James. E. Atwood
Cascade Books, 224 pages
Reviewed by Walter Owensby
“Gundamentalism” is not a dispassionate summary of the issues of guns in American life. It is a moral and theological critique of a society that seems out of touch with reality on this matter and is politically deaf to the will of the great majority of Americans – including most gun owners – for reasonable laws that respect responsible gun use while limiting the human damage of today’s powerful weapons.
The author, a retired Presbyterian minister and an avid outdoors sportsman and hunter, came to embrace guns as a public policy concern by way of having to pray too often at the bedsides and gravesides of the victims of gun violence.
This is a book filled with engaging stories and data that preachers, teachers and discussion leaders will find invaluable in illuminating how guns affect a broad range of social and community issues. But most of all, it is a book for ordinary people who cannot understand how we have come to the point of accepting 33,000 gun deaths a year by murder, suicide and accidents as normal, and why we seem paralyzed to do anything about it.
The book’s 20 pithy chapters document a nation “swimming in guns” – with more firearms than people. U.S. companies produce almost 11 million weapons per year while another 3.6 million are imported. This is big business, but the economic consequences go far beyond company balance sheets. Atwood cites a 2009 study that shows that the annual cost to the city of Chicago from gun violence is $2,500 per Chicago family. He then invites readers to “do the math” to get a glimpse of what that means for the nation as a whole.
But economics are not the main concern of this book. It looks at the powerful psychology for many people in gun ownership; they come to regard a gun as an instrument of control and destiny. It thus becomes a form of idolatry. Indeed, the word “gundamentalism” is appropriated by the author to describe the ideology of “the divine right of guns in America.” He ponders how the gun industry and those acting on its behalf have made the Second Amendment of the Constitution an instrument to paralyze government action to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of the mentally incompetent, the criminally inclined and those motivated by bigotry and racism who would challenge American governance and institutions.
Atwood argues that this ideology has produced a “gun empire” that fosters fear and insecurity in the American public to justify the logic and profit of “arming everyone.” Such a commercial goal has fed the increase of violence and division across the nation – much of it based on racial animosity – that greatly complicates effective policing and crime fighting.
Despite these many dark realities, the final chapter of the book is the declaration that “good gun laws work.” This faith and aspiration is supported by the key elements he describes that should be a part of effective legislation.
Readers, and especially study groups, will be aided in working through these many themes by a well-crafted set of discussion questions following each chapter.
Walter Owensby, a retired PC(USA) minister, served for 15 years as a policy advocate in the denomination’s Office of Public Witness in the nation’s capital.