish

There will be no gun control, not only because of the gun lobby and a corrupt political class, but because for many white Americans the idea of the gun is the only power they have left.

Original Illustration by Mr. Fish, “White Light/White Heat.”

By Chris Hedges

Guns were a ubiquitous part of my childhood. My grandfather, who had been a master sergeant in the army, had a small arsenal in his house in Mechanic Falls, Maine. He gave me a 2020 bolt action Springfield rifle when I was 7.

By the time I was 10, I had graduated to a Winchester lever action 30-30. I moved my way up the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) Marksmanship Qualification Program, helped along by a summer camp where riflery was mandatory. Like many boys in rural America, I was fascinated by guns, although I disliked hunting.

Two decades as a reporter in war zones, however, resulted in a deep aversion to weapons. I saw what they did to human bodies. I inherited my grandfather’s guns and gave them to my uncle.

Guns made my family, lower working-class people in Maine, feel powerful, even when they were not. Take away their guns and what was left? Decaying small towns, shuttered textile and paper mills, dead-end jobs, seedy bars where veterans, nearly all the men in my family were veterans, drank away their trauma. Take away the guns, and the brute force of squalor, decline and abandonment hit you in the face like a tidal wave. 

Yes, the gun lobby and weapons manufacturers fuel the violence with easily available assault-style weapons, whose small caliber 5.56 mm cartridges make them largely useless for hunting. Yes, the lax gun laws and risible background checks are partially to blame.

But America also fetishizes guns. This fetish has intensified among white working-class men, who have seen everything slip beyond their grasp: economic stability, a sense of place within the society, hope for the future and political empowerment.

The fear of losing the gun is the final crushing blow to self-esteem and dignity, a surrender to the economic and political forces that have destroyed their lives. They cling to the gun as an idea, a belief that with it they are strong, unassailable and independent. The shifting sands of demographics, with white people projected to become a minority in the U.S. by 2045, intensifies this primal desire, they would say need, to own a weapon.

There have been over 200 mass shootings this year. There are nearly 400 million guns in the U.S., some 120 guns for every 100 Americans. Half of the privately-owned guns are owned by 3 percent of the population, according to a 2016 study.

Memorial outside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, for the victims of the May 24 massacre. (VOA, Wikimedia Commons)

Our neighbor in Maine had 23 guns. Restrictive gun laws, and gun laws that are inequitably enforced, block gun ownership for many Blacks, especially in urban neighborhoods.

Federal law, for example, prohibits gun ownership for most people with felony convictions, effectively barring legal gun ownership for a third of Black men. The outlawing of guns for Blacks is part of a long continuum. Blacks were denied the right to own guns under the antebellum Slave Codes, the post-Civil War Black Codes and the Jim Crow laws. 

White people built their supremacy in America and globally with violence. They massacred Native Americans and stole their land. They kidnapped Africans, shipped them as cargo to the Americas and then enslaved, lynched, imprisoned, and impoverished Black people for generations. They have always gunned down Black people with impunity, a historical reality only recently discernable to most white people because of cell phone videos of killings. 

An enslaved African American man whose bare back is covered in keloid scars. Photo taken April 2, 1863, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Mathew Benjamin Brady, Wikimedia Commons)

“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer,” D.H. Lawrence writes. “It has never yet melted.”

White society, sometimes overtly and sometimes unconsciously, deeply fears Black retribution for its four centuries of murderous assaults.

“Again, I say that each and every Negro, during the last 300 years, possesses from that heritage a greater burden of hate for America than they themselves know,” Richard Wright notes in his journal. “Perhaps it is well that Negroes try to be as unintellectual as possible, for if they ever started really thinking about what happened to them, they’d go wild. And perhaps that is the secret of whites who want to believe that Negroes really have no memory; for if they thought that Negroes remembered they would start out to shoot them all in sheer self-defense.” 

The Second Amendment, as the historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, was designed to solidify the rights, often demanded under state law, of whites to carry weapons. Southern white men were not only required to own guns but serve in slave patrols. These weapons were used to exterminate the indigenous population, hunt down enslaved people who escaped bondage and violently crush slave revolts, strikes and other uprisings by oppressed groups. Vigilante violence is wired into our DNA.

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“Most American violence – and this also illuminates its relationship to state power – has been initiated with a ‘conservative’ bias,” the historian Richard Hofstadter writes.

