With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Highland Park Horrors Won't Break the Gun Cult's Mythic Hold on America

Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greitens (R) boasts of backing from "an army of patriots" in a recent ad. 

The Fourth of July: an American flag waving in the breeze, grills out and stacked with meats, picnic tables loaded with food and friends, fireworks launching from driveways or fairgrounds (or, sometimes, all over the driveway), parades and marching bands in the heart of town.

And because this is America in 2022, mass shootings.

Over the July 4th holiday weekend, more than 220 people were reported shot and killed in the United States. There were 11 mass shootings, including the one at the Highland Park, Illinois, 4th of July Parade. The Highland Park shooter, Robert Crimo III, has attracted a lot of attention because of his involvement in a number of internet subcultures promoting violence, alongside his casing of a local synagogue before the attack. Crimo may also have been planning a second attack in Madison, Wisconsin before he was arrested. This is just one of many; others were foiled, including a planned attack in Richmond, Virginia. Shortly thereafter police in Long Beach, California, seized weapons from another man who was glorifying mass shootings and discussing attacking minorities on social media. This, this is America, where mass shootings come too often for the media to properly cover them.

The Fourth of July is a potent symbol, and one that is always ripe for appropriation by anyone who wants to sell a message. The concept of the “Black-Robed Regiment,” for instance, has been appropriated by Christian nationalists to sell a particular narrative of American history. The idea of “Patriot Churches” and the use of the title of “Patriot” for QAnon members continues this far right appropriation of the legacy of the Revolution. The Proud Boys’ war plan for January 6th was entitled “1776 Returns,” though one would be forgiven for their conflation of the American Revolution and the Russian Revolution, given that phase one of the plan was “Storming the Winter Palace.” And of course, as with almost any other event in contemporary America, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene had to comment on the Highland Park shooting, saying that it was a false flag event designed to push gun control on Republicans, and adding a touch of conspiratorial thinking: “as soon as we hit MAGA month, as soon as we hit the month that we're all celebrating loving our country, we have shootings on July Fourth.”

And maybe that’s where we should pick up the thread, because if MAGA month is an absurdity, the link between firearms and gun control and the vision of what America means, on the Fourth of July weekend, is important to discuss. Because the myth of a “Good Guy With A Gun” is not just about active shooters–something that I worry will forever be associated with the Fourth of July now–but part of our American mythos. It is a religious conviction, just like the guns they carry.  It’s every bad legend of the American West, past and present. It’s the Red Dawn mythos of the American Revolution, that the militia, untrained, passionate farmers and townsfolk picking up their hunting rifles, defeated the British army. And it’s that legend, the linking of guns to the Revolution, of individual gun ownership to patriotism, to American identity, that needs to be discussed.

The Fourth of July becomes a moment for arms companies, the National Rifle Association, and politicians to champion firearms, draped in the flag. Daniel Defense, the firearms manufacturer whose tweet using Proverbs 22:6 to sell guns to children, and whose weapons were used by the Uvalde shooter, had their own marketing tweet for the 4th:


The text is pretty simple, “Happy Birthday America and may God Bless our Military, Law Enforcement, and First Responders,” a fairly traditional Fourth of July message. Two tweets down, they’re selling their MK18 SBR with the background of an American flag. The National Rifle Association is much more explicit, posting a video saying that “The only reason you’re celebrating Independence Day is because citizens were armed. Happy Fourth of July from the National Rifle Association of America,” in a tweet with the text, “We are a country because of brave souls with guns who valued and fought for liberty and freedom.”

And then there is New Hampshire State Representative Jason Osborne, now the GOP House Majority Leader in the state. In a now-deleted tweet, on his now private account, he wrote: “Instead of spending $20 more than last year on your Independence Day hot dogs, lay off the calories and grab a few more rounds for your AK-47. You’ll thank yourself later.” We can only imagine the multiple possible interpretations of this–but we live in a country where militia groups like the Oathkeepers and the Three Percenters drape themselves in the mantle of the Revolution and try to overthrow the federal government, while Republican officials continue to defend January 6th.

At least it wasn’t an Eric Greitens ad. It could be worse.

