American society is permeated by oppressive trajectories of violence, and firearms are both the material sedimentations of those trajectories and the conduits through which they move and are sustained. Given that, we need to come to grips with the ways in which firearms are—let’s face it—treated as sacred. And there’s hardly a better resource to employ in order to understand what that means in this contact than René Girard. Girard argued that what we call sacred are forces whose dominance over us seems to increase in direct proportion to our attempts to master them, and that violence—which is more or less manageable but never completely eradicable—lies at the center of these forces (Violence and the Sacred, 31). We react to these forces with both fear and reverence, desiring both to keep our distance from them and to enlist them to serve our purposes, neither of which we can ultimately do without the risk of becoming servants of and victims to them. Guns, as material manifestations contemporary society’s general and fundamental currents of violence, have come to serve as objects of sacred fear and reverence that are not so much used as tools as they are invoked both as protectors (despite the abundance of data that demonstrate this is not h0w they function) and, more often, as resources for the exertion of power.
The police officers who killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile invoked their guns, virtually instantaneously, as soon as they felt threatened by the potential of violence. That each of these two victims carried their own guns (though, it’s important to emphasize, without invoking them) likely demonstrates that they both lived with the threat of violence in their daily lives and that they were, perhaps, potentially willing to invoke guns for protection—in situations other than the ones in which they were killed, it bears repeating.* The person (or persons) who opened fire on police officers in Dallas (also exposing to violence, let’s not forget, all the others in attendance at the rally) in turn invoked the violence of guns in order, as it appears so far, to channel his anger about violence—and in the midst of the event a man was mistakenly suspected to be one of the attackers precisely because he was seen carrying a gun. At the center of each of these three tragedies this week, we find violence erupting around and through guns, invoked as objects to be feared and as objects on which to be relied for salvation from fear.
Of course, America’s systemic racism and sexism are separable in principle (if not in practice) from its gun worship. The latter reinforces and is reinforced by the former in a vicious feedback loop, but it’s all too obvious that racist (and sexist, and homophobic, and transphobic, and xenophobic) violence, including extrajudicial killings, can and will still happen even without the invocation of guns. Guns were not involved in the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, or Sandra Bland, for instance. But, as sacred objects (in Girard’s sense), guns have the power and the seemingly inescapable tendency to magnify the effects of our violence in direct proportion to the degree that we attempt to use them to master this violence and its effects. At some level, I think this is something that we already know and accept, and our very acceptance of it—our implicit awareness of the terrible power of firearms at the same time that we as a society remain, at present at least, unwilling to turn away from them—emphasizes that our collective relationship to them and to the acts perpetrated with them is not just one of obsession, but of piety.
* I want to be as clear about this as possible, lest there be any misunderstanding: Sterling and Castilo having guns on their persons in no way justifies their being killed. And I’m not trying to make any particular moral claims about the presence and use of firearms, which I think need to be situational.