“It has been unleashed against abolitionists, Catholics, radicals, workers and labor organizers, Negroes, Orientals, and other ethnic or racial or ideological minorities, and has been used ostensibly to protect the American, the Southern, the white Protestant, or simply the established middle-class way of life and morals. A high proportion of our violent actions has thus come from the top dogs or the middle dogs. Such has been the character of most mob and vigilante movements. This may help to explain why so little of it has been used against state authority, and why in turn it has been so easily and indulgently forgotten.”

Payton Gendron, the 18-year-old white shooter in Buffalo who killed 10 Black people and wounded three others, one of them Black, at the Tops Friendly Markets in a Black neighborhood, gave expression in a 180-page manifesto to this white fear, or “great replacement theory.”

Gendron repeatedly cited Brenton Tarrant, the 28-year-old mass shooter who in 2019 killed 51 people and injured 40 others at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Vigil in Melbourne, Australia, for the victims of the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shootings, March 18, 2019. (Julian Meehan, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Tarrant, like Gendron, live streamed his attack so, he believed, he could be cheered on by a virtual audience. Robert Bowers, 46, killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old, in 2019 drove more than 11 hours to target Hispanics, leaving 22 people dead and 26 injured in a Walmart in El Paso. John Earnest, who pleaded guilty to murdering one and injuring three others in 2019 at a synagogue in Poway, California, saw the “white race” being supplanted by other races. Dylann Roof in 2015 fired 77 shots from his .45-caliber Glock pistol at parishioners attending a Bible study at the Black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He murdered nine of them. “You Blacks are killing white people on the streets everyday and raping white women everyday,” he shouted at his victims as he was firing, according to a journal he kept in jail.

The gun enforced white supremacy. It should not be surprising that it is embraced as the instrument that will prevent whites from being dethroned.


The specter of societal collapse, less and less a conspiracy theory as we barrel to climate breakdown, reinforces the gun fetish. Survivalist cults, infused with white supremacy, paint the scenario of gangs of marauding Black and brown people fleeing the chaos of lawless cities and ravaging the countryside. These hordes of Black and brown people, the survivalists believe, will only be kept at bay with guns, especially assault-style weapons. This is not far removed from calling for their extermination.

Historian Richard Slotkin calls our national lust for blood sacrifice the “structuring metaphor of the American experience,” a belief in “regeneration through violence.” Blood sacrifice, he writes in his trilogy Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier,  The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization and Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, is celebrated as the highest form of good. Sometimes it requires the blood of heroes, but most often it requires the blood of enemies. 

This blood sacrifice, whether at home or in foreign wars, is racialized. The U.S. has slaughtered millions of the globe’s inhabitants, including women and children, in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Libya, as well as in numerous proxy wars, the latest in Ukraine, where the Biden administration will ship another $700 million in weapons to supplement $54 billion in military and humanitarian aid.

U.S. soldiers near a burning oil well in the Rumaila oil field, Iraq, April 2003. (U.S. Navy)

When the national mythology inculcates into a population that it has the divine right to kill others to purge the earth of evil, how can this mythology not be ingested by naïve and alienated individuals? Kill them overseas. Kill them at home. The more the empire deteriorates, the more the impetus to kill grows. Violence, in desperation, becomes the only route to salvation.

“A people unaware of its myths is likely to continue living by them, though the world around that people may change and demand changes in their psychology, their world view, their ethics, and their institutions,” Slotkin writes.

America’s gun fetish and culture of vigilante violence makes the U.S. very different from other industrialized nations. This is the reason there will never be serious gun control. It does not matter how many mass shootings take place, how many children are butchered in their classrooms, or how high the homicide rate climbs.

The longer we remain in a state of political paralysis, dominated by a corporate oligarchy that refuses to respond to the mounting misery of the bottom half of the population, the more the rage of the underclass will find expression through violence. People who are Black, Muslim, Asian, Jewish and LGBTQ, along with the undocumented, liberals, feminists and intellectuals, already branded as contaminants, will be slated for execution. Violence will spawn more violence.

“People pay for what they do, and, still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become,” James Baldwin writes of the American South.

“The crucial thing, here, is that the sum of these individual abdications menaces life all over the world. For, in the generality, as social and moral and political and sexual entities, white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today.”

He added that he “was not struck by their wickedness, for that wickedness was but the spirit and the history of America. What struck me was the unbelievable dimension of their sorrow. I felt as though I had wandered into hell.”

