"Bert built a crucifix in the backyard." - Ed Madden
After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, National Rifle Association spokesman Wayne LaPierre said at a conservative political meeting that the right to bear arms “is not bestowed by man but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.” My husband Bert and I were struck by the religious language LaPierre used, the idea that God grants us, as Americans, the right to carry a gun. For the next few days, we kept talking about this language, this almost-religious devotion to the gun as an American icon, what it represents, what it can do.
I was reminded of an essay historian Garry Wills wrote after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in 2012, “Our Moloch,” in which he compares the American worship of the gun to the stories of Moloch, the Old Testament god of the Canaanites that required the sacrifice of children. “The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate,” he says. “It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?”
As we kept talking, we began to imagine a religion of the gun, a chapel to the gun, the gun as a god that requires the sacrifice of children. We imagined a child crucified on a cross of guns, a church banner with LaPierre’s quote. I suggested one of those hokey traditional pictures of the guardian angel hovering over two children, but with belligerent NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch’s head pasted on it, maybe a gun in her hand.
A few years ago, as part of a collaborative show centered on the image of Saint Sebastian, Bert and I designed an interactive chapel to Sebastian. The show was organized by Alejandro Garcia Lémos and Leslie Pierce at Friday Cottage in downtown Columbia, and featured a range of artists—visual art, sculpture, stained glass, performance, film, poetry—all exploring the iconography of the saint and the historical status of the saint as a gay icon. In our little chapel, there was an altar with votive candles and a statue of the saint, surrounded by any little plastic figure I could find with a bow and arrow (cowboys and Indians, Vikings, even a Smurf). There were church pews, banners, and a shrine where you could write down your prayers, shames, or desires on strips of red paper and pin them to the body of the saint. By the end of the evening, it was covered with red ribbons of prayer.
So we imagined a chapel to the gun. A window diorama. We would call it In Guns We Trust, our national motto inscribed on all currency, evoking thus national patriotic and religious (and perhaps commercial) resonances. We asked Tapp’s Arts Center—perhaps a little in jest, since we are not trained visual artists—if we could do a window installation. They said yes. So we began work in earnest, hoping to get it installed in advance of the March for Our Lives.
Bert built a crucifix in the backyard. We bought toy rifles and machine guns. I bought Dana Loesch’s 2014 book, Hands Off My Gun: Defeating the Plot to Disarm America. I looked up LaPierre’s infamous press conference on December 21, 2012 after the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, where he said, “The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
I began to read more and more about how American attitudes toward guns suggested something sacred. “How can we determine if we are in bondage to an idol?” asked theologian John Thatamani in “The Price of Freedom? Child Sacrifice and the American Gun Cult.” “Intensity of reaction is a sure-fire marker that we traffic with the sacred,” he said. “We know that the gun has become a sacred object because it commands unquestioning reverence. Interrogating its sacral status triggers anger and even death threats.”
After the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Garry Wills wrote, in “A Nation Captive to the Gun”: “God gave us guns to show us who we are. Giving up the gun would be a surrender to evil, taking us abruptly into eschatological time.” Eschatological, meaning end times, death and judgment, the end of the world.
“So this time,” Wills continued, “let us skip all the sighing and promising and moments of silence. Why keep up the pretense that we are going to take any real and practical steps toward sanity? Everyone knows we are not going to do a single damn thing. We can’t. We are captives of The Gun.”
“The Gun is patriotic,” he wrote, “The Gun is America. The Gun is God.”
I found that the psalm Dana Loesch cites in her acknowledgments, Psalm 144:1, was inscribed on AR-15 rifles by a gunmaker in Florida in 2015. “Blessed be the Lord my Rock who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.” The gunmaker said he hoped a Muslim terrorist would be struck by a bolt of lightning if he picked up the gun.
I was struck by the fact that the toy guns we bought for the installation all had the gun safety integrated into the mode switch, so that you can toggle between safe, semi, and automatic. On the cheaper guns on which the accessories were molded, the switch is permanently set on semi. We’re set on semi-safe.
In Guns We Trust, our window installation at Tapp’s on Main Street is meant to draw attention to the almost religious devotion to guns in America, which prevents us from talking about reasonable control legislation. It is a chapel to the gun with banners (including the February quote from Wayne LaPierre and another intoning, in good Republican fashion, "Now is not the time"), a communion tray with cups filled not with wine but with spent AR-15 bullets. On the left side of the window, a poem called “Semi.” (We’re set on semi-safe.) On the right side, passages from some of the things I’d been reading. There is a trinity of toy machine guns in the air, their laser targets trained on the sidewalk. There is an image of Dana Loesch as the traditional guardian angel, and a child crucified on a cross made of guns.
We hope the window raises awareness, or at least questions, about our American devotion to guns. We hope it helps to start conversations. We clearly need to start talking. Maybe now is the time.
Ed Madden is the poetry editor for Jasper Magazine and the poet laureate for the City of Columbia, SC.