What does this tell us about the American Revolution, and its legacy on guns, gun ownership, gun control, and, dare we say it, gun idolatry in America?

Let’s start with the Revolution itself. The notion that colonials living in British America revolted, much less successfully, simply because their love of weaponry thwarted a British government trying to take it away is deeply flawed. The British empire in America relied heavily on the fact that their colonial subjects could be called upon in time of war to both augment British regular forces through their local militia’s or “artillery companies.” These well-regulated local militias were indispensable to British military might in America. Far from seeking to prevent Americans from owning guns, the British regularly complained that Americans cared too little for regular militia training, and contributed far too few resources for the safekeeping and maintenance of existing weaponry. While it is true that the first shots of the Revolution were fired within the context of British troops attempting to seize caches of guns and ammunition in Massachusetts in 1775, it is important to remember that the British government already considered the colony in a state of open rebellion. And it wasn’t well-armed and trained Americans that blocked their attempted confiscation, but rather poor intelligence, logistics, and morale among British soldiers. In fact, most Americans who did possess firearms in the early days of the Revolutionary war possessed aging weapons, inferior to those of the British and, as Gen. Washington constantly lamented to Congress during the war itself, many barely knew how to use them. What Washington wanted, needed, and eventually got was a professional American army-not armed citizens-to turn the tide of war against a beleaguered British military that was by that time engaged in a world war against far stronger European rivals.

Indeed, the dichotomy between armed citizenry and a professional army is crucial to consider when we address the modern American fascination with firearms. Colonial militias, far from relying on privately armed-to-the-teeth colonists, often stored weapons and ammunition communally. The point wasn’t their freedom to own weapons, but rather their access to them in times of crisis. Without an existing crisis, few colonists saw the point in purchasing or maintaining what were extremely expensive items in areas away from the frontier. Again, this was a necessity born of weakness, not a constantly-flexing expression of strength.

It is perhaps easy to understand this myth when one considers the inundation in modern American politics of the cult of the second Amendment. Though often cited, it is almost never cited in its entirety. The Amendment states: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Why is the proviso almost never cited in its entirety? Because it was precisely worded to specify exactly their intent in including it-the defense of the state. One of the chief grievances of American colonists leading into the Revolution was the abuses of the British army in America. By the end of the Revolution, this suspicion and animosity had developed into a principled opposition to professional armies themselves. Many founders and citizens believed professional armies exist to fight wars, and thus would inevitably find excuses and enemies to fight. How could we prevent becoming an empire? How could we ensure that wars fought by a democratic people were defensive and never offensive? That an institution dedicated to the use of force would never turn itself on the government or people? Simply eliminate the need to construct one.

We should note that the United States subsequently constructed both an empire and a professional military force (presumably the strongest argument for the repeal of the amendment itself, or at least a national conversation on choosing one or the other). The point remains, however, that the second amendment was designed to prevent this. If local militias in slave states could also double as slave-police forces-avoiding the need to have a free people’s military tangle with its pervasive practice of stealing freedom from others- all the better. What the amendment never came close to allowing or advocating was the idea that Americans who elect their leaders would need a violent backup plan to voting, would be endowed with all the individual powers of a military, or its weaponry. No state or federal administration has ever allowed the possession of tanks, cannon/artillery, submarines, jet fighters, or nuclear weapons by private citizens. Why? Because no serious political leader ever understood the founders to have recognized a right to parity in force or a challenge to the monopoly on the use of force by the state. Well, until now.

The right wing media apparatus will continue to push the narrative that there is nothing more American than baseball, apple pie, and open carrying an AR-15 into the stadium. The National Rifle Association will continue to proclaim that the right to bear arms trumps the right to live in peace, the right of school children to survive the school day, the right of Americans to enjoy a parade celebrating the singing of the Declaration of Independence in peace–that “patriotism,” that the Fourth of July itself, is a celebration of the individual right to own weapons of war. It’s a mythology that has nothing to do with the Revolution or with the Founders–but it is a mythology that has everything to do with the dangerous, problematic, and ahistoric far right legend of the Revolution, and the desire for a revolution to come.