Those who cling to the mythology of white supremacy cannot be reached through rational discussion. Mythology is all they have left. When this mythology appears under threat it triggers a ferocious backlash, for without the myth there is an emptiness, an emotional void, a crushing despair.

America has two choices. It can reintegrate the dispossessed back into the society through radical New Deal types of reforms, or it can leave its underclass to wallow in the toxins of poverty, hate and resentment, fueling the blood sacrifices that afflict us. This choice, I fear, has already been made. The ruling oligarchy doesn’t take the subway or fly on commercial jets. It is protected by the FBI, Homeland Security, police escorts and bodyguards. Its children attend private schools. It lives in gated communities with elaborate surveillance systems. We don’t matter.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR.  He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”

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23 comments for “Chris Hedges: America’s Gun Fetish

  1. Adam Gorelick
    June 9, 2022 at 17:19

    The racialization of slavery and the very concept of “whiteness” are largely homegrown American pathologies. The latter, along with The Second Amendment, being necessated by the fragility of the supremacy that was, and remains, foundational for The United States. Hitler, of course, greatly admired the criminaly insane beliefs and practices of eugenics and Jim Crow birthed by the U.S.A. But most of the European or British settlers weren’t landed gentry and, especially after the abolition of Southern slavery, were painfully aware of their penultimate social status just above Black people. The carceral servitude “loop hole” in the 14th amendment wasn’t enough to quell their queasily precarious social position in relation to non-whites. That the monster has never been vanquished is America’s dirty little open secret. What is at the core of American white terror has been inherited like trauma by successive generations of a nation that has never benefited from the maturity afforded by self awareness.

  2. Fran Macadam
    June 9, 2022 at 09:31

    So confiscate citizen firearms while flooding massive amounts unvetted to Ukraine’s press ganged citizens? Now that’s Hedging your bets!

  3. Bert van Dyk
    June 9, 2022 at 06:19

    The second ammendment was great in a lawless past, now we should now better
    Assault weapons are only good for killing, not for hunting or target shooting and should be banned
    Here in Australia many people have rifles and pistols mainly for target shooting and are licenced, have you heard about all our mass shootings?
    You didn’t??!
    Food for thought…

  4. Caliman
    June 8, 2022 at 12:27

    With all due respect, this is not largely a racism problem … this is a violence problem. Many other societies are far more racist in attitude than us and some (Brazil) have as bad a murder problem and others (Britain or France) far far less.

    The narrative of violence as a primary and effective solver of problems is deeply imbedded in our national psyche and this is the narrative that needs to change if we want less violence.

  5. Afdal
    June 8, 2022 at 11:52

    In the end it is as Aristotle said long ago: “Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.” A gun is simply one tool among many to facilitate those.

  6. Lez
    June 8, 2022 at 04:42

    ” . . . regeneration through violence . . . Sometimes it requires the blood of heroes, but most often it requires the blood of enemies”.


    Here, one person’s take on the blood of “enemies”, sacrificing the blood of the Ukrainian people in the US-NATO-UK Proxy War on Russia. They don’t matter.


  7. David K
    June 7, 2022 at 21:00

    There is another perspective on this, which mirrors my own evolution: hxxps://
    Also, responsible gun ownership gives a measure of personal power to anyone — any race, gender, etc. It distresses me that you continue to push the “racist” and “white supremacist” memes, which plays right into the hands of the powers-that-shouldn’t-be, who have been very successful in keeping us divided (esp. these last few years). Perhaps you can investigate why the media overlooks such terrible acts when perpetrated by people of color? Perhaps you can investigate the role of overprescribing anti-depressants (SSRIs) and ADHD medications to teenagers (which then cause them to perpetrate such terrible acts)?

  8. Bob McDonald
    June 7, 2022 at 20:28

    It’s every man’s responsibility to protect himself and his family, whatever that may entail. You own a weapon for the same reason you buy insurance or take a first aide course. You hope you never have to use them but for many people they are good to have.

  9. bluedogg
    June 7, 2022 at 17:28

    Let’s not be so fast as to blame the guns for that would be like blaming a screwdriver for cutting yourself. Let’s put the blame where it really belongs on TV, games, and Hollywood, they closed all the mental health facilities and here in N.Y. turned them into prisons and seeing states are copy cats I presume the rest did too

    Years back when I went to school we could take guns to school on the school bus, lock them in a cabinet in the shop/AG. Room to work on during shop and no one ever thought of killing someone, then our society changed kids were drugged with all kind of drugs to make them like everyone else, some drugs when taken with other drugs create what they say are walking time bombs but no one wish’s to address this problem. Until we can fix the sickness in the political system which then flows down into the population, why nothing is ever going to change except perhaps a civil war or revolution.

  10. Robert
    June 7, 2022 at 17:03

    While there is nothing in Mr. Hedges’ writing with which to quibble, I will point out the slice of Americans who own guns for none of the reasons he mentions. Namely, to protect against the ignorant Southern white with rebel flags on his/her trucks who have openly admitted to wanting civil war in this country. They are who I fear and loathe and arm myself and my family against.

  11. Altruist
    June 7, 2022 at 16:04

    Very good article – I like Chris Hedges’ insights into the American psyche.
    I see that I have a bit in common with Chris Hedges – not only attending the same college at around the same time, but also participating in the NRA Marksmanship Qualification Program (not being a particularly sharp shot, I failed to progress beyond the Marksman rank). And – like Chris’s grandfather – my father had served as master sergeant in the US Army. Although he considered World War II to have been a kind of holy war against the Nazis he had seen enough to become very antiwar in his later years, taking a strong and unpopular stand against the Vietnam War.
    Here I must also think back to college and to my freshman roommate – a gun enthusiast who kept at least a dozen assorted high-powered rifles plus ordinance and other weaponry under his bunk and in his trunk in the room we shared. Other than that, a quiet, unassuming, intelligent person (that’s what they usually say, isn’t it?). Once, after I mentioned to him that hunting wasn’t really fair to the targeted animals, he responded that animals are just automatons without feeling so shooting them doesn’t count – I then said really? doesn’t seem to be the case. But how to argue with people bound so emotionally to guns and – for that matter – violence. And that’s the problem with gun culture in America – it’s viscerly emotional, almost religious in its fervor. And accordingly very hard, if not impossible to change.

  12. ray Peterson
    June 7, 2022 at 14:01

    A note of support from the frontlines: an Erie County (home to Buffalo, NY),
    very wealthy Republican candidate, Chris Jacobs, recently resigned his run for
    New York State governor because so many Republicans protested his gun restriction
    The Jefferson Avenue, Tops Market killings, could have easily been done by
    relatively well-off Erie County residents.

  13. Stephen Sivonda
    June 7, 2022 at 13:12

    Thank you Chris Hedges for the lucid explanation of the source of gun “fetishness” Where once we integrated basically white refugees from various areas of Europe…it is now other ethnicities along with the thousands of what were once slaves brought here to labor in the cotton fields of the South. Many Chinese were also brought here to labor on the trans -continental railroad lines and settled in the West afterwards But, as you said….. the need for a feeling of security is by the ownership of firearms.. owning one is NEVER enough.

    • Jdd
      June 8, 2022 at 16:34

      What a waste of digital space

  14. June 7, 2022 at 10:50

    Were we not so obviously living in the most hypocritical post-truth world possible, people would be analyzing the United States’ mass murder pandemic not only from the perspectives of the instruments used but from the causes, the psychological factors involved as former president Donald Trump suggested. He is not always wrong. And from my perspective, the primary cause is the culture of violence actively promoted from Hollywood and the Silicon Valley based video game industry, as well as, of course, the blatant militarism obvious everywhere in the United States. But they are all exempt from criticism in the corporate media they own so nary a whisper of their collective responsibility is heard. And it needs to be heard if the crisis is to be overcome. I own no guns, never have, but am not opposed to gun ownership under reasonable conditions. However, the knee jerk political reaction to continuous episodes of mass murder limited solely to proposals to restrict gun ownership while studiously ignoring the causes makes those in power complicit in each and every death. Something to think about.

    • Tristan Patterson
      June 7, 2022 at 14:40

      We have all the movies and videogames that they have. What we don’t have is daily mass shootings. Go figure.

      • Tom_Q_Collins
        June 7, 2022 at 18:45

        Video games and Hollywood are only part of the issue. While they do export the American love of violence, they can’t export hundreds of years of a culture of using guns and violence to steal land from natives, keep blacks enslaved and on the run, nor the blatant militainment that pervades not just movies and games, but everything from sporting events to college graduation ceremonies.

        Furthermore Europe and most of the rest of the world don’t have killer cops like we do in the USA. They are not only killers, but they have qualified immunity to protect them from any accountability. The cops are the epitome of gun cowardice as evidenced in Uvalde and Florida.

        Like a fish, this country rots from the head. When you have an unaccountable military and law enforcement apparatuses who change the rules or give themselves different ones than the rest of us (foreign and domestic policing) ‘teaching’ us that might makes right and that we’re the “special” country spreading freedom and democracy at the point of a gun, you’ve got a toxic mix that is set to explode when you also have American gun culture and the fetish for firearms.

        I don’t think we have any hope it will ever change barring a massive world- or civil war that burns down the existing system, and like they say – be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

    • chris
      June 7, 2022 at 21:08

      You make a great points. “Never let a good crisis go to waste”, is their motto!

  15. firstpersoninfinite
    June 7, 2022 at 10:41

    Another great article from Chris Hedges. Love the quote from D. H. Lawrence, a writer who saw through the mire of “modern” civilization quite clearly. Power over others is the only incorruptible force left for us to believe in, because it contains the antidote to its inevitable corruption in its unending continuation. The same rule applies to both the kingdom of heaven and the fiefdoms of white supremacy.

  16. Rodion Raskolnikov
    June 7, 2022 at 10:38

    Clearly many Americans are possessed with a gun fetish. But they also have fetishes for fast cars, designer clothes, big houses, psychotropic drugs, fattening food, violent entertainment, and a whole host of other things that when written about are clearly sociopathic. My problem with writing about guns in this way is that it leads to policies that really are just “tilting at windmills” — to invoke the futility of Don Quixote’s chivalry. Policies driven by the scare stories Hedges repeats are the products of disaster porn and are very unlikely to do anything about the real problem we face — mass shootings.

    Clearly gun violence needs to be addressed and resolved. Gun murders among gangs in big cities is the worst areas. Cities like Chicago, NY, LA, Houston, and many more rack up deaths in far greater numbers than the shootings in schools, grocery stores, etc. The gang shootings in cities is much more than a gun problem. Taking the guns away — if that were even possible — would not stop the gang killings.

    And also I don’t think we can talk about gun violence without talking about mental illness. The biggest number of gun deaths is suicides, almost 30,000 per year out of the total of 45,000 gun deaths per year. If you have ever know someone who has killed himself, you know this person was seriously mentally ill long before the final act. The mental condition of such a person is the cause; the gun is only the means. If we don’t treat root causes, we will get no where.

    • Litchfield
      June 7, 2022 at 19:11

      The word “fetish” is already a loaded word.
      Let’s talk about the mask “cult” among our medical professionals and others; the dishonesty “compulsion” among our politicians and media; and a few other serious issues in terms of psychobabble instead of a genuine analysis of the sources of ideation of mass murders in American society.

      Generally I like Chris Hedges—I am sure he is a nice, thoughtful man—but I don’t think his analyses are very valuable. He picks and chooses his issues and his language to be very emotional. It is one thing, and of course completely normal, to have an emotional reaction to a grisly, sad event. To understand trends in American society, however, emotional buzzwords that result in a wrong-end-of-the-telescope view don’t really help. What might help is actual data on persons who have committed such crimes. Such studies and data exist. The overwhelming conclusion regarding people who commit such crimes is childhood trauma and mental health issues. There is a lot of other violence in American society besides gun violence. Our films and media glorify and provide images of violence for the mentally ill to copy. This has little to do with gun ownership. Frankly, the covid19 cult and dystopia have demonstrably exacerbated the mental illness factor in American society (there are plenty of data on this). Hedges, if fearless, should face that fact head-on and look into it and who is behind the craziness of it all.

      I have never owned a gun, but I know people who do, and who use them for the unpleasant but necessary facts of life such as shooting a animal when this becomes necessary.

      Hedges does not speak for me when he says “we” Americans.

    • Rebecca Turner
      June 8, 2022 at 03:45

      Perhaps you would suggest solutions to the endemic problem of gang violence in US cities. Since the well-documented great increase in violent crime in such cities from the 1960s to the 1990s, US political responses, including Black politicians from left to right, have been only carceral in nature. Penal welfarism is much cheaper than social welfare. I recommend reading John Clegg and Adaner Usmani’s 2019 analysis, The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration, published in the Catalyst journal.

  17. Dfnslblty
    June 7, 2022 at 09:34

    As hopeless as your words appear, their truthfulness and damning intent scream out to impoverished rich.

    Keep writing — you are not alone in your sanity and in your compassion for the fearful rich.

    Protest Loudly!

Comments are closed.